12 December 2017
Sowing the Seeds of Sustainable Forest Restoration
UN Photo/Eva Fendiaspara
story highlights

It is estimated that more than 2 billion hectares of the world's degraded landscapes have potential for forest and landscape restoration.

The success of any landscape restoration attempt will be largely determined by the quality and timeliness of the technical input that underpins it.

The benefits of restoring damaged and degraded landscapes go well beyond the territory itself, helping mitigate climate change and provide other ecosystem services, and offering more tangible impacts such as food, fuel, jobs, and income for rural communities. It is estimated that more than 2 billion hectares of the world’s degraded landscapes have potential for forest and landscape restoration, providing opportunities for combating poverty and hunger, reviving biodiversity, and building the resilience of both people and ecosystems.

Given the prospects, it is heartening to see a growing list of global and regional restoration commitments being launched, as well as initiatives by individual countries as part of their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement. The Bonn Challenge is seeking to bring 150 million hectares of the planet’s deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020 and an additional 200 million hectares by 2030. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the 20×20 Initiative has targeted 20 million hectares by 2020. Meanwhile, 21 African nations have signed up to the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) and so far committed 63.3 million hectares – an area nearly the size of Madagascar – to be restored, aiming for a total of 100 million hectares by 2030.

In cases where countries have embarked on implementation, the efforts generally focus on the importance of understanding the drivers of forest degradation, as well as ensuring a rights-based selection of measures, and developing sustainable financing. These are unquestionably valid considerations, but this mix of approaches tends to neglect one critical component without which no restoration initiative can hope to succeed – the choice of appropriate species in the most effective combinations, as well as good genetic quality, supply of seeds and production of planting stock.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of planning and delivering the right technical approach for any restoration project.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of planning and delivering the right technical approach for any restoration project. That means taking into account specific local conditions, and gauging what can and cannot be done in the context of the biophysical environment, technical infrastructure and local knowledge and expertise. For example, it is pointless to propose restoration activities that are either prohibitively expensive for smallholders and local communities, or that are impractical due to their technical complexity. By the same token, trees take time to grow – generally at least 10 to 20 years – and unless this is understood from the outset, there is a risk of a serious mismatch between the goals of a given restoration effort, and what is actually feasible.

Failure to respect these preconditions can come at a high price. An initiative to plant mangrove trees on the coastline of one Asian country in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami was seriously compromised by unsuitable species selection, including some that were intolerant of higher levels of salinity. Due to this and other technical factors, none of the seedlings survived longer than a year. Some early forest restoration and reforestation programmes have relied excessively on tree species more oriented towards industrial development than meeting the needs of local communities, thereby reducing the potential provision of ecosystem services, and in some cases causing irreparable damage such as biological invasion.

By contrast and for example, in Brazil, the availability of seedlings is considered a primary enabling condition for restoration activities. A minimum proportion of native species laid down by law. A welcome side effect to this restoration strategy has been the emergence of a dynamic economic subsector, creating valuable income and job opportunities. One initiative alone, the Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact, estimates that restoring 15 million hectares of forest by 2050 will generate six million jobs.

But at the end of the day, it is important to remember that the success of any landscape restoration attempt will be largely determined by the quality and timeliness of the technical input that underpins it.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) is strongly committed to meeting this need. The agency’s Forest and Landscape Restoration Mechanism, for instance, is working to help countries restore degraded landscapes, including through support to address the technical opportunities and constraints involved. The FAO-managed Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) Toolbox offers a range of technical information and case studies relevant to restoration efforts. Implementation of the Global Plan of Action for the Conservation, Sustainable Use and Development of Forest Genetic Resources is crucial for the long-term success of restoration efforts. To this end, FAO recently invited its member countries to provide information for the First Assessment of this action plan – an exercise that will provide a global overview of national tree seed systems and tree breeding programmes. This will be critical for informing restoration initiatives, as it will reveal technical gaps that need to be filled to meet national commitments to international restoration goals.

The Global Landscape Forum to be held from 19-20 December, in Bonn, Germany will give stakeholders an opportunity to discuss scaling up sustainable landscape development and accelerating action. And while the overarching theme will be the need for better coordination to ensure results on the ground, there will also be calls for greater focus on the technical aspect of landscape restoration, especially seed supply and sourcing, but also other considerations, such as species selection and fire prevention measures.

Whatever the formula chosen for a restoration initiative, it is critical that it be aligned with the socio-economic context and capacities available. Any plan must factor in local needs in terms of environmental goods, including food for local communities, and services such as biodiversity and water quality. FAO stands ready to offer support, including through dedicated assistance if requested by member countries.

related events