How to approach the great mission of forest landscape restoration – with evidence

A decade since the Bonn Challenge began, restoration scientist Manuel Guariguata shares what he has learned for the UN Decade ahead

Seed planting in an awareness-raising lesson in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Axel Fassio, CIFOR
21 April 2021
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21 April 2021
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To hear from scientist Manuel Guariguata and other global restoration experts, join a half-day digital forum on forest landscape restoration on 29 April, here.

Forest ecosystems make our planet livable, and yet 4.7 million hectares of forests – an area larger than Denmark – are lost every year.  

Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR), defined as a process that aims to regain ecological functionality and enhance human wellbeing in deforested or degraded landscapes, has been promoted as a way to tackle many of the key challenges we face, including land degradation, climate change, biodiversity conservation, food security and sustainable development. However, FLR implementation still remains far below the level needed to address land degradation on a global scale. 

“FLR is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and it should not only be seen in terms of simple increases in tree cover,” says Manuel Guariguata, a scientist with the global forestry research body CIFORICRAF who leads the CIFOR hub in Latin America. Guariguata has been researching FLR since 1995, even before the definition of FLR was conceived, and has authored over 30 scientific papers on the topic. Here, he talked to Landscapes News on the lessons, barriers and opportunities to scale up FLR, as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration sets to launch in early June. 

Why are we all talking about restoration as a key solution to the crises we face?

The crises we face – land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change – are part of the same problem, and this link makes them exacerbate one another. However, this also means that when we try to repair one, we can help fix the others. FLR harnesses the power of nature to restore habitats for countless species, provide benefits to people’s livelihoods, increase agricultural productivity, sustain food and water security and store carbon to help mitigate climate change while reducing vulnerability to climate disasters. It’s about restoring a common future for all.

Afrormosia seedings at a tree nursery in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Axel Fassio, CIFOR
Afrormosia seedings at a tree nursery in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Axel Fassio, CIFOR

We are entering the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, but it’s been 10 years since the Bonn Challenge, which sought to restore global forests, began. What have we learned from the Bonn Challenge that we can apply to the Decade?

The Bonn Challenge relies on the implementation of FLR, which is a framework led by six guiding principles for project and program design, implementation and monitoring. Recent studies have reviewed, independently, the extent to which those principles have been taken into account since the birth of the Bonn Challenge. Notably, all these studies concur that Principle 6 (“Manage adaptively for long-term resilience”) was seldom considered in many of the projects that were analyzed. This is worrisome, since planning and implementing monitoring activities, especially those carried out at the local level, are essential for gauging progress, promoting social learning and informing project managers and practitioners whether corrective actions are needed during the course of a given restoration initiative. 

What’s been behind the fact that some countries have not achieved their set restoration goals by 2020?

Perhaps the key issue has been overambition without careful planning about what is possible and what is not. And there is still a big disconnect between efforts aimed at increasing forest or tree cover and those that prevent further loss of native habitat. In other words, a given country can very well reach its restoration targets while not doing enough to prevent forest conversion. For example, the latest progress report on the New York Declaration on Forests shows only very small reductions in deforestation from infrastructure, mining and other extractive activities at the global level. 

I believe that national restoration goals and plans should be more holistic as conservation of native habitat is inherent to the concept of FLR. By rushing to achieve national forest restoration targets, one runs the risk of planting trees in the wrong place for the wrong reason while disregarding the needs and aspirations of local stakeholders. If these simple issues are not taken into account, failure is most likely to happen when trying to reach national restoration targets.   

What are the main barriers the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration will need to overcome?

The Decade aims to address six primary barriers that are thought to hamper progress toward scaling up restoration processes:

  1. Limited societal awareness of the negative effects of ecosystem degradation;
  2. Insufficient will in public and private sectors to invest in long-term ecosystem restoration;
  3. Insufficient legislation, policies, regulations, tax incentives and subsidies that incentivize restoration;
  4. Limited technical knowledge and human capacity to design and implement large-scale restoration initiatives;
  5. Insufficient financial flows for scaling up restoration; and
  6. Limited public and private investment into restoration research.  

What is essential now is to dig deeper into the key factors driving those barriers so that cost-efficient and socially inclusive actions can be devised to overcome them. We could gain only little by promoting restoration actions along technical, policy and financial dimensions without knowing exactly the extent to which these have worked or not, where, and why.   

A tree planting ceremony near the Brazil-Paraguay border. Raquel Maia Arvelos, CIFOR
A tree planting ceremony near the Brazil-Paraguay border. Raquel Maia Arvelos, CIFOR

How is CIFOR-ICRAF working to help overcome some of those barriers?

Many contributions from CIFOR-ICRAF have already influenced the global restoration agenda since the birth of the Bonn Challenge and Goal 5 of the New York Declaration of Forests. These range from the generation of innovative approaches for designing, implementating and monitoring landscape restoration, production of scientific evidence and opinions on controversial issues, and the development of conceptual and assessment frameworks, diagnostics and practical guidance for restoration policy and practice. Many of these outputs have influenced the many dimensions of landscape restoration both from the top-down and the bottom-up. As landscape restoration is one of the six thematic pillars of CIFOR-ICRAF for the 2020-2030 decade, we further expect to nurture the UN Decade through strategic partnerships and by working actively in the field of evidence-based approaches.     

You have been highlighting the importance of monitoring FLR efforts and involving local users to do so. Why is monitoring a key part of the restoration equation?

Monitoring is essential for generating the data needed to reflect on whether a given restoration initiative and its associated objectives have been met. It is the backbone of evidence generation and plays a crucial role in providing accountability. It goes beyond monitoring for compliance. For example, one can measure from space whether a given number of hectares of forest cover has been planted or count the number of restoration jobs created. There is a strong need to move beyond compliance monitoring to gain insights into why a given restoration intervention was effective or ineffective. 

I have seen many projects that have been monitored for one to a few years and then declared a success without evaluating what happens afterwards. It is essential, either within a country or across countries, to design restoration monitoring systems that emphasize the creation of learning networks to facilitate the connection of different stakeholders with the necessary information they need for decision making. 

Assuming FLR depends a lot on local context, what are some challenges and opportunities for Latin America, in particular?

The biggest challenge I see is the need to train restoration professionals with a holistic approach to design, implementation and project monitoring – or, at the very least, bring together teams with the necessary disciplinary backgrounds, including forestry, ecology, economics, as well as social and political science. Furthermore, individuals that can act as ‘connectors’ within teams would be ideal, such as experts in negotiation skills and multi-scalar thinking. Otherwise, we run the risk of perpetuating sectoral approaches to FLR, which, more often than not, prove to be ineffective. We recently carried out a survey of more than 400 restoration professionals throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and found that the most important constraint hindering capacity development for FLR is the limited availability of both curricular and extra-curricular programs, particularly short intensive courses focused on socioeconomic and management dimensions.


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