Q+A: Restore landscapes to cure planet, says author of ‘The Reindeer Chronicles’

Judith D. Schwartz discusses her latest book on the environment
Reindeer at sunrise in winter, Sweden. Photo credit: Sara Nordangard

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On the cusp of the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), the time is ripe to pause and ruminate, to mull lessons learned from the architects of some unlikely landscapes already under rehabilitation as they are nurtured into a state of ecological equilibrium.

The Reindeer Chronicles: And Other Inspiring Stories of Working with Nature to Heal the Earth, the latest in a series of books on the environment authored by journalist Judith Schwartz, does just that.

In carefully crafted first-hand observations made at restoration sites around the world, she enriches the debate on the changes the world must embrace through practical actions to stabilize the climate.

“Restoration can begin anywhere,” Schwartz writes. “Damaged ecosystems can be rejuvenated at all scales, from a small plot between sidewalk and curb to areas large enough to be labeled on a world map. We can all find a garden to tend.”

Human-made environmental changes are putting the planet at risk of permanent ecological destabilization, a challenge the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration aims to address. Degradation is already affecting the well being of at least 3.2 billion people, according to the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration, fueling fears of a mass species extinction.

With a critical eye, Schwartz, a proponent of regenerative agriculture and the author of  Cows  Save  the  Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth and Water In Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World,  proposes some surprising solutions to complex problems.

Restoring landscapes is not just for the experts, but rather crucial work she refers to as a “participatory sport.”

“That doesn’t mean we don’t need the experts: the work of scientists, including those at CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research), is pivotal,” Schwartz said. “It provides an important bank of knowledge and experience for others to draw on. CIFOR scientists/forest proponents have been at the forefront of work that is now relevant to everyone.”

Schwartz spoke with Forests News to mark the launch of The Reindeer Chronicles.

Q: What inspired you to write the book?

A: I am motivated by what’s been missing in mainstream environmental discourse. I’ve long been frustrated that climate change has been framed as a matter of energy use, with the assumption of technological solutions, rather than as one manifestation of the damage humans have done to our ecosystems. Until recently, trees were talked about as sticks of carbon. In neglecting the role of functioning ecosystems to climate regulation, we skip past strategies that would help us address multiple environmental, economic, and social challenges. I wanted to highlight the promise inherent in ecological restoration, and show where it is already happening. 

Q: How did you choose the locations you discuss in the book and how long did it take to do the research?

A: Some locations occurred through happenstance, as when speaking at a symposium on Indigenous Knowledge in Trondheim, Norway, led to learning about the plight of Sami reindeer herders and the ecologies that are at stake. A friend living in Maui [Hawaii] urged me to visit. The closing of the last sugar plantation on the island marked the end of an era. The community was now banding together to support local crops and forestry techniques. And how could I pass up the opportunity to go to The New Cowgirl Camp and learn how to manage livestock? I had three motivations for going to Spain. I wanted to spend time with atmospheric physicist Millán M. Millán, who has found associations between land-use change—specifically, deforestation and building over coastal marshes—and loss of rainfall in the western Mediterranean. I was also interested to see the work of Commonland, a Dutch company that makes a business case for land restoration, and first Ecosystem Restoration Camp, Camp Altiplano. This is the longest, and final, chapter. The entire process took about two years.

Q: What did you learn from the experience? Was there anything unexpected?

A: Reporting and writing often take you unexpected places. With Water In Plain Sight, I ended up feeling that here on earth, plants run the show. In this book, much of what I learned was internal: that in order to write about environmental solutions in an authentic way I needed to truly grapple with how dire things are, which involved working through a lot of grief, and to accept the unknown. One theme that emerged through the book, which I hadn’t consciously planned for, is the importance of Indigenous knowledge of landscapes, and what has endured despite western colonial efforts to crush it. The suppression of Indigenous wisdom is a tragic story told across the world’s degraded landscapes. Here I share perspectives from Norway, Hawaii and Saudi Arabia, where in the 1950s government policy overturned the Bedouin land ethic that had maintained the landscape for more than a thousand years.

Q: Is there one example from the book that best expresses the ideology governing it?

A: The title chapter focuses on a case in which a young Sami reindeer herder stood up to the Norwegian government’s demand that he cull his herd. The government claims that “too many reindeer” damage the fragile tundra ecosystem. In fact, under Sami management the animals’ action on the land help maintain the landscape: their summer browsing trims shrubs, which have a higher albedo than the native heath, and so the ground stays cooler; in winter, their hooves press down the insulating snowpack, ensuring the soil underneath stays frozen. This is inconvenient for the government, which wants this land for energy and mineral development. The story is an invitation to understand nature’s logic, in this case land-animal dynamics that may seem counterintuitive. It also highlights local indigenous knowledge, and threats to their sovereignty.

Q: Why should people read this book?

A: I’m hoping to encourage a landscape perspective, and show how looking at function — how landscapes work — presents opportunities that may not have been evident. Also to highlight how people interact with their landscapes, how land is shaped by people and in turn people are shaped by their land. 

Q: Do you see change occurring? Positive or negative?

A: There is much wonderful learning on how to revive landscapes happening now. That some of the most successful projects have been amidst the most extreme conditions is extremely encouraging. The disciplines of holistic management, which focuses on the grasslands, and permaculture, which emphasizes whole-system design, offer helpful frames for how to approach ecological restoration. That said, as we know there are serious threats to ecosystems the world over.  

Q: What kind of international policy changes could influence it?

A: One concern is economics: the ecological cost of production, transport, and waste needs to be built into the price of goods, including energy. These costs are often hidden and borne far from where the goods are consumed. One rarely discussed phenomenon that greatly concerns me is land grabs, in which forests and wild areas are cleared for monoculture cropping for the benefit of corporate investors. This has devastating consequences for ecosystem health, wildlife, and, of course, the people who live there. By displacing wildlife and creating more edges for human-wildlife interaction it promotes the conditions for zoonotic diseases. These schemes should not be able to slip past the radar.

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Topic(s) :   Landscapes Rights