Decades of impact: Interview with Paola Agostini, an advocate for land restoration

Paola Agostini takes part in a local mangrove restoration project in Zanzibar. Courtesy of MACEMP Project
14 October 2019

By Diana Manevskaya

Paola Agostini is a lead natural resources specialist at the World Bank’s Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice

In June, as we marked World Day to Combat Desertification, the World Bank’s Paola Agostini was recognized by her peers as a finalist for the 2019 Land for Life Award. Managed by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) secretariat, the Land for Life Award recognizes excellence in efforts towards achieving land degradation neutrality. The 2019 Land for Life Award was focused on Decades of Impact to recognize efforts that contribute to land degradation neutrality on a large-scale, with long-term changes and remarkable positive impacts on land, people, communities, and society.

Here, Paola speaks about her work and how her passion for landscape restoration led to the transformative work she’s done with people and communities.

Why are you so passionate about landscape restoration?

Growing up, I spent summers on my grandparents’ farm in Italy. There, I learned first-hand about the difficult trade-offs related to agriculture (wheat), agroforestry (olive trees) and conservation (oak forest). The long hours that my grandfather spent discussing the decisions that he needed to make about land uses on the farm marked my childhood.

Once I started working at the World Bank, I was naturally driven to look at the challenges facing people who make a living off their land, and how the interface of agriculture and natural resources promoted the landscape approach, as well as the opportunities that exist to restore degraded landscapes. When land degradation, climate change and migration were finally recognized as a concrete risk to development outcomes, my focus shifted to landscape restoration and how to make people and ecosystems more resilient. It is the driving force behind my professional career and personal life.

In your opinion, what were your most notable career milestones that led you to where you are now? 

My first official involvement in sustainable landscape management was in 1989 when I decided to do my master’s thesis on environmental issues. I had watched my grandfather’s efforts to make money off very degraded land in the mountains of central Italy where he was still using animal traction, and there were no heating systems in the house.

My first consultancy with the World Bank was in 1992 when I worked on a forest and landscape restoration project in Mozambique. I fell in love with Mozambique and with Africa in general, and I decided to do my PhD dissertation on landscape restoration and wildlife management, with a focus on community participation and income-generating activities as a way to address land degradation issues. While working at the Bank I did my PhD research as well and continued working on the economic valuation of sustainable land management. I graduated in 1995, and in 1996 I was offered a staff position at the World Bank, focusing on the environmental impact of livestock management and looking at using pressure-state-response models to decrease the impacts on land and forest.

My first project was in El Salvador in 1997, where I promoted the use of shade-grown coffee to restore degraded landscapes. I was immensely humbled when a few years ago I was thanked by the government for the lasting impact the project made in their country. Between 1998 and 2005, I worked on getting the World Bank back into Latin America to invest in sectors that were considered too risky such as cattle and forests, through investing in silvopastoral systems and agroforestry, key for landscape degradation neutrality and resilience. In 2005 I moved to Africa, where I led the TerrAfrica partnership and the Great Green Wall/SAWAP, linking land degradation, resilience and migration.

Between 2004 and 2015 my work on Liberia completely changed the government’s view that an asset was worth more standing than being cut down. In 2015 I started a transformative program – Burundi coffee landscapes – to move the country from monoculture to polyculture. From 2015 until now, as global lead for landscapes, I led the creation of a global movement to promote landscape restoration that resulted in the World Bank being a founding partner of the Global Landscapes Forum and in many restoration initiatives.

What results are you most proud of? 

The work that I have been involved in along with our partners over the past 20 years has resulted in over 2 million hectares of restored landscapes between Africa and Latin America. I cannot stop here. As we know there are more than 2 billion hectares of degraded land in the world: a challenge I see as an opportunity.

Through my work, I have strived to help change the behavior of policy makers and communities towards landscape restoration, an approach that brings multiple wins for the environment and for people who depend on natural resources. I reached people with field visits, study tours, music, online training, blogs, conferences, videos, seminar, high level panels, and partnership with C4C and GLF.  The message is spreading.

I contributed to food security work through promoting the shift from monoculture to polyculture to diversify nutrition in Latin America and Africa. For example, in Burundi, I led an impact evaluation survey that shows how food security increased under shade-grown coffee vs sun-coffee. In addition, a survey study conducted by the World Bank in Liberia is proving how forests contribute to food security, acting as safety net in times of crisis for the communities living in the margin of the forest.

Agostini in the mountains of Tajikistan. Courtesy of Juan Pablo Ruiz

Agostini in the mountains of Tajikistan. Courtesy of Juan Pablo Ruiz

What do you think was key to your success in achieving these impressive results?

Several ingredients have been key. First, I created and nurtured a group of landscape restoration ambassadors in the World Bank: young people whose innovative spirit and energy propelled countries to make the necessary changes. I also worked to ensure that our management took part in the Global Restoration Council.

I built partnerships or brought the World Bank into existing partnerships: TerrAfrica, Liberia Forestry Initiative, The Global Landscape ForumThe Global Restoration Initiative (LAC20x02, AFR100); Forest Landscape Restoration (GPFLR)Global Forest Watch-Partnership; and the Tropical Forest Alliance. In May 2018, the World Bank hosted (for the first time) the Global Landscape Forum at the World Bank Headquarters, focusing on the private sector’s role in landscape restoration.

Since the World Bank is an evidence-based organization, I focused on analytics and data to elevate the case for landscape restoration.

I worked with others to leverage investments that led to an impressive increase of the World Bank portfolio related to landscapes in the last two years: from USD 1.8 billion in 2016 to 2.5 billion in 2018. Moving forward, the Bank has been chosen by GEF as lead agency for its Food, Land Use and Restoration Impact Program.

I leveraged international media to highlight “unsung landscape heroes,” like Léonidas Nzigiyimpa of Burundi.

I also tried to lead by example – working hard on restoration in my own farm and bringing elementary and middle school teachers to visit the farm for possible classes on restoration.

What is your vision for the next decade for landscape restoration and for you? 

The U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration was declared 1 March 2019, by the U.N. General Assembly. Together with all our partners we can massively scale up the restoration of degraded and destroyed ecosystems as a proven measure to fight land degradation and the climate crisis and enhance food security, water supply and biodiversity. To do this, I would like to focus my efforts on Europe (West and East), Caucasus and Central Asia, the next frontier for landscape restoration. I have just launched the ECCA30 Initiative, where Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia will work hand-in-hand and all pledge to restore 30 million hectares by 2030, making sure that special attention is paid on restoring degraded land along the new commercial corridor that will be opened up by the Belt and Road Initiative of China.

What is your passion outside of work? 

I have a small farm in Colombia where I am restoring 10 hectares by planting trees, protecting streams, producing coffee under shade and meat from silvopastoral systems. It is rewarding to see in my own farm how productivity has increased, bird species augmented from 15 to 45, and our farm is more resilient to climate change. This gives me the confidence to continue working for this cause.


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