Feature Story

Consultation key to overcoming the enormous challenges of restoring degraded land

October 9, 2019

Degraded land (foreground) and landscape being restored (background) in Makueni County, Kenya.
The GEF project facilitates national commitments to restoration by enabling improved legal and policy conditions across sectors. Photo: Peter Irungu/World Resources Institute.

The world faces huge and unprecedented biodiversity and climate change challenges. One way we can help address these challenges is through the restoration of degraded land.

Restoring landscapes—done properly in consultation with local communities, governments and scientists—has huge environmental, climate mitigation but also, importantly, economic benefits. It also contributes to many of the Sustainable Development Goals.

A 2015–2019 Global Environment Facility project, Building the Foundation for Forest Landscape Restoration at Scale, implemented by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and executed by the World Resources Institute (WRI) in partnership with five countries (Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Kenya and Niger) is an important contribution to landscape restoration.

“There is no single way to restore degraded land, without incorporating diverse factors—cultural, social, economic and topographical—coming into play in different countries and regions,” says Ulrich Piest, a UNEP ecosystems expert. “While tree-planting is an important aspect of landscape restoration in many settings, it is not a silver bullet.”

The project facilitates national commitments to restoration by enabling improved legal and policy conditions across sectors. The big goal: to enhance the integration of trees in agricultural landscapes, and to restore forests in ways that support strategies to avoid deforestation and defragmentation and promote climate-smart agriculture.

“Investing in reviving land delivers tremendous socio-economic returns to protect standing forests, but planning must include all relevant voices to implement effective restoration,” highlights WRI’s Fred Stolle, the project’s coordinator. “Input from community leaders, producers, governments at different levels, scientists and technicians provides critical information to make better choices and bring prosperity to rural communities.”

India

In India, 70 per cent of the population depend on agriculture and 82 per cent of farmers are smallholders, but much of their land is degraded. A first-of-its-kind online web portal, Restoration Opportunities Atlas, estimates that about 140 million hectares of land could be protected and restored in India. The country’s ample experience in rural development, watersheds and restoration interventions were mapped in the Atlas as a result of the project, which also supported planning to restore landscapes in Sidhi District, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Around 360,000 hectares of land in the district could be regenerated by implementing at least eight restoration interventions.

“If restoration is implemented based on what we learned through this project and our consultations, 30,000 jobs could be created through six new value chains for six types of produce that come from trees. This could result in 3.75 million person-days of employment and $10 million in wage income for the local communities,” says Ruchika Singh, of WRI India.

Kenya

In Kenya the project focused on semi-arid Makueni County, with a population of just under one million. “It was really important to consult with people at the local (ward) level to determine which restoration interventions would be acceptable and would also benefit the largest number of people,” says Mary Mbenge, Makueni County’s Chief Officer for Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change. “We consulted with them through a public participation exercise, together with the county government, to prioritize the best restoration options.”

Ethiopia

Google Earth satellite images were used in two districts of Ethiopia, not only to understand tree-cover changes over time but also to inform implementation on the ground. The goal was to meet greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, achieve food security, and prevent sedimentation of waterbodies through afforestation and reforestation, tree-planting in agricultural areas, trees along roads and on riverbanks, and erosion mitigation measures. While these measures have been implemented for many years in Ethiopia, district decision makers are now able to share their implementation data extracted from satellite images to boost restoration efforts.

Niger

In Niger, people own land but not the trees on that land, so they may not see any benefit in planting trees they don’t own. In any given setting all stakeholders need to be consulted so that there is local, regional and national buy-in for any restoration initiatives to be effective. “The challenges under the current legal context in Niger may soon be transformed thanks to the engaged leadership at the national level, which was a result of the consultative approach provided by the restoration project,” says WRI’s Salima Mahamoudou, who works in Niger.

Niger is a harsh environment for landscape restoration, but the country has managed to achieve considerable success in building its part of the Great Green Wall and contributing to the African Forest Landscape Restauration Initiative (AFR100). This shows that tree planting and other restoration initiatives are possible when the private sector, government and local people are on board.

For decades, many farmers in Niger cleared the shoots re-growing from old tree stumps and roots to add nutrients to the soil and plants. But 15 years ago, Sakina Mati and Ali Neno Malam decided to try something different. They began to maintain the shoots instead, by identifying the healthiest stems and trimmed off the rest. This selective pruning and protection of young stems, known as assisted natural regeneration, stimulates the growth of new leaves and shoots from old, hidden root systems. It allows the tree roots to pull water from deep underground, irrigating crops and stabilizing the nutrient-rich soil.

“Fifteen years ago, I had no trees on my land, and I had to wake up very early to go and look for fuel to cook with because we didn’t have wood,” Sakina Mati told the project team. “But today, one can count more than 150 trees on my farmland.” The regreening efforts led by Sakina Mati, Ali Neno and their community, have allowed them to have firewood, fodder for their animals—and the excess wood produced triggered the creation of a local wood market for the neighbouring villages.

Indonesia

“Planting trees on peatlands is probably not the best way to do land restoration in Indonesia,” says Hidayah Hamzah, an analyst with WRI who was involved with the project. Landscape restoration in Indonesia, as elsewhere, is linked to socioeconomic challenges: peatlands need rewetting, and water channels reopening to properly restore peatlands which, if they catch fire, release enormous amounts of CO2. Consultation was very relevant to gather this information.

Learning experience

“The project has been a great learning experience,” says Mahamoudou.

“We’ve learned that restoration mapping has to fit the country and must make the connection with local people. Governments and donors need to be convinced of its beneficial socioeconomic impact. One of the prerequisites for successful landscape restoration is identifying key actors to help unlock restoration activities. Short-term projects are not the solution,” she adds.

Restoring degraded land is only part of the picture. We need to avoid land degradation, by addressing its drivers and through proactive measures to prevent adverse change in land quality of non-degraded land and confer resilience, via appropriate regulation, planning and management practices.

Land degradation can also be reduced or mitigated on agricultural and forest land through application of sustainable management practices.

“Where feasible, some (but rarely all) of the productive potential and ecological services of degraded land can be restored or rehabilitated through actively assisting the recovery of ecosystem functions,” says Piest. “That’s where this project comes in.”

This story was originally posted by UN Environment.