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Doing bad by meaning good: exploring the side-effects of land restoration.

Based on the article “Creating space for large-scale restoration in tropical agricultural landscapes” published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment vol.13 by Focali member Toby Gardner and colleagues.

Unsustainable natural resources management resulted in major degradation of land and ecosystems around the world. It is estimated that around 2 billion hectares of land is deforested and degraded globally. As a response to that, international initiatives, like for example the Aichi Target 15 and, the Bonn Challenge set up ambitious goals to restore 150 million hectares of land before 2020. The New York Declaration on Forests extended these goals to restoration of 350 million hectares of land before 2030.

There are high hopes for the success of these initiatives in practice. Restoration of degraded and deforested land is a chance to reconstruct ecosystem services and rebuild biodiversity. Restoration is wished-for by many, but there is also a necessity to study possible unintended side-effects by large-scale projects of this kind. The possible side-effects, referred to as “leakage”, mean displacement of pre-existing land uses like agriculture. It is important to bear in mind that even though degraded lands are in need of restoration it does not mean these areas are not used for agricultural practices or other activities today.

An increasing competition for land

The global competition for land plays a key role when discussing large-scale restorations. Demand for land is not predicted to ground to a halt, but rather speed up in the coming future with a growing world population demanding more and more resources. Large-scale restoration runs the risk of displacing activities like crop cultivation or cattle ranching to other locations. If this happens to result in the clearance of native vegetation, the restoration project’s negative impacts can outweigh the benefits, the loss of native vegetation cannot simply be replaced by planting new forests even if there is a net increase in forest cover.

So how can we tell if there is a leakage caused by an ecological restoration of land? The answer is not easy to come by and there is still only a limited number of studies where a leakage of this kind is scientifically proven. In this study researchers look at the potential for future competition for land between forest restoration and cattle pastures in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, more specifically in the Brazilian state of Espírito Santo.

Restoring the Atlantic forest – a risk of leakage?

Espírito Santo stands as a good example of an area where one piece of land is subject to many different interests. A competition for land is therefore likely to occur in the future. The government of the Espírito Santo state has committed to restore 236 000 ha of forest by 2025 while also planning for an expansion of agricultural activities and forest plantations on 284 000 ha and 400 000 ha respectively. Today the landscape of the state consists of a variety of different agricultural practices split between both small- and large landowners and producers. The researchers studied the possibility of the land to meet all the demands of restoration and agricultural expansion without risking leakage into areas of native vegetation.

By modeling these possible land-use changes in connection to expanded agricultural practices and large-scale restoration it was found that certain areas of Espírito Santo were more likely to be exposed to competition for land than others. However the land could possibly meet the expectations of both restoration and agricultural expansion if the existing cattle productivity increases. Cattle production was in this case the dominant but also the most ineffective land-use type in the region. A transition to cattle ranching is proposed as one strategy to increase productivity and spare large areas of land from deforestation at the same time.

This study shows that there are possibilities for the Atlantic Forest to cope with changing land demands. However a number of pre-conditions has to be met for the success of a land-sparing project like this.

  1. Secure initial capital and develop strategies to overcome educational and cultural barriers in order to adopt more technologically advanced agricultural systems.
  2. Monitor and secure profitability of major land uses in areas where the competition for land is high. In areas where agriculture and forestry compete, long term benefits and profitability of restoration forestry should be evaluated carefully. It is about making sure the previous/other land use activities (which most possibly can generate profit faster) are replaced with an environmentally and socially sound alternative. If the new activity, like forestry restoration does not generate a good profit, it is not an economically sustainable option and can run the risk of being replaced with another activity.
  3. Implement necessary regulation restricting the expansion of profitable land-use systems (like cattle ranching or agriculture) into native vegetation.
  4. Develop social protection mechanisms from negative consequences resulting from one land-use system being more profitable than others, which might increase vulnerability of livelihoods.

Find the full text of the study here
Would you like to learn more about this topic? Have a look at the policy brief: Towards sustainability in frontier landscapes: propositions for the way ahead.

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