As a decade of ecosystem restoration kicks off, don’t forget the people

Global ecosystem restoration efforts are often measured by billions of trees planted or square kilometers of land restored. But there is a critical void in the agenda: the social and political dimensions that make restoration a success.

With the start of the United Nations’ Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which runs through 2030, a tremendous amount of money and effort will be put into re-growing forests, making over-exploited farmland productive, and reviving damaged marine environments. This is a good, and vital, initiative. Without quick action to clean up the fallout of humanity’s scorched-earth economic systems, goals on hunger, biodiversity and climate will be unattainable.

But in examining restoration projects already underway across the globe, a group of scientists has found that restoration action is at risk of failure if it doesn’t make social and political considerations at the center of efforts.

“Biophysical considerations are usually central to restoration efforts,” said Marlène Elias, a CGIAR gender researcher at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. “While there’s usually a peripheral nod at other issues, there generally isn’t substantial engagement with the social, human and political dimensions of restoration.”

The research is part of a special edition of Ecological Restoration titled “Restoration by Whom, for Whom,” published in June 2021. The eleven papers include a successful kelp restoration project on Canada’s West Coast, centered on the worldviews, ethics, and values of the Haida First Nation, with co-authors from the Haida First Nation. There is a study of a lake restoration project in Bangalore, India, where the lake ecosystem was “successfully” restored but the main beneficiaries were well-heeled urban residents at the exclusion of more vulnerable local communities who used to depend on the lake to fish, water their livestock, and more. Another group of authors reflect on inclusiveness in restoration based on their experience developing a mangrove restoration project with local communities.

Other research included work on farmer-managed natural regeneration in Ghana, on-farm experiments and payments for ecosystem services in Kenya, a government-led tree planting initiative in Vietnam and the use of an adapted Restoration Opportunities Assessment Methodology in India. The remaining papers provide perspectives on multi-stakeholder engagement and restoration approaches that offer entry points for inclusive restoration.

Authors include scientists from the CGIAR’s International Food Policy Research Institute, International Water Management Institute, and World Agroforestry, as well as from universities, Indigenous communities, NGOs, governments, the World Resources Institute, and other organizations from around the globe.

“Restoration projects need to be more inclusive,” Elias said. “If you’re looking at major goals like restoring millions of square kilometers of land, planting a trillion trees, or rehabilitating marine ecosystems, you’re almost certainly not going to have success unless you put people at the center of the work.”

A woman harvesting fruit in Western Ghats, India. Credit: Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT/E.Hermanowicz

A feminist political ecology of restoration

In the collection’s introductory paper, Elias and the special issue’s co-guest editors, Deepa Joshi and Ruth Meinzen-Dick, delve into “feminist political ecology” (FPE) and what this means in the context of ecological restoration. Meinzen-Dick said that one reason that social and political issues are often left out of restoration projects is because they’re “messy.” Top-down, one-size-fits all “solutions” tend to fail because land-rights issues, complicated relations among stakeholders, divergent worldviews and value systems, and potentially unequal distributions of benefits and costs are not addressed at the outset. While many oft-disenfranchised groups are left out of restoration plans, rural women face some of the most significant constraints in top-down restoration projects.

“Our aim is to prompt critical reflection that can open new avenues for meaningful engagement with issues of power and justice in restoration, to challenge the assumptions and discourses that (re)produce the status quo, and suggest ways forward for more political, inclusive agendas,” Joshi writes.

The FPE approach focuses on three main pillars: gendered power relations, historical awareness and scale integration. The first refers to the inter-relations and inequalities on the basis of gender and other factors of social differentiation that shape rights to resources, decision-making, labor, and more that critically influence natural resource management.

Historical awareness means recognizing that current patterns of resource use and management can’t be understood within considering the historical social, economic, political, and ecological contexts within which they are embedded. Scale integration refers to the fact that local resource management strategies are a function of factors (such as institutions) that go far beyond the local scale, such as international agendas, national policies, markets and commodity prices.

“We conclude that much needs to change to address the systemic fault lines that create exclusions in restoration policies and practice, and to legitimize the plural voices, values, meanings and situated knowledges of what makes the environment or nature in order to sustainably transform degraded landscapes,” they write.

None of this undermines the importance of applied ecological science in restoration initiatives: the understanding of ecosystem function, interactions between diverse species ranging from fungi to trees, and the importance of biodiversity in restoration are all key to successful restoration.

“But the dominance of the natural sciences over the social sciences in the field of restoration results in a framing of restoration as a primarily technical issue, rather than as a socio-ecological issue with multiple, intricately intertwined dimensions,” Elias said. “Ecological outcomes cannot be sustained without addressing social inclusion and equity. The point of restoration is not only to enhance ecosystem services, but to ensure the ecological, social, economic, cultural, and other functions that landscapes under restoration provide to improve human wellbeing.”

The special issue on ‘Restoration for whom, by whom: Exploring the socio-political dimensions of restoration’ is a collaborative initiative conducted under the umbrella of the CGIAR Research Programs on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry; Policies, Institutions, and Markets; and Water, Land and Ecosystems.