From teaching students how to use native species to restore landscapes in South America to coordinating the European Tropical Forest Research Network, Horst Freiberg’s extensive career in landscape restoration is as diverse as the ecosystems he has helped nurture back to health.
While serving as a head of division at the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), focused on managing forests’ role in national and international climate change and biodiversity issues, Freiberg had the idea of restoring hundreds of millions of hectares of land, which in 2011 materialized into the Bonn Challenge. More recently, he co-conceived the new UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration with El Salvador’s environment minister Lina Pohl.
Although now retired, Freiberg’s role in restoration and conservation continues, whether through being called upon to share ideas about the initiatives he helped create or caring for hives of honey-making bees and a forest of his own. For him, restoration is a lifestyle, and thanks to his large-scale dreams, it’s becoming so for many others as well.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
How did the idea for the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration come about?
A year and a half ago in 2017 at the Global Landscape Forum (GLF), I had the opportunity to meet and talk to the minister of environment from El Salvador Lina Pohl, and a couple of months [before that], I had already started to reflect about how we can have more impact on landscape restoration. We were sitting together at the GLF somewhere in a corner, and we discussed and exchanged ideas. And of course there was the idea to have a year of landscape restoration or a decade, and we said it would probably have international recognition and acceptance because the time is ripe for such a decade.
She said, ‘Look, every restoration of our ecosystems is vital for us in El Salvador. And I would be not only happy but dedicated to push for such an idea, because I believe it is a topic which we have to do.’ So this was the moment when we together gave light and birth to this idea. And I think it was a wonderful combination between her and myself, that she as a minister could take this idea up and push the idea politically as a small country, but a small country with an important region, the Central American region, [which] a little bit later supported the idea.
How did it feel when the decade was officially adopted?
We all hoped, of course, that the UN General Assembly would adopt such a decade, such a proposal. But, of course, you never know. Many organizations and people supported the idea when the idea came up… UN Environment, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), etc. We all were saying, ‘Look, it would be more than logic to have such a decade on ecosystem restoration because it combines many, many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).’ And we have to restore ecosystems but also conserve what we have still or use it in a wise way. So we believed this was a top topic for the UN.
It showed as well that the international organizations and governments also understood that this is a topic. If not, it would not have been adopted by the UN so quickly. For us, this was an emotional moment, a great moment. And a glass of champagne would be, of course, opportune to have after that.
You are often described as a main initiator of the Bonn Challenge. What inspired you to have such a unique and grand vision for restoration?
When the Bonn Challenge was established in September of 2011, it was window of opportunity. First, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2010 adopted the strategic plan of the CBD, and Target 15 was to restore 15 percent of degraded ecosystems. Second, the international climate change conference in Cancun adopted REDD+, and the ‘plus’ was the enhancement of carbon stocks. It was a nice word, but nobody knew what stood behind it, and how to bring a political decision into practicable action on the ground, how to transform it…. And in 2009 the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration presented a global map of restoration opportunities. The map showed at that time 1 billion hectares. A couple of years later, 2 billion. But this 1-billion-hectare map was the third element which we then combined [to create reason for] the Bonn Challenge.
This was presented at a high-level political round table with some ministers, me, the former minister from El Salvador. And the group of more-or-less 30 high-level politicians, and also private sector, NGOs, etc., said, ‘This is an excellent proposal, let’s adopt it.’ And it was adopted. This was the birthday of the goal that then provided the basis for many, many other initiatives and a growing international recognition of the topic of landscape restoration.
What do you hope to see in the approach to the new decade’s implementation to ensure its success?
The decade now provides a political framework, and it formulates officially a UN vision. I hope…this will provide more interaction, more North-South cooperation between countries, to stimulate concrete national implementation activities, having more concrete actions on the ground…and attracting other actors to become part and partner of such global restoration activity. In my view, there is a lot of potential to show that deforestation-free supply chains from restored areas can create new market values for products, which can improve livelihoods and create stronger communities and jobs. I can see that. And I think through the decade we might have a wonderful opportunity to make that visible. I think the GLF is a wonderful platform to bring all these different actors together and to provide wonderful support to the decade.
You have spent a lot of time doing field work. How did your personal connection to nature affect your career in policy?
There are some dots in different countries I had the chance to visit: Ireland, Malawi, Mali, southern Brazil, Central Kalimantan [Indonesia]. Communities have already started from their own ideas to restore their ecosystems, because they have experienced over the last 30, 40 years that they are losing ecosystem services: water, which has gone down (several) meters; fuel wood; other non-timber forest products; soil; etc. They started to agree internally to maintain and preserve, conserve these areas – we don’t touch it, we leave it for a couple of years and see what happens because we have other areas where we could cultivate. In their experience the water comes back, biodiversity comes back… we have some beekeeping, we have honey, we have timber, we have mushrooms, we have fuel wood, etc. We have water, which comes back 20, 30, 40 meters [below ground] to two, three, four meters. These experiences were what they always said.
I think this is what I try to express: knowing the dots; connecting existing dots in an area; and trying to expand these experiences by national programs, investors, international projects, whatever.
You’re a beekeeper. What draws you to this hobby?
You can see the development of the bees over the years. In springtime you see how the beehive is developing. You see how they build the new beeswax. At the end of the year you get back some honey. I always compare the honey, which is like wine. Every year the honey changes depending on the flowering, depending on the seasons. And this makes every honey in every year different. Some years it looks darker, other years more light, more liquid or more compact. So you get a different taste of honeys. And this depends not only where your beehive is located but also the season of the year. So it’s interesting to follow and to collect from each year at least a glass of honey to see how the colors vary and how the taste varies. It’s an interesting hobby. And also, if you have some fruit trees around, you also have a wonderful impact on the amount of fruits you get from the areas where you have beehives and bees doing wonderful work.
Forests play a strong role in Germany’s national identity. Why?
As a forester, I have to go back to the year 1713, which is a very decisive year in German forests. At that time the whole of Europe was practically deforested. There are some histories where you had a rifle, and if you shot it took 300 to 400 meters before the bullet arrived to the next tree. So you can imagine there were no trees. And at that time there was somebody in Saxony, a colorful wit who described that situation and a solution for it: sustainable production of timber.
I think from that time, in German forests this became more and more important. They grew from 8 to 9 percent to now 30 to 32 percent. The other thing is German culture always in history depended much on forests, the dark forests described by the Romans, etc. The German forests are a part of our culture. Germans like to walk in them. They provide us with drinkable water. To lose these forests might lead to losing sustainable development and conditions that we need.
You retired last year. What will be your continued role in the Bonn Challenge, the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and other such restoration initiatives going forward?
Well, this is a nice question, of course. I’m retired. You said it. I’m not anymore in that professional setting. I’m open to provide my ideas on getting the decade implemented, but I’m not anymore participating in all the processes. This is over. I have my own private life now. I’m extremely happy and proud that such a decade is definitely taking place. I think there are now a lot of people, a lot of organizations, governments, etc. who will work on it. They have a wonderful opportunity in front of them.
What are your hopes for the decade?
Such a decade is not done by only one person. It’s teamwork. Many people have a part of that success, like the Bonn Challenge or [other] international landscape restoration activities. It’s great to see it and great to have all these organizations and governments now in place and saying, ‘Let’s do it.’