The calls for ecosystem restoration are getting louder. Around the world, governments, civil society and private actors have committed to restore millions of hectares of landscapes within the near future. The Bonn Challenge and the UN decade for ecosystems restoration are two major examples of global calls to action to reverse degradation by 2030.
Against this background, Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew Gardens) and Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) organized a three-day conference with the title “Restoration for Biodiversity, Carbon Capture and Livelihoods” to discuss how to avoid pitfalls, learn from best practices, and raise the bar for reforestation interventions. Here are five main takeaways from the conference:
1. Connect the dots between climate action, local ecology and sustainable livelihoods
A holistic approach is vital for addressing challenges and trade-offs when it comes to action on climate change, biodiversity and sustainable livelihoods. Planting trees should not be seen as a silver bullet solution or a quick fix. It is key to work with local stakeholders and understand the social, economic and ecological local realities to avoid adverse impacts of tree-planting interventions, especially when it comes to large-scale monocultures of non-native inappropriate species that use more water than indigenous tree species, or when reforestation is done on grasslands or other areas where trees have not been part of the original landscape. The article proposing “ten golden rules” for reforestation, published shortly before the conference, can be used as a guide for reforestation effoerts.
2. Protect existing forests and use natural regeneration
The article about the golden rules of reforestation mentioned above emphasizes that protecting existing forests and using natural regeneration are the most preferred options. Speakers at the conference often referred to these principles when illustrating the importance of preserving natural forests, and that in many cases, forests can recover well without planting new trees.
For instance, when presenting a rainforest restoration case in India, Dr. Anand Osuri (Nature Conservation Foundation) said, “ We fear we may never see a complete recovery of sensitive biodiversity groups like amphibians or understory trees and shrubs growing between the forest canopy and the forest floor. This resonates strongly with the first golden rule of restoration – to protect existing forests first – because once lost, nothing we can do to truly recover them.”
Along the same lines, Dr. Paul Smith (Secretary General at the BGCI) pointed out that there are thousands of tree species in the wild but that we only plant a few hundred of them. “It’s like comparing a symphony to a few tunes on a dog whistle,” Smith said.
Several speakers and panelists called for a clear distinction between tree plantations and “real” forests, saying that we ought to think of natural regeneration as the default model for reforestation unless there clear reasons for planting trees that support local livelihoods and biodiversity.
3. Plant the right trees in the right places
There are no blueprints for restoration. Instead, the local landscape, socioeconomic factors, and potential trade-offs have to be carefully considered before intervening. “It’s extremely easy to plant a tree – even I can do it – but it’s incredibly hard to get the right tree in the right place. And it’s even harder to imagine how we’re going to monitor this into the future,” said Dr. Justin Moat of Kew Gardens.
The importance of getting tree-planting right was one of the main reasons for organizing the entire event: “This conference was very much precipitated by the huge commitments made by governments, the corporate sector and civil society to plant trees. Our aim is to encourage people to plant trees, but not just any trees. We need to be planting the right trees in the right place,” said Dr. Paul Smith.
One of the authors of the “ten golden rules paper”, Dr. Kate Hardwick (Kew Gardens) emphasized the importance of selecting appropriate areas for reforestation. For example, planting on agricultural land might just push land-use change elsewhere. She also highlighted that working with local stakeholders minimizes the risk of that happening, yet the lack of community participation is one of the most common failures.
4. Work together for long-term impact – connect actors and sectors through coherent policies
There is a need to increase participation, particularly of local and indigenous communities, and to improve coordination between different actors and sectors. Dr. Susan Chomba (ICRAF) strongly advocated for multi-stakeholder cooperation. She promoted value chains that provide economic incentives, especially for women, to engage in restoration processes. She pointed out that the benefits of land restoration have to be distributed equally and that local knowledge needs to be valued highly to realize everyone’s strengths.
Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, former Minister of Environment and Energy in Costa Rica, made three key points about how to halt deforestation and revert forest loss. First, food production and agriculture policies that provide “perverse incentives” for deforestation have to be identified and phased out. As an example, he said that 63 different policies that exacerbated deforestation were identified in Costa Rica in the 1990s.
Second, landowners have to be paid for preservation. Otherwise, the risk for land use change is high as people look for ways of earning a living. Third, synergetic institutional action is crucial: when government agencies work in “silos” there is a risk that they compete over the same natural resources, which often creates conflicts. This can be avoided through governance reforms, such as creating more coherent and integrated agencies. Policy alignment between local, national and international levels is also decisive for success.
5. Go beyond academic discussions and inject science into practical action
As the conference drew to an end, the organizers proposed a declaration that will be collectively refined and published in the coming months. The declaration will primarily express concerns over the devastating impacts of large-scale planting of monocultures of exotic tree species. There is a need for commercial plantations, but it’s important to acknowledge that they have mixed effects on carbon sequestration and livelihood opportunities. An alternative model of “livelihood native forests” and natural regeneration as a more sustainable way of balancing benefits for biodiversity, climate, and livelihood.
When closing the conference, Richard Deverell, Director at Kew Gardens, cited Sir David Attenborough, saying that “What we do now, and in the next few years, will profoundly affect the next few thousand years.”
This post is written by Emil Planting Mollaoglu, Research Assistant at the Department of Urban and Rural Development, MSc in Rural Development at SLU.