The global enthusiasm for restoring degraded ecosystems seems promising. But Daniel Wiegant, PhD researcher at WUR, argues that the short-term thinking of politicians and policy-makers is at odds with the timelines needed for landscape restoration to unfold.
Biodiversity. Planting trees to restore degraded ecosystems is beautiful. But it's pointless without long-term maintenance, argues Daniel Wiegant.
The time has finally arrived! After two years of delay, the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP-15) will be held in Montreal, Canada, in December. The aim is for countries to agree on a biodiversity framework for preserving and restoring ecosystems in order to stop and, where possible, reverse biodiversity loss. The biodiversity negotiations provoke heated discussions on the proposal to protect at least 30 percent of land and sea and to restore at least 20 percent of all degraded ecosystems.
During negotiations in Geneva earlier this year, Gabon, speaking on behalf of a number of developing countries, called for developed countries to provide at least USD 100 billion a year for biodiversity. This amount comes on top of the previous – but not yet fully met – commitment by developed countries to provide developing countries with a similar amount for climate financing every year from 2020 onwards.
Over the past ten years, international development cooperation has done much to encourage national governments to restore degraded and deforested landscapes within their national borders. This is illustrated by initiatives (such as this one and this one) to restore a total of 350 million hectares – an area larger than India – by 2030. To keep the topic firmly on the agenda, the United Nations last year launched the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
All this enthusiasm cannot hide the fact that insufficient attention is being paid to the concrete challenges governments face in their efforts to achieve landscape restoration at the local level. For my doctoral research, I looked at restoration-related policies in Ecuador and Ethiopia, countries considered front runners in this area on their respective continents. In both countries, I discovered that the short-term thinking of politicians and policy-makers is at odds with the timelines needed for landscape restoration to unfold.
In Ethiopia there was plenty of focus on the number of trees planted, but virtually no attention was paid to how to look after the seedlings properly before and after planting. This is essential to ensure that the young trees put into the ground are strong enough to withstand the dry season and are also protected against roaming livestock. Many projects initiated by ministries and donors from the global North only ran for a few years, while landscape restoration requires continuity.
For communities living in areas surrounding restoring forests or grasslands and that depend on them for firewood or grazing, there was often insufficient funding to create alternative sources of income. This carries the risk that a forest or grassland will again become degraded in a very short space of time once an externally funded project ends.
For example, the restoration of more than 4,500 hectares of grassland on Mount Guna in Ethiopia, which plays an important role in the region’s water supply, was short-lived because the surrounding communities felt inadequately supported in reducing their dependence on livestock farming.
In Ecuador, landowners who allowed native vegetation to grow back on their land received financial compensation from the Ministry of the Environment during the four-year term of the National Forest Restoration Plan. But no thought was given to what would happen to the restored forest once the compensation ended.
Other challenges in Ecuador related to national policies that failed to make provision for building local authorities’ capabilities to designate the most suitable land for landscape restoration. In addition, there was often a lack of coordination with local organisations and communities that already had extensive experience with forest restoration. It turned out difficult to be sensitive to communities’ priorities and needs in policy implementation.
For example, an important issue for Ecuadorian mountain communities was to restore their water resources, which are often degraded by livestock farming, to ensure access to water all year round. Local authorities did not always take this on board and tended to work with landowners that were cooperative, leaving the land on which eroded water sources were located untouched, as a result of which the sources would dry up in the summer.
No simple solutions
In order to successfully restore 20 percent of degraded ecosystems (the target set in the international biodiversity negotiations), national governments should ideally be focusing on incremental improvements and working with local communities to achieve them. If insufficient attention is paid to the challenges involved, enthusiasm for nature conservation and restoration will suffer, leading to disappointing or even a complete absence of long-term results.
An overly simple approach, such as planting trees alone, rarely produces the desired result: after all, a solution is, almost by definition, incomplete and temporary. New challenges will always arise. A government that overestimates its own capabilities in this area cannot possibly solve the problem of land degradation.