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Despite stumbles, Colombia leading the way in ecological restoration

Scientists highlight room for improvement and a lack of landscape perspective.
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Incendios en pastizales en los Andes colombianos. Los proyectos de restauración ecológica  en
Colombia se han llevado a cabo en los Andes, la fuente más importante de agua del país. Fotografía: Neil Palmer/CIAT
Incendios en pastizales en los Andes colombianos. Los proyectos de restauración ecológica en Colombia se han llevado a cabo en los Andes, la fuente más importante de agua del país. Fotografía: Neil Palmer/CIAT

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LIMA, Peru — Looking back, ecosystem restoration projects in Colombia in recent years have been narrowly focused, poorly planned and inadequately reported overall, a new report says.

Looking ahead, there is much reason for optimism for future projects in the South American country, the authors say.

In the past two decades, Colombia has witnessed an increase in the number of ecosystem restoration projects as part of a longer-term international trend. A systematic exploration of these projects offers insights into this discipline in a new publication launched by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

La restauración ecológica en Colombia: tendencias, necesidades y oportunidades (Ecological restoration in Colombia: trends, needs and opportunities) presents the findings of a retrospective analysis of ecosystem restoration projects implemented in the Latin American country and provides recommendations for the discipline to overcome challenges for greater impact.

Authors Carolina Murcia, Science Director of the Organization for Tropical Studies, and Manuel Guariguata, CIFOR Principal Scientist and Regional Coordinator for Latin America, analyzed 119 restoration projects in terrestrial ecosystems in Colombia since 1951. Most of the projects were initiated after 2002.

WHAT IS ECOLOGICAL RESTORATION?

Ecological restoration — defined by the Society for Ecological Restoration as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed” — can boost biodiversity conservation, provision of environmental services and climate-change mitigation.

“The repercussions of ecological restoration extend well beyond environmental recovery. Restoration ecology has positive effects on human wellbeing and development in the broad sense,” Murcia said.

The restoration projects included in the report cover more than 87,000 hectares, mostly in the Andes Mountains, above 2400 meters in elevation. This geographical bias is the result of a focus on the recovery of watershed functions and services, and of the type of land tenure of these initiatives (mostly public lands located above the agricultural belt), the authors say. Most projects (87 percent) cover small areas; only 3 percent span more than 10,000 hectares.

The majority of projects sought to address multiple objectives, among them the recovery of ecological processes, specifically watershed functions; erosion control; biodiversity recovery and the eradication of exotic species; and an increase in ecosystem areas and their connectivity to the landscape. Socioeconomic objectives (such as poverty alleviation) and carbon sequestration were mentioned less frequently, the report said.

Local communities played a minor role in design, implementation and monitoring of outcomes of these projects — although they were reported as “highly relevant” participants in 59 percent of them.

Informants viewed these projects as successful: 88 percent of the projects claimed that they achieved at least three-quarters of their objectives. However, it is difficult to evaluate these claims, the authors say. With few exceptions, most programs did not include efforts to monitor impact. As a result, reports of success are based primarily on meeting short-term implementation goals rather than documenting long-term recovery of ecosystems.

The role of the state looms large in the study. Government agencies were responsible for financing, implementing and monitoring more than two-thirds of the projects, according to Murcia and Guariguata. These efforts involved all levels of government, from national and regional institutions down to municipal agencies; more than half of the land where these projects were implemented is government-owned.

“This finding was somewhat unexpected,” Guariguata said. “We hope that the government at various levels reflects on this particular result, as the report finds that there is room for improvement in terms of project design, financial planning, selection of appropriate indicators to measure success, and capacity building.”

MONITORING, REPORTING FALL SHORT

Despite the optimistic view of program implementers, there are reasons for a more critical assessment. Besides the lack of monitoring, the study suggests that most projects were carried out with short-term objectives in mind, both operationally and financially, and suffered from poor planning and insufficient financial resources. Most importantly, projects generally lacked an interdisciplinary approach and an explicit landscapes perspective.

Crucially, the report found that information about these projects was not widely disseminated. While NGOs and academic institutions led fewer of these projects, they performed better in disseminating project results than government agencies.

However, Murcia and Guariguata emphasize that dissemination remains poor overall, and the systematic evaluation of the results of these projects should be improved. Systematic data collection is a much-needed first step.

“The value of long-term data collection should not be underestimated,” Murcia said. “It provides the necessary baseline for monitoring and remedial action as appropriate.” Murcia pointed to large-scale restoration efforts in the Atlantic Forest in Brazil as an example that has benefited from long-term systematic data collection.

Overall, the study offers important insights and reasons for optimism. Restoration efforts have been fruitful at the political and academic level, building a critical mass of experiences and expertise that places Colombia at the forefront of Latin American ecological restoration. These experiences can provide the know-how to support the integration of ecological restoration into government plans as well as a knowledge base for an emerging cadre of young development professionals.

“In order to move forward we always need to reflect on the past,” Guariguata said. “A culture of reflection in forest management is nowadays much needed in Latin America as societal choices evolve while forests need to fulfill multiple roles; these kinds of assessments contribute to this end.”

For more information on the topics of this research, contact Manuel Guariguata at m.guariguata@cgiar.org

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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Topic(s) :   Restoration Landscapes