Forest landscape restoration: a solution to global challenges

It's time to politicize tree seed

M. Ann Tutwiler addresses the importance of well matched and genetically diverse planting material when restoring degraded land and gives an update on Bioversity International's research to support forest restoration.

If all of the globe’s degraded land were put together, it would constitute an area the size of South America. Major global actors are taking note. Restoring productivity to these lands, in particular using trees, would mean greater food and water security, sequestration of billions of tons of carbon, livelihoods for millions of people, and reduced or reversed biodiversity loss.

Governments around the world are signing onto highly ambitious goals to restore treed landscapes over vast areas of degraded and deforested land. If the promises exemplified by Aichi Target 15, the Bonn Challenge, the New York Declaration, the Great Green Wall, Initiative 20x20 and others are realized, the result will be hundreds of millions of hectares restored to a productive state.

Bioversity International is a partner in Initiative 20x20, working with the World Resources Institute (WRI), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Centre (CATIE) to help countries meet their objectives of 20 million hectares of land in Latin America restored by 2020. The initiative was launched formally at COP 20 in Lima in December 2014, and I had the opportunity to visit WRI and IUCN partners in Washington earlier this month to discuss common aims and approaches.  

The scale of the current commitments presents great opportunities, but successful restoration of degraded land to a productive, functional and self-sustaining state is not easily achieved. In the past, many restoration efforts have failed for a variety of reasons, including use of planting materials that are not suited to the restoration site. Little attention is often paid to matching the characteristics of planting material – for example, the ability to tolerate drought – to the conditions at the planting sites.  

In addition, seed for restoration is often collected from very few trees that are in close physical proximity to each other, so often that means that the seed parents are related and the offspring are inbred and lack diversity.

Genetic diversity is important for two reasons. First, unlike many agricultural crops, trees do not perform well if they are inbred. In fact inbreeding often results in poor growth, greater susceptibility to stress and serious reproductive problems. Second, to restore a self-sustaining forest ecosystem, the planting material must have sufficient genetic diversity to avoid inbreeding and to have the capacity to adapt to changing conditions, including future climates.   

Success in restoration initiatives is often reported simply as number of trees or hectares planted, but these measures do not necessarily indicate long-term success. Of course many factors influence whether restoration initiatives will successfully achieve ecological and livelihood-related goals, but starting with the right planting material – well matched and diverse – is fundamental.  

In June 2014, after Bioversity International scientists participated in several joint training sessions by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), we were pleased that the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice to the CBD (SBSTTA) called attention to the gap in the application of genetic knowledge in restoration projects. Upon recommendation of SBSTTA, the 12th Conference of Parties to the CBD adopted in October 2014 a decision that urges parties “to give due attention to both native species and genetic diversity in conservation and restoration activities, while avoiding the introduction and preventing the spread of invasive alien species (Decision XII/19, 17 October 2014).”

The gap is also being recognized in the Korea Forest Service-led ‘Forest Ecosystem Restoration Initiative’ (FERI), which aims to provide support to developing countries towards achieving Aichi Biodiversity Target 15. Late last year, after discussions with Bioversity International, Korea Forest Service decided to  emphasize the diversity and resilience of planting material in this multi-million dollar initiative.   

Bioversity International has specific and valuable contributions to make towards successful forest ecosystem restoration. For example, in Colombia we are collaborating with FORESTPA – a private restoration company, the Alexander von Humboldt Institute and the national university on a project that is funded by Ecopetrol, the largest and primary petroleum company in the country. We are developing a decision-support tool that helps restoration practitioners with the selection of the most appropriate planting material that best matches both the intended use of the forest and the environmental conditions of the planting site. In the short term this tool will be used to identify sources of planting material for restoration of approximately 13,000 hectares of degraded Colombian dry forest.

Through widely-promoted publications and research materials, we are working to improve the ability of restoration practitioners to choose suitable and diverse planting material. A Bioversity International-led global study on genetic considerations in ecosystem restoration using native tree species, co-published with FAO in 2014, has already been downloaded thousands of times. In addition, our recent open-access article in the Forest Ecology & Management journal contributes to raising awareness of the importance of genetic considerations in restoration.

I would like to invite you to learn more about the importance of tree genetic diversity in ecosystem restoration and I look forward to your comments and thoughts.

M. Ann Tutwiler

Email: [email protected]