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A team of four scientists from the merged Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF) impressed delegates at the Global Landscapes Forum in New York City, USA, 28 September 2019.

Susan Chomba, programme manager of the eight-country Regreening Africa project, which is funded by the European Union, began by pointing out that the Bonn Challenge has a target of restoring 350 million hectares of degraded land globally whereas Africa alone had at least 700 million hectares in need of restoration. Her question was: how can we accelerate restoration?

In answer, she debunked three myths about restoring land. The first myth is that there is a single magic bullet. There isn’t, she said. Restoration needs diversity.

‘In drylands, in different cultural areas, we need to deploy soil and water conservation in different ways’, said Chomba. ‘We also need training in tree-grafting techniques because grafted seedlings grow much faster than those grown from seedlings. If trees grow fast and can be harvested sooner then farmers’ interest will be maintained. Farmer-managed natural regeneration is also an important technique, particularly in drylands where survival rates are often low, because restoration isn’t just about planting trees but a range of activities’.

The second myth is that as long as we plant millions of trees with hands or drones, we will be fine.

‘But again, it’s not about technology but people’, Chomba emphasized. ‘Restoration is about their needs and the benefits they will get rather than adding another burden. There must be balance between the amount of work involved in restoration and the benefits that come from it. The answer is in the local communities themselves. We must work together; scientists and farmers’.

Daniel Murdiyarso asked listeners if they were feeling blue given all the bad news and then offered a panacea: a ‘deep dive’ into blue-carbon ecosystems, which encompass seagrass meadows, mangroves and salt marshes.

‘They’re very special ecosystems but weren’t taken into consideration as part of climate accounting until 2013 when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change developed a guideline for wetlands’, said Murdiyarso. ‘These ecosystems don’t cover a lot of actual area but combined they store about 20 billion tonnes of carbon and they store it faster than tropical forests: 20 times faster. Hence, these are very important ecosystems’.

Few countries have mentioned blue carbon in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, however, science can help their confidence as knowledge on blue carbon is getting better and better. It is expected that more countries will include blue carbon ecosystems in their revised NDCs.

‘A quarter of the world’s mangroves are in Indonesia, where I live and work’, said Murdiyarso. ‘If we conserve them, it would be the equivalent of taking the annual emissions of 40 million cars off the roads’.

According to Murdiyarso, ecotourism in these ecosystems has huge potential to generate income for conserving them. Displaying photographs of endangered primates and waterbirds, he made the case that protecting the blue-carbon ecosystems were critical for their survival and if they didn’t exist neither would the animals nor ecotourism.

Aquaculture was another option. Restored and healthy mangroves would secure fish production and the livelihoods of fishing communities. By quoting the recent report from the Global Commission on Adaptation, Murdiyarso underlined that as one of the options for adaptation, investing in restoration of mangroves will lead to more gains because these ecosystems’ high economic value of the services they provide, including acting as coastal buffers against storm surges. Leigh Winowiecki, a soil scientist, discussed the importance of using data for tracking restoration over time.

Speaking of the power of data-driven networks to enable countries to monitor and improve implementation of their NDCs and restoration strategies, Winowiecki pointed out that this would also ‘allow us as individuals to step up and offer our own commitments’.

Implementing restoration still required prioritization, she said, and what are the key indicators to map progress and success?

She explained that a team at ICRAF had developed the Land Degradation Surveillance Framework (LDSF) to monitor ecosystem health globally. The team had recently published a global assessment of soil erosion prevalence.

‘Using the data collected with the LDSF, we can zoom in to see the erosion hotspots from the global level to the national level down to farm and household level to 10-30 m resolution’, said Winowiecki. ‘The Framework enables us to assess multiple indicators at the same time to understand the complexity of the ecosystems. For example, we can assess soil organic carbon, a key indicator of land health, as well as changes in vegetation cover over time. This is an example of the big difference of this Decade compared to all preceding ones: we have the data to assess, monitor and track achievements’.

Himlal Baral focused on explaining the potential of bioenergy production in agroforestry systems.

‘Bioenergy presents an opportunity to restore various types of degraded lands’, he said, giving an example of degraded peat land. ‘Using systems that incorporate trees for biofuel and crops for food, degraded peat land can be restored for a range of outcomes: economic, environmental, social’.

He queried if the world had enough land to grow bioenergy crops and that food supply would not be compromised nor forests replaced. According to Baral, there are 1–6 billion hectares (depending on severity) of degraded land that could be suitable for producing food, bioenergy, bio-material and ecosystem services. Trees need not always be cut for biomass generation but rather the seeds can be used.

‘Bioenergy production can strengthen the economic incentives to the private sector and community groups to undertake restoration’, he said.

But when looking for private and public funding to restore land, Baral underscored that it was critically important to respect people’s rights.

‘It’s important to follow the four R’s of restoration: The right crops for the right landscape, the right business model, and respecting rights.

Ravi Prabhu, deputy director-general of ICRAF, said that the four presentations could be summarized in three key messages. One, embrace complexity.

‘Einstein said that, “Everything should be made as simple as possible but no simpler”, pointed out Prabhu. ‘While the science solutions are complex they are also practical and actionable’.

Two, restoration and adaptation are both journeys not destinations.

‘We are going to be doing this for generations as we adapt to changes and continue restoration’, he said. ‘Let’s base our decisions on science so the road is smoother’.

Three, we are far too comfortable. We are talking to ourselves. We must widen the discussions so that we can all act together.

‘Howard Shapiro, science advisor with Mars Ltd’, said Prabhu, ‘reminded me that we need unusual partnerships to achieve the goal of reversing global heating. So let’s go out and form unusual partnerships with science, with evidence and the desire to become uncomfortable’.

Originally published at World Agroforestry (ICRAF).

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