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‘No silver bullet’ for solving challenge of land restoration

More than just planting trees, scientists say at Kew conference
A woman holds a seedling tree in her hands in this decorative image
A woman prepares to plant an acacia tree in Yanonge, Democratic Republic of Congo. CIFOR/Fiston Wasanga

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Complementary approaches are key to tackling the myriad challenges researchers face in designing tree-based land restoration initiatives.

“It’s a real mixed bag,” said Anja Gassner, a scientist at World Agroforestry (ICRAF). “We must juggle data, policy, technical support, local socioeconomics, tree genetic resources, invasive species, gender and equity, and land-use policies for specific local contexts.”

Gassner, who leads the ICRAF project Harnessing the Potential of Trees on Farms for Meeting National and Global Biodiversity Targets and is science advisor to the Global Landscapes Forum, spoke at a recent virtual conference hosted by Britain’s Kew Gardens in London.

Other scientists from ICRAF and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) also participated, including Susan Chomba, a social scientist with World Agroforestry (ICRAF), who leads the Reversing Land Degradation in Africa by Scaling-up Evergreen Agriculture project.

“The first thing anyone wanting to restore landscapes should know is that there is no ‘silver bullet’,” Chomba said. “Tailoring restoration approaches is needed to suit each context. For example, the needs of pastoralists will be different from crop farmers; the poorest farmers will be limited by different factors from wealthier farmers; the needs of women will be different from men and; of course, dryland and tropical conditions obviously require different approaches.”

For women, gender-responsive value chains are important because they can provide economic incentives, Chomba said.

Women are nearly always disadvantaged in terms of access to land and ownership of trees, with unequal power and labor relations in households. This means they benefit the least from restoration initiatives.

To change this, it is important to include women in decision-making to ensure they receive greater benefits. Innovative restoration models designed in collaboration with the private sector are needed for sustainability, profit and the equitable distribution of benefits, Chomba said.

“In short, what’s needed is to empower women financially through gender-responsive value chains,” she added, emphasizing the importance of integration during the project design stage.

She also stressed that policy bottlenecks, including land and tree tenure – especially for women – and policies and subsidies that create disincentives, need to be addressed.

Gassner agreed, stating that unless governments remove policy barriers to growing trees on farms, it will be unlikely that restoration in working landscapes could succeed.

“Farmers will select species for increased productivity and income that usually don’t contribute to biodiversity and are often exotics,” she said. “If we want farmers to be partners in restoration, we need to select indigenous tree species that match what farmers want. And we need to review forest regulations that were originally designed to protect those trees – the importance of disincentives cannot be understated.”

Although some species offer no direct benefits for farmers, they are important for biodiversity and can be grown in niche areas, Gassner added. Yet, to encourage farmers trying to maximize profits on their land, compensation for their labor and land must be offered.

“Performance-based incentives that go beyond payment for ecosystem services schemes must be implemented,” she said. “There is real potential for the reintroduction of endangered tree species in working the land, but it too requires well-designed programs with innovative incentives.”

Policies must be addressed multi-dimensionally, said Manuel Guariguata, a principal scientist at CIFOR and a leading expert on tropical forest management and restoration.

“Harmony of the dimensions determines success or failure,” he said. “We know we have to sow seed, plant seedlings, manage a patch of forest, but harmony with other sectors is critical.”

He noted that pledges for restoration targets under various international agreements being made but, typically, poor alignment between sectors is a shortcoming when it comes to implementation. Another issue is the bottleneck slowing the flow of information and data collection from local to national jurisdictions.

“Information for sound decision-making can lead to policy changes but this is not being sufficiently addressed,” Guariguata added.

The Global Tree Knowledge Platform may help resolve some challenges. Created by a team of researchers working under the guidance of Roeland Kindt, a senior ecologist with ICRAF’s Tree Productivity and Diversity research group, the tool facilitates the flow of information about trees and agroforestry systems, collecting interlinked databases, maps, guidelines, R packages — a programming language and free software environment for statistical computing and graphics — and other decision-support tools.

“It features the Agroforestree Database,” said Kindt. “There are also the Agroforestry Species Switchboard, Vegetationmap4Africa, climate-change atlases for Central America and Africa and various guidelines. We also have different R packages, such as the vegan community ecology and BiodiversityR community ecology and suitability analysis packages.”

But there are other hurdles to the smooth implementation of land restoration, pointed out Sammy Carsan, leader of several ICRAF agroforestry research projects. Finding the right species and then the right seeds is a significant challenge.

“Seeds of many native species are undocumented and remain stored in the trees themselves,” he said, explaining that the sector is mainly unregulated and that tree-nursery operators rarely stock native seeds owing to challenges of demand and supply.

“Despite this, we’ve learned that one of the easiest interventions is to raise interest in native species,” he said. “For example, in Mali where I have been working with the Regreening Africa project, we have raised awareness, which created major demand for at least 20 native tree species, some linked to important value chains.”

Kiros Meles Hadgu, ICRAF representative for Ethiopia and director of the Provision of Adequate Tree Seed Portfolios (PATSPO) in Ethiopia project, noted that restoration planners often focused on high numbers of planted tree seedlings instead of quality, diversity and post-planting management.

“This leads to low survival rates and limited success,” he said. “Other factors include a small number of seed sources; limited capacity of the national tree-seed system; lack of breeding seed orchards; few seed professionals; inadequate seed supplies and a lack of policies, institutions and incentives.”

But he is optimistic that forest-landscape restoration initiatives can improve. PATSPO, for example, is expanding the production, distribution and planting of high-quality seeds of desired varieties, many of which have been in short supply, Hadgu added.

For more information on this topic, please contact Roeland Kindt at r.kindt@cgiar.org or Anja Gassner at a.gassner@cgiar.org or Manuel Guariguata at m.guariguata@cgiar.org.
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