Twenty percent of global land area is degraded to some extent. In Africa, it is estimated that two-thirds of productive land is degraded, impacting hundreds of millions of people’s ability to produce food and making them more vulnerable than ever to our rapidly changing climate.
Healthy land resources, including soil, water and biodiversity, provide services such as food, fuel, fibre, clean water, and other raw materials that enable our well-being and livelihoods.
That’s why restoring degraded land has been discussed and supported widely at a global and continental level. The United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 aims to build a movement for becoming #GenerationRestoration.
African nations have demonstrated their commitment to land restoration through large-scale targets, such as the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR 100) under the Bonn Challenge, and the Great Green Wall, which aim to restore 100 million hectares across the continent by 2030.
Ecosystem restoration takes place across a continuum, from reducing impacts to ecological restoration where native ecosystems are fully recovering. Within landscapes, restoration can include many practices, and often (but not always) includes trees.
Given the urgency to restore land and the ambition of these goals and commitments, it can be tempting to prioritise simply getting as many trees in the ground as possible. But as evidence mounts about the importance of choosing the right trees in the right places for the right reasons and ensuring restoration is diverse and community led, many individuals, organizations, and governments are now asking how to achieve restoration that not only has a positive impact on the landscapes, but also on the individuals that manage and depend on them.
To highlight how this kind of restoration can effectively be carried out, the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is identifying World Restoration Flagships which it deems the “world’s most successful examples of healing the planet” – stand-out examples of large-scale and long-term ecosystem restoration across the globe.
On the 13th of February 2024, Regreening Africa was announced as one of these flagships.
Regreening Africa worked from 2017 to 2023, with the financial support of the European Union, across eight sub-Saharan African countries to restore large areas of land for the benefit of people, biodiversity, and climate. It engaged with more than 600,000 households, and brought over 350,000 hectares under restoration. The initiative is now planning its next and more ambitious phase, building on the achievements and lessons of the past five and a half years.
Multiple restoration practices, such as tree-growing through planting and grafting and farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), were combined with soil and water conservation, and policy and value chain interventions. Multiple options ensured that the restoration suited local conditions and needs, rather than taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
Regreening Africa is first and foremost a partnership, working across multiple development and research organizations, governments, and – most importantly – the local communities in each of the programme countries. In this way, local needs and knowledge were matched with non-governmental organizational and governmental support, and farmer-to-farmer learning allowed for rapid and low-cost knowledge exchange.
Science was integrated to inform and track progress and to ensure a process of ‘learning while doing’. Regreening Africa, like many other integrated ‘Research in Development’ programmes, demonstrates that integrating knowledge from many sources – including local knowledge, development experience, and research – can improve interventions. Engagement processes can create transformational learning spaces where diverse knowledge and stakeholders can come together for more impactful decision-making.
One lesson that came out strongly from Regreening Africa – and one that deserves more widespread recognition – is the need to focus locally. Within agricultural landscapes in sub-Saharan Africa, land restoration is primarily the work of local people, either on their own land, on land they use, or on communal or government-managed land in the area.
Therefore, restoration activities need to make sense to diverse local people and communities, and result in better livelihoods, food security, business opportunities, and well-being. Examples include building equitable value chains around products that result from restoration, such as honey, shea and other fruits, and nuts.
Policies and tenure arrangements can incentivize restoration or make it challenging for communities. For example, in several West African countries, the right to use trees that are naturally grown does not sit with the land manager: if people want to prune or cut down naturally regenerated trees on their land, they must engage in a long and, at times, costly permit process. We must ask ourselves: if someone does not benefit from restoring land, why should we expect them to spend significant time and energy on this work? Examples of policy shifts are available, for example in Niger, where greater use rights over trees were given to land managers.
Tenure and rights must be a central consideration if we want landscape restoration to succeed and have long lasting and equitable impacts. Scientists are sharing valuable insights on this topic in Africa, for example in Madagascar and Cameroon. Women and youth across the region often have fewer rights to land and tree resources. However, positive examples of shifting gender norms can be found in many countries, such as community dialogues in Kenya and Ghana.
In sum, Regreening Africa’s recognition as a World Restoration Flagship is a welcome accolade, but the most important work still lies before us. Scientists have identified the current decade as the “last chance to prevent catastrophic climate change.” The task of resourcing and supporting diverse communities around the world to protect and revive ecosystems – for their own sake and that of future generations – continues. Science and evidence plays an important role in this process. Let’s build from what we have learnt and get to work!
Mieke Bourne is an engagement with restoration evidence specialist, and was the programme manager for Regreening Africa. She has more than 16 years of experience working on natural resource management, building resilience to climate change and community-based approaches and facilitation.
Regreening Africa was implemented by a consortium, led by CIFOR-ICRAF, in collaboration with World Vision (WV), Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE), Oxfam, and Sahel Eco.
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