The enormous challenge and opportunity of land restoration

Tapping the past to provide benefits for tomorrow
Aerial view of a man planting trees in a dry ecosystem
Planting trees in conjunction with FORETS project in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo. CIFOR/Axel Fassio

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Of all the negative things that humans have inflicted on the planet, the deliberate removal of forest cover ranks among the worst due to the negative consequences for food security, the climate and biodiversity.  Most often, it results from an inclination to set forests ablaze to clear land, which leads to roughly 2 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface being burned every year. But fire is only one part of the story.

Humanity’s insatiable appetite to profit from resource extraction through deforestation and by disturbing the rhythms of the natural environment has accelerated over time and is largely responsible. Indeed, we have lost as much forest in the last century as we did in the previous 9,000 years to devastating effect given forests’ oversized influence on the planet. We are all to blame.

From subsistence societies through colonization to our current perilous state of unsustainable overconsumption, all of us have had a hand in ecosystem degradation. Sadly, far fewer of us have had a hand in restoration.

The tug of war between profits, sustainable land management and conservation has been documented in scientific literature for centuries and in classical literature for millennia. From the collapse of the Mycenaean economy in ancient Greece to the current pace of destruction of the Amazon in Brazil, deforestation and land degradation is a battle that seemingly never ends.

Despite ample scientific warning, our planet now hovers on the verge of catastrophic climate change as great chunks of glaciers fall into the sea and melt due to global warming brought on by fossil-fuel emissions and exacerbated by the destruction of our tropical forests.

It is not only tropical forests that we are destroying. Natural grasslands are disappearing, and modeling has shown that due to melting permafrost in the far northern boreal regions the carbon sink capacity of peatlands could become considerably lower due to global heating after 2050 under high planet-warming temperature scenarios as soil becomes more mineralized.

To try and reverse the damage, scientists, farmers, foresters and many others are now faced with a monumental task: the need to restore millions of hectares of land. This is tantamount to the little Dutch boy immortalized by U.S. author Mary Maples Dodge in Hans Brinker (1865) trying to plug a hole in the dike to save his country from flooding.

Throughout history, we have seen how those with the most economic power often protect their interests by denigrating, enslaving and persecuting those who aim to hold onto their lands and livelihoods. We have also seen concerted efforts to introduce sustainable intensification through good agronomic and forestry practices on agricultural landscapes to conserve ecosystems.

Somehow, we must stop the tug of war and make a concerted effort to pitch in and restore land. Each year, $6.3 trillion is lost to land degradation, while the net benefits of achieving the targets of land restoration initiatives like the Bonn Challenge are between $7 and $9 trillion a year. For every dollar invested in restoration, there’s a good chance of earning back $7 – and even as much as $30.

Countries have committed to restore almost 1 billion hectares, an area equivalent to Canada, through initiatives like the Bonn Challenge, according to a recent report by PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Half of that commitment is in sub-Saharan Africa.

With the launch this week of the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, we are hopeful governments will accept 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.

But there are some significant funding gaps. And while governments around the world manage to find $2 trillion a year to produce weapons, collectively we spend a mere $41 billion of public funding alongside a paltry $10 billion in private funds on restoration, according to statistics from World Resources Institute. That’s about $300 billion less than what we need to be investing.

That shortfall comes as we lose 12 billion hectares of land each year to degradation, and desertification whittles away more than 10 percent of the annual global gross domestic product in lost ecosystem services.

While current estimates from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization indicate that about a third of humanity has a close dependence on forests and forest products, much of global food production relies on such forest ecosystem services as freshwater, pollinators and local climate regulation.

The responsibility for landscape restoration required on a massive scale rests on the shoulders of the privileged.  While some nations and corporations dabble in it, the time for dabbling is long gone. It is now or never. It is time to make serious long-term commitments.


We need a strategic course of action, otherwise, land degradation will worsen and become more and more costly. The main cause of degradation still appears to be rapid expansion and unsustainable management of crop and grazing lands causing a significant loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, food security and detrimentally affecting the water supply. We must address the causes of degradation, because if we ignore them, we can respond as much as we want, but the land will simply be degraded again.

So, restore yes, but strategically. An area without trees is not necessarily degraded. Grasslands, peatlands and other non-forested ecosystems all provide valuable services and require unique approaches, evaluation and tools to ensure they remain resilient. And while tree planting and growing, using the right seeds for the right purpose with locals involved, is critical in many places, very often the best course of action is to let nature do the work through natural regeneration.

All is not doom and gloom, however. Through restoration, the benefits range from jobs to improved nutrition and incomes. The key is a holistic, nature-based approach that addresses the interconnected challenges of inequality and biodiversity loss, accelerating climate change and unsustainable supply chains.

Over the years, researchers with the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) have studied what works and what does not, developed solutions based on evidence across the world. What we know is that trees, healthy soil and people are important ingredients to restoring our broken ecosystems.

We are leading a multitude of restoration projects around the world, offering benefits to local people, from the introduction of agroforestry systems to boost incomes in northwestern Vietnam to implementing tailored restoration solutions, scaling and tracking the work of thousands of farmers in East Africa.

Among the many lessons we have learned from these projects is that we must factor in all the negative externalities in addition to the positive benefits from the functioning ecosystem. Critically, we must understand the underlying causes of degradation because otherwise we’re just putting band aids on serious wounds.

As we begin to engage with the private sector, we have to acknowledge that natural capital, like built infrastructure, also depreciates. As we do for a building or a bridge, we need to make investments in natural assets and then over time, depreciate those same assets.

Partnerships and collaboration are critical, a long-term focus of CIFOR-ICRAF and now freshly renewed through our Transformative Partnership Platforms that unite different stakeholders to solve land-use challenges.

It is time to change the narrative. We need to shift the current land restoration paradigm of high costs and limited benefits to one that invests in research and planning from the bottom up, creates new industries and new jobs while properly valuing natural capital to provide the correct financial incentives for private sector participation.

Over the coming weeks, CIFOR-ICRAF will highlight solutions to restoring the world’s degraded landscapes, alongside the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and GLF Africa: Restoring Africa’s Drylands.

It is going to be a bumpy ride, but we hope you will join us as we solve these challenges.

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Topic(s) :   Blue carbon, mangroves and peatlands Deforestation Peatlands Climate change Community forestry Rights Restoration