Restoration: a lifeline to the future we need

Fran Price, Lead, WWF Global Forest Practice

World Environment Day this year marks the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, an important moment to get people excited about restoration and to galvanize a new generation of activists who are passionate about protecting and restoring nature.

We are at a critical moment in time: people are waking up — and stepping up — for nature and, more than ever, understand the importance of a sustainable future. Forests are at the heart of this future. Ending forest conversion, preserving the forest carbon sink, and restoring forests has the potential to avoid more than one-third of global emissions. It’s also critical to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as our global goals on climate and biodiversity.

Under the Bonn Challenge, 61 countries have committed to bringing 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested landscapes into restoration by 2030 — that’s an area larger than India.

Restoring landscapes in a way that meets the needs of people and nature is not an easy task. But as our new report, Twenty years later: Lessons learnt from forest landscape restoration projects worldwide, shows, it is fully possible.

In Tanzania’s East Usambara landscape, for example, where most residents rely on natural resources for their livelihoods, forest landscape restoration (FLR) efforts helped introduce activities like brick-making to reduce dependence on timber for construction and fuel-efficient stoves to minimise fuelwood collection. Combined with alternative income-generating activities like beekeeping, butterfly farming, fish farming and agroforestry, this helped reduce direct pressure on the forest and provide an incentive for restoration. In this instance, increases in household income have been a direct indicator of success, and reflect the importance of the social dimension of FLR. Over time, sustainable income streams give local communities the resources to take on the long-term management of their forest lands.

FLR can also be highly effective in restoring biodiversity habitats and corridors. In Borneo’s Ulu Segama Malua lowland rainforest, for example, industrial exploitation and oil palm plantations have destroyed much of the habitat of the now-critically-endangered orangutan. For more than a decade, WWF and partners have been running an FLR project in the region to restore orangutan habitat, food and shelter by planting trees and reconnecting areas of high conservation value to save the species — and the forest ecosystem it has come to symbolize. Systematic monitoring now shows an increase in orangutan numbers.

What does this mean?

FLR is much more than counting the number of trees — it’s about improving water and soil quality, protecting and creating wildlife corridors, and creating sustainable livelihoods, to help local communities benefit from forest resources and preserve them for the future. It’s about focusing on the whole landscape, not just a small parcel of land, and creating a mosaic of land uses and management practices. It’s about proactive actions that address the root causes of deforestation and forest degradation. And most importantly, it’s about inclusive implementation and solutions that take into account local conditions, the voices and experiences of communities and a shared vision among all involved.

As we kick off the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration next week, it is critical to remind ourselves about the importance of implementation and action on the ground. There has been a lot of political momentum around the Bonn Challenge — the largest specific international land-based commitment in history — but large-scale implementation on the ground remains a challenge.

WWF is proud to join the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration as a global partner. Our reason is simple: we have no hope of tackling climate change, the loss of wildlife, and human health and prosperity without large-scale ecosystem restoration.

As the Leaders’ Pledge, signed by 84 countries and hundreds of civil society organizations and businesses, states: “The benefits of restoring natural resources outweigh the costs ten-fold, and the cost of inaction is even higher.” This is put in perspective by a report from the World Economic Forum showing that US$44 trillion of economic value generation — over half the world’s total GDP — is dependent on nature. Reversing nature loss is critical to economic prosperity, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic forces us to shift our thinking and the dominant development paradigms.

We join the Decade because we are hopeful and excited about so many restoration efforts being taken on by young people, whose futures are most in play.

Any step toward change begins with a shift in mindset. Ecosystem restoration offers a lifeline to the future we need. As we kick off this critical Decade, let’s learn from our successes and failures, to see what we can do better, for people and our planet.

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.