Q+A: No silver bullet for solving landscape restoration challenges in Africa, CIFOR director general says

Robert Nasi, director general at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), speaks at the 2018 Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany. GLF/Pilar Valbuena
31 July 2018

This post is also available in: French

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — Landscapes in Africa must be restored to ensure the natural resource needs of the continent’s rapidly expanding population can be met, but the challenge is complex, the head of a major international forestry research organization said on Tuesday in the lead up to a conference focused on restoration.

The upcoming Prospects and Opportunities for Restoration in Africa Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) at UN Environment headquarters in Nairobi Aug. 29-30 will highlight many current landscape restoration initiatives and help set the stage for many more.

“The reason GLF Nairobi is important and one reason the GLF itself was formed is because of the importance of Africa in terms of achieving sustainable development, but I’m afraid there’s no single solution and no silver bullet.” said Robert Nasi, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), which co-coordinates the GLF with the World Bank and UN Environment.

More than 800 delegates and thousands more online, including heads of state, landscape restoration experts, policymakers, global media, finance experts, environmentalists, indigenous and community leaders, will tackle continent-wide challenges related to land degradation.

“The GLF may be able to bring some bridging or brokering to various commitments and initiatives where governments have committed to restoring land, where people do things on the ground but where there is a gap between commitments from the top and actions on the ground,” Nasi said, explaining that while other continents share similar challenges, African countries are more likely to lack sufficient resources to tackle them.

Nasi shared his views with Landscape News in the following interview.

Q: Why is GLF Nairobi important?

A: It’s not GLF Nairobi that is important, it’s the issue of restoration in Africa that’s important because it’s the continent with one of the highest proportions of degraded land: degraded forest or degraded agricultural land. It’s important to restore the capacity of this land if we want to have enough resources for the 900 million new Africans that will live here by 2050. Restoration is very important for the provisioning of ecosystem services: water, clean air, soil and especially near cities. Land has often been degraded around urban settlements because people have over-grazed or cut most of the vegetation for wood fuel. We end up with a ring of human induced desertification around cities. It’s crucial to restore the land so that it produces the services, wood and energy that is needed. The reason GLF Nairobi is important and one reason the GLF was formed is because of the importance of Africa in terms of sustainable development.

Q: What specific challenges do African countries face?

A: There is no challenge that is specific to Africa in general. Similar problems exist in Latin America or Asia. What differs is the capacity, financial or human, of the people to address the problems. Despite many financial challenges, there are a lot of good examples where people do a lot with the resources they have. We want to show at GLF Nairobi – that there are a lot of good actions on the ground.

Q: What kind of impact has the landscape approach having on restoration efforts? Are we seeing progress? What changes have occurred?

A: We see progress. Landscape restoration is becoming more fashionable, but it is truly an old topic mainly developed in the context of rehabilitation of mining land and restoration of pastures. The landscape approach is about managing a territory, which features a mix of primary or untouched areas, productive and degraded areas. It involves rehabilitation of degraded areas so it is compatible with productive and untouched land and it has an economic and a social value.

Q: What is the key to making the changes required to ensure land is restored?

A: It’s important to understand first why the area was degraded. Unless it is understood why land was degraded originally and the problem is corrected it’s very likely that it will go back to degradation. For example, a lot of the degraded land in the Amazon went through a cycle of deforestation, followed by being used for pasture, and then — because the pasture wasn’t properly maintained — it became degraded and no longer produces enough fodder for cattle. Then people move on and abandon it.

In other words, it’s very important to understand the drivers behind degradation in a specific area. Another important consideration is that maybe your degraded land is not my degraded land, and I’m making a living using what I find there. It’s necessary to understand why it’s degraded, who’s been degrading this forest, savanna or grassland and why. Have the causes disappeared or do they still exist or what are the people expecting? If people don’t benefit from the restored land, they’re not likely to take care and they’re very likely to degrade it again. These are factors that need to be considered when looking at the best way to implement restoration. It’s not simply finding the right species to plant at the right place – that’s part of it – but it’s more about looking at what were the causes, who is likely behind this, is it a global industry, is it market forces? See if these drivers of deforestation still exist — if you can mitigate the driver then afterwards you can think about finding the right species to plant. But the objectives for the land must also be considered. Restoring vegetation should be underscored with efforts to ensure people can benefit from it, so they have an interest to keep it in a proper state and not degrade it again.

Q: How effective are tree-planting initiatives?

A: If there is an area that’s been, for example, overgrazed, if trees are simply planted or vegetation restored without solving the underlying problem of too much livestock grazing on the land, then it’s unlikely to be effective because the new vegetation will be eaten as soon as it’s planted. In other cases, people are paid to plant trees. They’ll plant the tree during the day and because they were paid to plant trees and are not really concerned with the benefits of restoring the land, during the night they will come and water the tree with boiling water so that the tree will die so the next day they can plant the tree again and be paid again. This occurs because people want some economic benefits. If you show them that if they plant the trees and keep the trees they will benefit from it then they will keep them. On the other hand, if tell people you will pay them to plant a tree, but retain ownership of it, then it is not ultimately beneficial.

Q: Do you see an opportunity to establish a continuous cycle of land use and restoration?

A: You can do that to a certain extent. Big mining companies can be told to preserve and replace the topsoil, vegetation and restore the land after extraction. The company can incorporate these activities into the cost of running their business. It’s a bit more difficult in terms of smallholders or cattle ranchers in situations where they have no interest in maintaining their land and then restoring it when land is still available. It could be cheaper to go out and degrade more land and continue moving rather than staying in the same place to maintain the land. I don’t think it can come naturally and I don’t think it always pays. That said, swidden cultivation systems are considered to be a form of land degradation by some people, but it isn’t. It’s a cycle whereby vegetation is cut, then the land is planted, and then when the land is not productive enough the it’s left fallow for 15 years, the vegetation grows and they start the cycle again. The problem that we’re facing in many cases with degradation is overpopulation, which reduces the length of the fallow period, and as a result, the vegetation doesn’t reconstitute naturally. Then land becomes degraded. So to answer your question, it’s not necessarily easy and not necessarily a sort of a natural phenomenon and it is likely that some degraded lands will never be restored.

Q: You have previously raised concerns about missing the U.N. Paris Agreement targets to keep temperatures in check. If we need to adapt, what steps will CIFOR take or what needs to happen to ensure this can occur or what is the potential outcome?

A: I don’t think there is a simple or a single answer for that. It really depends where. In some places simply fencing an area and stopping fires to allow the vegetation to grow again will be enough. In some places significant work will have to occur, to restore the capacity of the soil or replace organic carbon and organic matter, and planting and eventually having a rotation of planting. In some places where economic prospects don’t exist on a grand scale there will be very little restoration activity. I’m afraid there is no single solution and there is no silver bullet. Landscape restoration is all the rage, but this is not necessarily the solution everywhere and restoration doesn’t necessarily require taking the same form everywhere. Context matters, history matters, and of course climate matters. You can take a different approach if you have 2 meters of rainfall and a fertile soil than if you have 200 millimeters of rainfall and sand. So all these things together must be analyzed before embarking on restoration, although this has not always been the case, so in some cases there is a lot of failure.

Q: How do we implement restoration initiatives effectively when some politicians, entrepreneurs, etc. don’t believe that climate change is occurring? 

A: You don’t need to believe in climate change to implement restoration activities. Restoration should be undertaken because a piece of land has immense capacity to produce agricultural products or other goods. Restoration can occur with or without climate change.

Learn more about landscape restoration at Global Landscapes Forum in Nairobi on Wed. Aug. 29 at 2:00 p.m. local time (11:00 a.m. GMT). Attend the opening plenary in person or online. Learn more here.

RELATED

Q+A: Africa at critical climate change crossroads, U.N. Environment chief says

GLF a powerful lever in fight against hunger and poverty, says One World – No Hunger envoy