Pledges to restore millions of hectares of degraded land could lead nowhere without improved planning, prioritization and monitoring, warn the authors of an analysis of 119 ecological restoration projects in Colombia.
A series of international commitments have focused on landscape restoration as a way of reversing environmental damage, strengthening resilience to climate change, and improving supplies of water and other natural resources.
But despite having numerous individual restoration projects and pledges underway, many countries seem unready to scale up their efforts to restore hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of hectares, the authors suggest.
“But if countries are going to achieve their ambitious international commitments in land restoration, they have to take into consideration the multifaceted nature of restoration projects and factor in a host of governance and socioecological challenges.”
Latin America is leading the global trend in land restoration. Colombia, which has a 50-year history of restoration projects, is among the most ambitious countries, having pledged to restore 300,000 hectares of degraded ecosystems by 2018 and 1 million hectares by 2020.
Other countries, among them Mexico, Peru and El Salvador, have also made substantial promises—albeit based solely on numbers of hectares under some sort of forest cover.
“The experience in Colombia shows that restoration projects must be about more than the number of hectares pledged or the number of trees planted,” said Guariguata.
“To scale up, restoration needs to be sustainable, it needs to be measured from space and from the ground, it needs to be inclusive and properly planned.
“And it needs to look beyond the specific site or ‘plot’ to ensure that the restoration transcends to the entire landscape or even region.”
TAKE IT FROM THE TOP
Historically, Colombia’s approach to environmental management has been very much top-down, the study found: government agencies initiated 64 percent of the projects and financed 78 percent.
“This in itself is not a bad thing,” Guariguata noted, as governments have resources and can steer development and conservation plans from national to local level.
However, only two of the 90 government-initiated projects assessed in Colombia involved the participation of local communities in project design and monitoring. NGOs fared little better, with only three projects reporting active participation by local communities.
Without local ownership, large-scale restoration projects are unlikely to prove sustainable, Guariguata warns.
“Where local people don’t feel any ownership and don’t see any benefits to them, they may be less motivated to maintain the area,” he said.
FROM SATELLITES TO SEEDLINGS
The authors also identified a widespread lack of monitoring. Even though 90 percent of the projects had a monitoring plan, most considered only short-term goals such as seedling survival. Only one in three tracked medium-term changes such as the return of native plants and animals.
“If you don’t really monitor what you are doing—and we are talking nationwide—then you will never really know how your intervention has fared,” said study co-author Carolina Murcia.
“The lack of a monitoring culture in restoration is a major bottleneck for demonstrating success and leveraging funds for further actions.”
Only half of the projects studied had established benchmarks, and performance indicators tended to be vague, she added.
“We need a change in the mindset of decision makers, researchers and NGOs to design, from the outset, a solid monitoring program,” Guariguata said.
“It has to involve both top-down monitoring—that means using satellite images—and bottom-up monitoring—and that means monitoring tree survival by local communities. It also needs monitoring of socioeconomic variables among key stakeholders.”
The lack of consistent monitoring undermines the overall goals of the projects, the authors noted.
Nearly all projects studied were underway on land degraded by mining, overgrazing or other forms of development, with the aim of protecting watersheds. Only a few had explicit biodiversity-related goals, such as expanding a threatened ecosystem, improving connectivity between ecosystems or controlling invasive species.
Yet biodiversity is at the heart of Colombia’s strategy: its restoration policy framework includes a law requiring mining, oil and other resource and infrastructure companies to offset any environmental damage through restoration, to avoid any net loss of biodiversity.
The authors call on the Colombian government to draw up a strong, science-based strategy that prioritizes ecological restoration nationwide and clarifies its goals—an approach that could benefit other countries too.
“To scale up, you need to prioritize very carefully where you are going to do your intervention and for which objectives,” Guariguata said.
“Is it for conservation or watershed protection? Or is it for a combination of conservation and sustainable use of timber and non-timber products?”
The authors acknowledge the efforts of one of Colombia’s leading research organizations, the Humboldt Biodiversity Institute, which is developing a countrywide assessment and map of restoration needs.
The map will serve as a powerful decision-support tool, according to Carolina Murcia.
However, while it is likely to inform a more detailed revision of the National Restoration Plan, she says it lacks socioeconomic data.
“Colombia is one of the few Latin American countries with such a plan, but it needs not just biophysical information but information about people too,” she said.
“Without both, it’s hard to see how departments and municipalities can make meaningful plans for restoration projects that not only achieve the goals but also ensure that the restored ecosystem can persist and adapt to changing conditions.”
Equally important is to have clarity on definitional aspects.
“We run the risk of calling everything ‘restoration’,” Guariguata said.
“This has implications for the standards that are to be used during monitoring and for measuring effectiveness and compliance with targets.”