New global forest restoration initiatives – such as the Bonn Challenge, Initiative 20×20, AFR100, the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi Targets – present an unparalleled opportunity to reverse the trend of deforestation and forest degradation in the coming years. However, those who work in forest restoration have countless stories of failed projects. How can we minimize these failures, learn from other restoration initiatives and build success from the ground up?
Restoration experts agree: monitoring is essential to restoration success. But is monitoring being given enough attention in the current major global initiatives?
Participatory monitoring — defined as a multilevel collaborative system for collecting and analyzing data, learning, and decision-making that involves local people in a meaningful way — could play a crucial role in providing the information needed to understand whether restoration is moving along the right trajectory beyond quantifying number of hectares or else increases in forest cover.
Multiple studies have demonstrated that local people can reliably collect accurate data on forest change, drivers and threats, as well as biophysical and socioeconomic impacts that remote sensing cannot. Furthermore, they can do it at one-third the cost of professionals. What needs to be monitored is increasingly well understood: not just tree-planting, but drivers of success, local concerns and forest change. Existing models include the United States’ Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) program, Brazil’s Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact (AFRP), farmer-managed natural regeneration in the Sahel and others.
To better understand the potential of participatory monitoring, we reviewed more than 100 articles and interviewed several global experts to aggregate the lessons learned and find a path forward. Below are some of these lessons.
Set up a monitoring system and a mechanism to oversee it
It is not enough to set up a monitoring protocol, there needs to be a monitoring system that supports data collection, aggregation, analysis and learning. This is the conclusion of one of the experts who has worked on the AFRP in Brazil. After several years of working with the protocol, experts found that few members were collecting the data — it was too complicated and had too many indicators. A fundamental lesson learned from this process is that the monitoring system itself must have a built-in capacity to learn and adapt.
Make monitoring plans from the very beginning
Experts argue that monitoring should be the very first activity to plan during forest restoration. And that monitoring plans should be closely linked with restoration goals and involve a range of stakeholders. The ultimate motivation for monitoring is, after all, to ascertain whether the restoration effort is proceeding well and is yielding the expected outcomes and benefits for society and the environment, and to take the necessary measures in case the system is not behaving as expected and failure is a risk if no timely action is taken.
Monitor what is important for local decision-making
Increasing forest cover is important but successful participatory monitoring systems should focus on responding quickly with information that is adequate to answer the questions and needs of local stakeholders — and not necessarily focused only on generating scientifically rigorous data. In the words of a regional manager of the CFLR program: “I’d rather collect adequate data on two or three indicators in a collaborative way with local stakeholders than ten indicators ‘scientifically’”.
Define indicators collaboratively
A scalable, multisite forest restoration monitoring initiative should have a small number of indicators shared by all sites, with the flexibility to determine other indicators to respond to local needs. Defining indicators is never easy, but when approached in a structured way and when given enough time and patience, it can be an invaluable process that also builds trust and elicits what is important to stakeholders. Instead of devising indicators at the outset, it can be more useful for local stakeholders to construct questions that ask what information is needed for decision-making to support restoration objectives. And then pick the right indicator.
Encourage social learning and learning networks
A scalable, multisite forest restoration monitoring system should emphasize the creation of learning networks to facilitate the connection of stakeholders at multiple levels with information that they need for decision-making, while connecting stakeholders with each other to catalyze learning. Efforts and resources must be invested to create interactions among local stakeholders to share monitoring information and make decisions. Repeated interactions are more likely to generate learning, adaptive management and appropriation.
Dedicate funds for monitoring and provide appropriate local incentives
Given the relatively long timeframes for forest restoration to achieve its biodiversity and social goals, and the uncertainties and pressures facing both newly forested and historically forested areas, a scalable, multisite monitoring system will need dedicated funding for the duration of the project, and probably longer to be able to claim success and identify forest change, drivers and threats. Sufficient incentives and support can motivate local people to participate in monitoring for the long term. These include orienting the restoration activities to meet local goals and priorities, guaranteeing appropriate compensation, providing training, encouraging participation in reporting and analyzing results, and linking with and learning from other initiatives.
Scalable, multisite, participatory monitoring systems for forest restoration have a clear role to play in efforts to track progress, provide accountability and create a framework for learning and adaptation. Forest restoration planning is underway at the global level. Now is the ideal time to start talking about the crucial role of participatory monitoring so that local and global perspectives and aspirations are both taken into account.