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Shaping up forest and landscape restoration initiatives

New approaches are needed to make conceptual strategies more practical
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A researcher measures the extent of peat degradation in a Peruvian swamp. CIFOR/Kristell Hergoualc'h

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Making forest and landscape restoration a reality is an enormous challenge, but researchers are confident that international ecosystem restoration targets can be met if the design of subnational and national programs is transformed.

Criteria for success include crafting flexible restoration strategies, ensuring that local stakeholders participate in planning and taking unique landscape contexts into consideration, according to the authors of a research paper published in the journal Forests.

“Rather than recommending a strict framework, our research indicates that the process should be tailored for the particular group or stakeholders involved,” said Robin Chazdon, a research professor with the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, and lead author of the paper.

Each year deforestation or agriculture-related land degradation activities release about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. Due to their carbon storage capacity, both forest conservation and restoration are counted among the key nature-based solutions for keeping global warming in check.

Under the Bonn Challenge, countries committed to restore 150 million hectares by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030 under the New York Declaration on Forests, which was agreed during U.N. climate talks in 2014.

As the launch of a new initiative — the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 — nears, scientists are fine-tuning research efforts to inform policies and practices underpinning the design of restoration programs that have the potential to help re-establish ecological health to degraded areas while also providing multiple socio-economic benefits.

Although the concept of forest and landscape restoration has existed for more than 20 years, and many strategies and guidance documents have been developed, they are often too theoretical and do not adequately take into account the many factors  at stake and diverse actors involved, Chazdon said, recommending an alternative.

She suggests that an overarching conceptual framework to which policymakers, practitioners and project implementers link individualized working frameworks formed in collaboration with local communities to meet specific needs and aspirations would be a more effective approach to realize potential solutions for initiating, implementing and monitoring the effectiveness of restoration actions.

Tailored and co-developed working frameworks would offer benefits to multiple stakeholders within landscapes, permitting them to adapt to changing conditions over time, she said.

Framing the challenge

Six generally accepted principles of forest and landscape restoration (FLR) include: engaging stakeholders and supporting participatory governance; restoring multiple functions in landscapes that offer multiple benefits; maintaining and enhancing natural ecosystems within landscapes; and tailoring initiatives to local contexts while promoting long-term resilience.

These principles aim to set parameters outside of the “business-as-usual” practices that typically lead to deforestation, land degradation, loss of livelihoods, marginalization of rural peoples, food and water insecurity, but their scope is limited because they fail to provide a basis for actually implementing change, Chazdon said.

“A framework anchored in forest and landscape restoration principles would help identify how specific practices achieve sustainable outcomes,” she added. “Practical and operational frameworks could be used to assess progress using indicators that measure adherence to core principles, rather than solely focusing on performance metrics based on project objectives.”

Difficulties surround reaching agreement over defining degraded landscapes, reporting results, governance, financing and a lack of technical capacity and decision support tools. These factors create potential hurdles to effective restoration.

A uniform system is not feasible due to the wide range of conditions and contexts in which forest and landscape restoration must be applied, Chazdon said. Rather than a linear, progressive list, conceptual frameworks should fit into a more fluid set of locally or situationally agreed criteria that may apply to more than one principle.

In this model, the six generally accepted principles of forest and landscape restoration would be adapted to the working framework. A set of criteria and indicators adapted to the local situation would allow accurate measurement of progress and outcomes of interventions.

“This approach shows a path for implementation of forest and landscape restoration — the framework can be useful when launching a project, but it’s impossible to accomplish all of these principles at once, so planners might work out a pathway – determining the most important actions at first and then trying to incorporate these other aspects over time,” Chazdon said. “That also develops a theory of change – a way for mapping out how these interventions might transpire over time and might work together.”

Specifically tailored working frameworks would consider criteria and indicators for the fair distribution of economic benefits for resolution of conflicts and power imbalances.

Moving forward effectively

“Many of these ideas were developed through the Forest Restoration Standards Task Force (FLoRES),” said Manuel Guariguata, one of the authors of the paper and a principal scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). “We hope these efforts will be integrated into the development of national and international restoration agendas, which are growing as the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration nears, providing an opportunity to reverse deforestation and environmental degradation, and improve the lives and livelihoods of all people.”

Forest and landscape restoration can be applied in a diverse range of contexts where needs vary and where a variety of interventions in the landscape coexist. Landscape mosaics can help balance different social and ecological needs, such as protecting forest fragments through implementing climate-friendly agroforestry buffer zones that provide goods and services and reduce harvesting pressure on forests.

Next, we would like to work directly with particular groups to help them develop their frameworks,” Chazdon said. “We need to see restoration as a means for accomplishing multiple objectives rather than seeing restoration itself as the target. That change in mindset is very important.”

While restoration is often seen from a big picture perspective — researchers estimate that worldwide a total of 2 billion hectares of deforested and degraded land is available for restoration — a one-size-fits-all approach should be avoided.

“It takes more than enhancing forest cover and planting trees to capture carbon,” Guariguata said. “And actors at all levels need to keep in mind that forest and landscape restoration is a long-term enterprise. It will inevitably become a moving target only a few years after its implementation. Adapting and responding to change is essential.”

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For more information on this topic, please contact Manuel Guariguata at m.guariguata@cgiar.org.
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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