Experts: Landscape restoration a delicate balance of people, policy, purpose

Three scientists discuss the promise and complications of the landscape approach.
Mangrove seed in Bali, Indonesia. Mangrove restoration project emerged in Southeast Asia, with varying degrees of success. Aulia Erlangga/Foto CIFOR

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BOGOR, Indonesia—Human activities taken their toll on the world’s forests: As much as two-thirds of the ecosystems on Earth could be considered degraded, according to calculations by the Center for Biological Diversity.

In 2010, countries that are parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity committed to restoring 15 percent of the world’s degraded ecosystems by 2020, which could make those systems more resilient in the face of climate change and increase the amount of carbon they store.

It’s as complicated as it sounds.

“Successful ecological restoration, or landscape restoration, is multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary,” said Manuel Guariguata, a Peru-based scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). “It involves the social sciences, the biophysical sciences and environmental eonomics, as well as formal and informal arrangements of governance.

Planners must also think big.

“Designers should always take a true landscape approach—that means tens of thousands of hectares,” Guariguata said. “When you scale up, you face more challenges than when you work at the level of a farmer’s plot.”

Because landscapes cross political boundaries, national and local regulations must be compatible, he adds.

“There must be good governance systems that take into account global, national and local situations. If those links aren’t well developed, global targets will be ineffective.”

Forests News asked three experts for their thoughts on the present, and future, of landscapes restoration. An edited transcript of those interviews follows.

Manuel Guariguata, Principal Scientist, CIFOR

On the logic behind landscape restoration

Landscape restoration is a way of optimizing land use, generally to return a landscape to a state at which it has a minimum set of biophysical characteristics—for example, the provision of clean water, incorporating biodiversity or simply returning a heavily degraded site to an acceptable level of functioning. The ecosystem doesn’t necessarily need to imitate its original state.

On some successful examples in Latin America

Restoration of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil is particularly good, because it involves the views and interests of many different types of stakeholders working toward the common goal, which is biodiversity recuperation, but with social and economic considerations, as well as well-crafted governance principles.

It has taken a very bottom-up approach involving a coalition of many different stakeholders—the private sector, non-governmental organizations, academia, and local and state government. It has a unique governance structure, consisting of a coordination council, regional units and working groups on technical issues, fundraising and public policy issues.

People tend to think about restoration at the plot scale, without considering larger issues of ecological connectivity in the context of climate change

Manuel Guariguata

This coalition has been instrumental in bringing all the dimensions and interests together for biodiversity recuperation in an ecosystem that was on the verge of extinction.

On the obstacles to landscape restoration

Lack of tenure rights, unclear land allocation and land ownership issues; lack of cross-sector dialogue; and, in many cases, poor governance that impedes restoration efforts. When local laws are not consistent with national laws for a given watershed, it creates a lot of confusion, bottlenecks and dead ends. If there is a lack of continuity in regulations at the national, subnational and local levels, there will be problems.

On lessons to be learned from efforts in Latin America

In some countries we still see a lot of top-down, government-led approaches to restoration, with ambitious national mandates, such as planting a billion trees, but if there is no overall vision that incorporates all sectors of society and all interested stakeholders, they’re not going to work. Top-down approaches are not necessarily bad, but these ambitious, government-led targets often fall short in implementation because they ignore those other dimensions.

On the need for further research

From a biophysical standpoint, we still need to work more on matching species to sites. It is also important to take a broader, truly landscape approach. Research is still lacking on scaling up, from the social and biophysical perspectives, as well as from the standpoint of delivery of ecosystem services. People tend to think about restoration at the plot scale, without considering larger issues of ecological connectivity in the context of climate change, which would facilitate migration.

Jurgenne Primavera, Chief Scientific Adviser on mangroves, Zoological Society of London

On a holistic approach to landscape restoration

In my work with mangroves, I use the term “rehabilitation,” which implies restoring some degree of ecosystem functioning—not 100 percent, but better than the degraded state.

In the Philippines, in recent years, we’ve had a number of disasters—floods, typhoons and so on. Mainly they can be traced to land-use changes that have led to habitat degradation, especially the marine habitat. To restore resilience of both natural ecosystems and humans who depend on them, there’s a need for a landscape approach, or what we call “ridge to reef,” from the mountains to the coral reefs.

You cannot look at habitats in isolation. Mangroves are important for carbon storage as well as protection against storms and sea-level rise. You can do your best for mangroves, but if the upland forest remains degraded, then runoff will suffocate the mangroves and proceed to the sea grass beds. You need a holistic approach.

On the challenges facing mangrove restoration on the ground

Some people would say, “Don’t touch the mangroves,” but in the Philippines, where fisheries and aquaculture are so important, that is not an option. You need to develop some mangroves, but there must be ecological guidelines.

There’s been a lot of research on mangrove ecology, but the papers are published in journals that many people do not read

Jurgenne Primavera

One is that you should keep a ratio of four hectares of mangroves to one hectare of fishponds. In the Philippines, we’ve gone overboard. Most mangroves have been developed into shrimp farms, and we’re at a one-to-one ratio.

Now that mangroves exist side by side with aquaculture, a development underpinned by ecological research, some producers are aiming to produce shrimp in mixed systems mangrove-shrimp farm systems, to qualify for environmental certification and get different prices for their products.

On stakeholders and research

There is competition or conflict among overlapping government agencies. Mangroves fall under forestry, but once you dig a hole and make it into a fish farm, it goes into the agriculture department. It’s same resource, but there’s no integration or harmonization. And we’re talking about thousands of hectares of fishponds.

Corruption is also a problem. So is ignorance or rejection of science-based protocols. For years, scientists have been telling people not to plant mangroves on sea grass beds or not to plant a certain species. Too often, planting is done by convenience, not by ecology.

There’s been a lot of research on mangrove ecology, but the papers are published in journals that many people do not read. NGOs and even aquaculturists need to be able to retrieve the scientific information and apply it.

Kiran Asher, Senior Scientist, CIFOR

On the dimensions of landscape restoration

Landscape restoration tends to be understood as a technical and/or ecological task, with the aim being to restore landscapes to provide benefits beyond the local. But what prior state would you would go back to, and for what purpose? If the goal is to return the landscape to a state in which it can give services it provided before, what are those services, who will they benefit and why did they disappear in the first place? I don’t mean to downplay the ecological complexity, but it is not just a technical problem. A landscape is as much a social and political entity as it is a biological or ecological one.

On landscape restoration efforts in China

The Sloping Lands in Transition (SLANT) project in China seeks to convert croplands into forest lands on sloping areas. That project was catalyzed by catastrophic floods in the 1990s. A lot of restoration projects have been spearheaded by the ecological devastation of prior activities.

Because sloping areas are ecologically more fragile, and things that happen on uplands affect things on lowlands, the project is looking at data from [restoration] interventions in upland areas. Many upland interventions center on payment for environmental services (PES), which involves paying people to change their land use to something else will provide services to lowland areas.

We need research that is comparative and interdisciplinary research, basic and applied research, disinterested and functional—not just research that is constantly under pressure to produce results that can be applied in the short term

Kiran Asher

Sloping lands are home to ethnic minorities that practice some kind of slash-and-burn agriculture. One thing we have found is that the intervention that has taken place is not so much for landscape restoration and agroforestry, but to … modernize these communities on the grounds that their practices are causing degradation of the landscape. There’s 40 years of scholarship calling into question that narrative of shifting cultivation causing land degradation, but the interventions still continue as if the degradation were still being caused by shifting cultivation.

On imperatives for researchers and policy makers

It will require long-term, patient effort to understand different ways of analyzing and understanding a problem. This is complicated, because there is more and more pressure to do applied research that leads to concrete results quickly. And some of these insights take time.

It is also important to understand the politics of policy. Policy is not just a technical fix. We (can) give policy makers good information, but policies are not necessarily based just on good information. Policy makers are always dealing with multiple agendas, and there are trade-offs.

On further research needed

We need research that is comparative and interdisciplinary research, basic and applied research, disinterested and functional—not just research that is constantly under pressure to produce results that can be applied in the short term. … Some research might show that the quick fixes that we seek are not possible or that the things we are trying to fix were broken by the precise instruments that we’re using to try to fix them.

We must pay attention to issues of migration and ethnic and gender relations. What is the national understanding of minority communities? How are they targeted in landscape restoration projects? Where do they live? When landscape restoration projects use women’s labor to plant or care for trees, for example, what kinds of assumptions are made about what women do, can do or should do, or about relations between women and men? Long-term, in-depth research is imperative.

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