Q&A: Lessons from Latin America for forest landscape restoration

An interview with Manuel Guariguata, CIFOR Principal Scientist and Team Leader – Forest Management and Restoration
A state government initiative to assist in reforestation is supporting this acai nursery in Acre, Brazil. Kate Evans/CIFOR

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This interview is Part II of a three-part series on forest landscape restoration to coincide with the IUCN World Conservation Congress, held from 1-10 September in Hawai’i, USA.

The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) will be represented in various panels and sessions at the event as part of the KNOWFOR partnership with the World Bank Program on Forests (PROFOR) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

Manuel Guariguata, CIFOR Principal Scientist and Team Leader, spoke with Forests News ahead of the event:

What work on forest landscapes restoration is CIFOR doing in Latin America?

In Colombia in 2014 we assessed what has happened in forest landscape restoration over recent decades. Why did we pick Colombia? It is pretty advanced in the practice of ecological restoration so there were a lot of accumulated experiences that had not yet been brought together. Since the 1980s, Colombia has been implementing a series of ecological restoration projects, and has pledged to restore one million hectares by 2020 under the World Resources Institute Initiative 20×20.

We took stock of more than 100 projects led by government, NGOs, and academia, and looked at exactly how the practice had evolved and the challenges ahead. What were the main aspects and objectives of ecological restoration that had been covered? Where were they? What was missing in terms of access to public information? Who was the main financer? How were they being monitored?

At the time the government was drafting its national restoration plan, so it was a very timely moment, and they included some of our findings into their current restoration strategy. Colombia’s 2015 State of Biodiversity also drew heavily from our 2014 assessment, and includes a section on restoration needs and opportunities.

We are now replicating that effort in Mexico. Mexico is a huge and very diverse country, both socially and ecologically, so it’s quite challenging. So far Mexico doesn’t have a national restoration plan, but in the context of these global restoration commitments – the Bonn Challenge, the WRI Initiative 20×20 – Mexico has pledged 8.2 million hectares of degraded land to be restored by 2020.

That’s by far the biggest pledge in Latin America – whether they achieve that is another question – but as a commitment, it’s huge, so it’s important they do it right, and based on evidence.

The findings of our scoping study in Mexico will fill important knowledge and technical gaps that the government agencies can use to draft the plan.

What lessons can other countries take from Colombia’s experience?

The main gap that we found in Colombia was that project monitoring was poorly implemented or else designed for the short term – and ecological restoration is a long-term endeavour. Monitoring is crucial for measuring success; and in the case of failure, for making further adjustments.

Say for example a company commits to restoring a watershed to improve water quality to its downstream users. What we found in many cases was a mismatch between restoration objectives and the monitoring variables needed to assess whether things were going right or wrong.

Monitoring culture still needs a lot of emphasis and promotion, not only in Colombia but across the region.

We’re now doing more restoration research in Colombia looking at the country’s biodiversity offsets law, which mandates the private and public sector to compensate for the damage caused by infrastructure developments through forest restoration elsewhere.

We’re assessing the extent to which that restoration is well designed for both efficiency and effectiveness. For example, a company could potentially choose some degraded land, plant trees, and then leave – but what happens if after three years all the trees are dead? Do they still get credit for restoration? Who audits? Are the right indicators of success being chosen? Over what period of time will there be a claim that a given area has been restored?

Monitoring of ecological restoration pledges does not necessarily need to rely solely on remote sensing from satellites – it can be a mix of “top-down” and “bottom-up” evidence.

Manuel Guariguata

In other words, clear and accountable standards are needed.  We are investigating these issues at the moment.

How can monitoring be improved?

Monitoring of ecological restoration pledges does not necessarily need to rely solely on remote sensing from satellites – it can be a mix of “top-down” and “bottom-up” evidence.  It is more than number of planted trees.

If a given country pledges to restore a given million hectares by year 2020, how are you going to measure it? Only from space, using satellites to see if forest cover increased? Or if these are locally devised projects, how are you going to incorporate local people and generate ownership of the process?

That’s why we have devoted some of our funding from DFID to a global review on “what works and what does not work” in terms of participatory monitoring in the context of forest landscape restoration.

Although we expect the review to be scientifically solid, it’s not going to be an academic publication – we want to use it to disseminate the message to practitioners and project developers. It’s being done in collaboration with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and will be ready by early 2017.

IUCN has been a powerhouse of promoting the restoration agenda globally. This year they received a Global Environmental Facility grant to implement a new project called The Restoration Initiative, which will be launched at the upcoming World Conservation Congress in Hawai’i. CIFOR will be leading the implementation of one of the projects that make up that initiative – in Tanzania.

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