Mind the gap: What knowledge is needed for UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration success?

Addressing information gaps and barriers to restore ecosystems and protect biodiversity
, Thursday, 9 Mar 2023
River and farm landscapes near Wote, Kalawa, Kenya on 21 November 2019. Photo by Kelvin Trautman

Significant gaps exist in information and knowledge about the barriers and pathways towards ecosystem restoration and biodiversity protection, according to new research that also found imbalances in topics studied and their geographic coverage.

To achieve the goals of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (UN Decade), greater research and improved policy and practices in ecosystem restoration in grasslands, drylands, and mangrove ecosystems – as well as more education, monitoring, and long-term study through increased funding – are essential, said the researchers.

The study, Mapping the information landscape of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration Strategy, evaluated 20 years’ worth of publications on ecosystem restoration, including barriers and pathways to solutions as well as promoting long-term actions and monitoring. It evaluated 6,023 peer-reviewed and grey literature items to assess evidence underpinning the strategy for the UN Decade, which began in 2021 as a global campaign to catalyse efforts at ‘halting, preventing, and reversing degradation’ of the world’s ecosystems.

If not addressed, significant information gaps will limit the success of future restoration efforts, including any made through UN Decade strategy, said the researchers.

Although restoration work begins on the ground, leadership and guidance for action is set at the highest policy levels where these gaps should be addressed, said Manuel Guariguata, co-author of the study and a senior associate at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF).

“The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is a global strategy, and so efforts should be put into trying to address the gaps that are not only geographical but are also reflected in the barriers to pathways for action under the strategy,” he said.

Information gaps in long-term research and monitoring of ecosystem projects was a “fundamental challenge” highlighted by the study. A lack of long-term monitoring and feedback from restoration work makes it difficult to assess what measures were successful and could therefore be scaled up.

“Only by increasing the amount of evidence on what has, and has not, worked in ecosystem restoration can we improve future actions, expand the scale of interventions with a reasonable probability of achieving desired outcomes, and thus enhance the potential of ecosystem restoration to improve human well-being, mitigate climate change and reduce biodiversity loss,” said the study.

Ecosystem restoration is defined by the UN Decade as “a holistic approach to conserve native ecosystems and repair those that are degraded or damaged”, while aiming to overcome barriers to implementing ecosystem restoration at multiple scales. In this way, it contributes to achieving several of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Restoration is also viewed as a pathway to achieving numerous goals of the three Rio Conventions: for example, COP15 of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) committed to “accelerate the restoration of one billion hectares of degraded land by 2030”; the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at its COP27, in addition to its loss and damage fund, expanded its Adaptation Fund to USD 230 million, providing room for restoration activities; and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity emphasized its continued commitment to ecosystem restoration in late 2022 at its COP 15.

The UN Decade strategy identifies three pathways for action for overcoming six global barriers thought to hamper upscaling: financial, legislative and policy environments, scientific research, public awareness, technical capacity, and political will.

The new study also found a significant gap driven by an over-emphasis on forest ecosystems and restoration research compared with research that focused on grasslands, drylands, and mangroves, said Guariguata. Over three-quarters of publications surveyed for the new paper focused on forests (78%), while few addressed grasslands (6%), drylands (4%) or mangroves (2%). Publications dealing with soil restoration efforts were also underrepresented in the review.

“That is a major message from this study: much more information is needed to back up any restoration efforts in grasslands, drylands and mangroves,” said Guariguata. Additionally, shortfalls in availability and geographic distribution of education for ecosystem restoration was a serious shortcoming, he said.

“These findings highlight opportunities for integrated, systematic monitoring frameworks that include both below-ground and above-ground indicators across multiple ecosystems,” said Leigh Winowiecki, a global research leader in soil and land health at CIFOR-ICRAF. “In addition, there is a real need to combine systematic monitoring with citizen science to increase engagement of communities in the monitoring.”

Barriers to scaling up restoration were most often financial, legislative, or policy-related, the study found. Financial and legislative or policy barriers were emphasized more often (30% and almost 27%, respectively) than scientific research and technical/capacity barriers (23% and 19%, respectively).

The new findings lend significant support for the UN Decade strategy including identification of major barriers to restoration action, said Robin Chazdon, a senior fellow at the Global Restoration Initiative of the World Resources Institute and part-time research professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast. “This study identifies the important issues and sets things up well to delve into the action items to address the gaps identified,” she said.

For example, highlighting the very broad issue of capacity development – which can include a range of elements from technical training to organizational capacity and governance issues – is welcome, because all are significant to successful restoration activities, said Chazdon.


Further reading


This work received support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

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Topic(s) :   Restoration