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11 October 2018

The world made great restoration pledges, now what?

Photo: Rod Long/ Unsplash.

Forest Landscape Restoration, FLR continues to gain traction. So far, through such initiatives as the Bonn Challenge, the New York Declaration on Forests, AFR100 and the Initiative 20×20, 47 countries pledged to restore a total of 160.2 million hectares, an area slightly greater than the size of India.

While these restoration commitments are inspiring, scientists tip off that there is much more to restoration than the number of hectares. In fact, there are no common standards, metrics and indicators to guide and measure restoration outcomes.

“We don’t have a clear vision on how to implement FLR or how to recognize it on the ground. There are no guidelines on how to translate the core principles of FLR into operational terms. Without this clarity, it’s not possible to ensure or measure the quality of the restoration efforts,” says Robin Chazdon, PARTNERS Reforestation Network.

On the outskirts of the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Nairobi held in August 2018, World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), WeForest and PARTNERS gathered fellow restoration experts to discuss a way forward. This article follows the talks from that meeting.

Photo: Aaron Minnick (World Resources Institute)/ Flickr.

FLR needs an operational framework 

It is crucial to recognize that FLR is a long-term continuous socio-ecological development process. In this sense, every element matters, from the composition of species that are chosen for restoration to how local people can use the emerging landscape for their livelihoods, wellbeing and income.

As defined by the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration, FLR is “the process that aims to regain ecological functionality and enhance human well-being in deforested or degraded landscapes. FLR is not an end in itself, but a means of regaining, improving and maintaining vital ecological and social functions in the long-term, leading to more resilient and sustainable landscapes.”

The essence of the FLR concept is formulated by the six principles:

  • Focus on landscapes
  • Engage stakeholders and support participatory governance
  • Restore multiple functions for multiple benefits
  • Maintain and enhance natural ecosystems within landscapes
  • Tailor to the local context using a variety of approaches
  • Manage adaptively for long-term resilience

While these principles provide conceptual guidance, a restoration indicator framework is yet to be created. There are some metrics, but they are scattered attempts by individual actors and are not connected to the FLR principles.

“From our perspective, FLR principles are very useful, but not when it comes to implementation. It is hard to know if one is doing FLR or not. It would be very convenient to link the existing principles to operational criteria which are, in turn, linked to a set of indicators that can be used to monitor and evaluate restoration outcomes,” says Victoria Gutierrez, WeForest.

Such a framework will be beneficial to all partners involved in restoration. Governments will be able to enforce the standards, investors will be able to quantify their investments and practitioners will know how to implement restoration and will be able to monitor and improve their performance.

Forest canopy, Costa-Rica.

Photo: Aaron Minnick (World Resources Institute)/ Flickr.

A delicate balance between creativity and precision

 At the same time, restoration is a highly contextual endeavor, and as pointed out by Lars Laestadius, who has led WRI’s work on restoration for many years, “The term FLR is vague on purpose. Nobody wanted to define it rigorously because this allows for flexibility.” Though, even he acknowledges that over-the-top flexibility is risky.

Going by the principles, forest landscape restoration is achieved by creating mosaic landscapes with different land uses, combining forest and trees with agriculture, waterways, protected areas and settlements and doing that with diversity of species in mind, mimicking nature. This, however, is neither cheap nor easy. It requires consistent expert supervision and strong determination from all the stakeholders. Planting rich diversity is also quite challenging to implement on such a vast scale as the size of India.

On top of that, to make it feasible and sustainable for the local population, restoration efforts have to integrate agricultural food and commercial crops with conservation. And all of this has to be specially developed for every piece of degraded land area, depending on the local flora, fauna, water and soil as well as socio-economic conditions.

Considering all that, it appears that practice of forest landscape restoration is about striking a balance between creativity and precision, tailoring to a real-world complexity. Though, it may sound paradoxical, restoration success stories exist, and sound operational framework can guide implementation by establishing standards, indicators and logic for benchmarking, steering different FLR pathways to sustainable outcomes.

Children take a break from tea picking and harvesting vegetables, Rwanda.

Photo: Dow Maneerattana (World Resources Institute)/ Flickr.

At its core, common quality baseline and adaptive management

Developing a common quality baseline could be a solution. For instance, as described by Robin Chazdon, “Bathroom standards are different around the world. Some bathrooms can be very sophisticated and have music, toilets with heated seats and driers. Others might have a squatting pan. Some might have soap and towel paper and others might not. But there are some minimum requirements everyone agrees upon. Without such minimum bathroom standards, we would have had much more public health problems and environmental contamination. Restoration could have safeguards and basic quality standards too.

ICRAF has developed a systematic biophysical monitoring framework for tracking indicators of ecosystem health over time. The Land Degradation Surveillance Framework (LDSF) can serve as a starting point. This framework has been implemented in over 40 countries over the past 15 years, enabling the largest field-based database on land and soil health indicators. Currently, the LDSF has been used for restoration in rangelands of Kenya and agricultural mosaic landscapes in East Africa, it has also been used in South Africa and Tanzania.

With all the complexity and flexibility of the FLR in mind, experts agree one of the principles is not to be changed: It is the adaptive management approach, a project design and implementation which integrates monitoring and systematic testing of assumptions. Employing this approach, ensures that restoration initiatives adapt to the changing environment and learn over time. If there is too much deviation in this element, restoration projects may fail to deliver transformational effects.

“The right FLR operational framework, would not only ensure quality outcomes, but also their long-term sustainability and resilience of landscapes,” says Victoria Gutierrez, We Forest. “Attaining sustainability is crucial. We might not get the chance to correct all the mistakes, but we must have the basis,” says Michael Orangi, Rainforest Alliance.

This article is adapted from the “For the love of restoration: The challenges of managing quality and quantity in FLR efforts” blog by Aida Bargués Tobella. Originally published at PARTNERS website.

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SIANI Members Meeting – Nairobi 2018
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