Community benefits key to landscape restoration, CIFOR forest governance researcher says

Julie Mollins
12 August 2018

NAIROBI (Landscape News) – Almost a third of Africa’s land mass is degraded due to human activities – including farming and resource extraction – which damage the environment and put food security and livelihoods at risk.

Landscape restoration can reverse damage and lead to improvements for communities, but how are obstacles overcome and changes implemented?

The key is community level action, said Esther Mwangi, principal scientist and a governance researcher with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) based in Nairobi. “Where land tenure is clear and land managers benefit from the efforts they invest, we start to see interesting results.”

To see how these insights hold out more broadly, Mwangi sought out and listened to men and women share their success stories, demonstrating the potential of initiatives spearheaded at the local level.

She selected 12 stories from nine countries across Africa and compiled them into a slim anthology titled Communities Restoring Landscapes: Stories of Resilience.

“Restoration is about investment — investing time, energy, resources, skills — in order to turn around a situation that we all agree is not optimal,” she said. “It only follows then that a most basic question to ask is why? Why should anyone do this?”

The booklet, set for distribution at the upcoming Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) on Aug. 29-30 at UN Environment headquarters in Nairobi where delegates will tackle challenges related to land degradation, shows that leadership, social capital and cooperation, clear tenure rights and supportive governance are important for successful community-based restoration.

“We learned that from the community perspective, success means more than the number of trees planted in a certain area, it’s also about securing and improving livelihoods, enhancing and building new relationships, developing a conservation ethic among younger generations; and expanding rights of the excluded,” Mwangi said.

She shared her views with Landscape News in the following interview.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Communities Restoring Landscapes: Stories of Resilience?

A: Landscape restoration is a multi-dimensional issue—different communities invest time and effort for many different reasons, which are all valid, and conduct different types of interventions. However, the 12 stories that we compiled from different parts of Africa tend to suggest that livelihoods concerns are a major motivator for landscape restoration while leadership and cooperation within and across communities are critical for implementation.

Q: What kind of impact is the landscape approach having on restoration efforts? Are we seeing progress?

A: From what I’ve seen, restoration is a multi-dimensional enterprise and several things need to happen. One of them is clear and secure tenure rights to the trees, forests or land. If not, I might plant a tree and then when it grows, someone else comes and harvests it. There needs to be some assurance that I can benefit from the years of tending the resource. Speaking about benefits, the restoration efforts made by communities are often tied to multiple objectives: the economic objective of securing and strengthening livelihoods is just as important as conserving the environment and in fact in certain instances such as coastal mangroves, protecting local livelihoods from the power of ocean waves is a major motivator for restoration.

A landscape approach certainly holds promise for accelerating restoration efforts to the extent that it can allow for greater coordination, synergy of effort and planning across actors, sectors and multiple, often-competing objectives. This is not a novel idea and we even have tools and approaches for advancing this kind of coordination but will/interest is important.

This Nairobi GLF is doing just that—bringing together community representatives, government, private sector, regional entities and others. We have a good chance to think in a more focused way about how this coordination can be achieved.

Q: Do you see an opportunity to establish a continuous cycle of land use and restoration? Could an international mechanism be put in place?

A: It would be wonderful if an international mechanism can be informed and motivated by local realities—before anything is felt at the global level it’s almost invariably expressed to some order of magnitude at the local level. Too often we do it the other way—the upside-down way—and eventually have to spend a lot of time and resources massaging or panel beating global initiatives into congruence with local realities.

The question of whether we need an international mechanism for landscape restoration is an important one. It seems to me that we already have opportunities for addressing restoration through existing mechanisms such as those addressing climate change. But that’s one option and it can be combined with others. For example mobilizing an international mechanism to match country commitments to a given proportion. The point is this—that it doesn’t have to be one way—we can mix and match, leveraging current approaches and having new ones.

Q: What specific challenges do African countries face? Obviously, each country has its own specific concerns, but are any overarching?

A: Many communities have embraced landscape restoration in its different forms – it’s not a new thing. We need to leverage these lessons in order to scale the successes. It would also help to better integrate sectors when thinking through and designing a policy and institutional framework for landscape restoration. Too often, we work at cross-purposes and quite often the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing or sometimes undermines it. There is a strong case to be made for cross-sectoral coordination in landscape restoration.

Q: What is your primary focus of research? How does your research intersect with the themes of the GLF Nairobi event?

A: I spend a lot of time thinking about how and why property rights or tenure regimes emerge and are transformed and whether (and how) that affects tenure security of groups – for example, women, communities – and individuals, their governance of resources and the distribution of benefits of these resources. I’m just completing a global, multi-country study of what happens to people and forests when tenure reforms are formally instituted. Together with the Regional Center for Mapping and Resource Development (RCMRD) and CIRAD (The French agricultural research and international cooperation organization working for the sustainable development of tropical and Mediterranean regions) I had completed work developing a prototype of a forest observatory for the eastern Africa region. These areas of work dovetail quite nicely with the GLFs concern about gender integration, tenure rights and monitoring and measurement. My most recent work on the governance and tenure of mangroves is probably the most relevant for the Nairobi GLF. This work advances the thematic concerns I have puzzled over through the years but it applies it to a new and interesting ecosystem—coastal mangroves. At the Nairobi GLF, our partners, the Kenya Marine Fisheries Research Institute and the Western Indian Ocean Mangroves Network are organizing the only session on mangroves in the entire GLF. This side event will have presenters and participants discussing mangrove conservation status, restoration and the challenges of linking knowledge with action in mangrove conservation and restoration.

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