Fires are turning biodiverse forests in California and wetlands in Argentina and Brazil into charred landscapes. The ocean is getting warmer and more acidic, bleaching colorful, fish-filled coral reefs across the Seychelles. The abuse of the soil, exacerbated by overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, is damaging the long-term economic and ecological health of struggling farm communities in China.
These threats — such as commodity agriculture, climate change and overfishing — are specific to every land and seascape. But all forms of ecosystem degradation have one thing in common: When people hurt ecosystems, they also hurt economies, biodiversity and the climate.
The damage is reversible, though. Restoring degraded ecosystems is not only possible, but it makes economic sense, too.
Thousands of organizations and millions of people — from entrepreneurs in South Africa to government officials in El Salvador to youth activists in the United States — have banded together to create the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a 10-year effort to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide. They are building on work from the past decade — such as partnerships like AFR100 in Africa, where 30 countries pledged to restore an area of land the size of Egypt — and are turning it into action on the ground.
Why is it Beneficial to Restore Degraded Ecosystems?
Restoring landscapes and marine ecosystems is urgent not only because they are home to countless plant and animals, but because the services they provide are worth an estimated $125 trillion every year to the global economy. Healthy ecosystems and landscapes support industries like farming, fishing, forestry and tourism, which employ 1.2 billion people. In the United States alone, ecosystem restoration is a $25 billion industry that employs 220,000 people, more than each of the coal, logging or steel industries. And globally, each $1 invested in restoring degraded landscapes can bring $7-30 in economic returns.
Healthy ecosystems are also a lynchpin in the fight against climate change, itself a major driver of ocean and landscape degradation. If nature were protected and restored at scale, it could provide more than one-third of the annual emissions reductions the world needs by 2030 to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees C (2.6 degrees F). The world’s forests alone store 1.5 times more carbon than the U.S. emits every year (and could soak up 23% of global CO2 emissions every year if we let them naturally regenerate).
Restoring ecosystems can also directly serve the world’s Indigenous people and communities, many of whom rely on natural resources for their livelihoods and cultural practices. The herding culture of Kenya’s Maasai people, for example, is only sustainable if the grassy rangelands they call home — and that feed their cattle — are constantly replenished.
How Can Critical Ecosystems Be Restored?
Successful restoration is all about embracing diversity: One comprehensive study identified 108 different ecosystems, and restoration techniques vary depending on the ecosystem and location. On farms, for example, people can plant trees to shade crops like coffee, dig terraces to halt the erosion of hills, or allow native vegetation to naturally regrow in exchange for payments for reinforced ecosystem services like clean water. In the ocean, people can reseed seagrass beds to store blue carbon, or grow coral polyps in underwater nurseries to rebuild habitat for valuable fish.
What Are Some Examples of Ecosystem Restoration?
So, what are the key ecosystems that are people are restoring, and how are they doing it? Five examples of ecosystem restoration in particular are critical for the health and safety of people, biodiversity and the climate.
Farmers are the backbone of rural economies and the global food system, and they are chief among the 3.2 billion people worldwide who suffer from land degradation. While the unsustainable practices of some of them — like slash-and-burn cultivation and the overapplication of chemical fertilizers and pesticides — have contributed to the problem, others are now restoring degraded farmland and surrounding landscapes to boost agricultural productivity.
By embracing approaches like agroforestry (trees on farms), silvopasture (trees on grazing land), and low-carbon agriculture (no-till farming and cover crops) across 150 million hectares of land, restoration could generate $85 billion in net benefits, provide $30–40 billion a year in extra income for smallholders, and supply food for nearly 200 million people.
In India’s small Sidhi District alone, restoring 75% of the land with 40 million tree saplings — many of which would go on and around farms to boost crop yields or in sustainable orchards — could bring $19 million to struggling rural communities.
Investors are starting to take notice of this opportunity: Across Latin America, impact investor 12Tree has put more than $100 million into projects that protect natural forest while producing high-quality coffee, cocoa and jobs.
In 2020 alone, the world lost 12 million hectares of tropical forests, an area of land larger than Malawi. Especially concerning is the 12% increase in annual loss within biodiverse, carbon-storing, humid primary forests. Caused by the expansion of commodity agriculture, wildfires and a host of other human activities, tree cover loss has turned some of these forests, like Indonesia’s dense jungles, into sources of carbon emissions rather than carbon sinks.
But around the world, new forests are sprouting up thanks to tree planters and people who are helping trees regenerate naturally. The economic opportunity is too great to pass up: Fully investing in Ethiopia’s forest economy, for example, could deliver a $1.91 billion return.
In Brazil, pioneers like Bruno Mariani, whose company Symbiosis Investimentos is restoring the country’s damaged Atlantic Forest with native trees like the ipê-felpudo and pau brasil, are showing that sustainable income and protecting the environment can go hand-in-hand. A monitoring platform, the Brazilian Restoration and Reforestation Observatory, is collecting data to show where these efforts are making an impact. Today, more than 11 million hectares of forest are naturally regenerating throughout the country, and local project developers are planting and maintaining new trees across dozens of areas.
Sometimes, trees aren’t the solution. The world’s grassland ecosystems, covering 31% to 43% of Earth's land, are home to countless bird and plant species and store carbon in their deep, interlocking root systems and soils. These ecosystems, which many of the world’s 200 million pastoralists need to feed their livestock, are undervalued, often plowed over for farming, sacrificed to poorly planned tree-planting campaigns, or damaged by overgrazing.
When livestock aren’t managed sustainably, the soil compacts, the grass stops growing and the desert starts spreading. In Mexico’s Chihuahua Desert, cattle ranchers are working with organizations like Pronatura, Pasticultores del Desierto and American Bird Conservancy to better manage 100,000 hectares of native grasslands. Preventing cattle from grazing on certain areas at certain times gives grasses enough time to grow back and provides a haven for migrating birds. It makes economic sense for the ranchers, too: With a healthy ecosystem, cattle have more feed.
The expansion of oil palm plantations and other farms in places like Indonesia threaten peatlands, swampy ecosystems formed by decomposing plant matter. That’s bad news for the climate: When a hectare of carbon-rich peatland is drained, it has roughly the same climate-warming effect of burning 6,000 gallons of gasoline. In 2015, when 52% of forest fires in Indonesia occurred on drained peatlands, more than 100,000 people prematurely died (many from acute respiratory infections). The economy suffered a loss of $16 billion.
In 2016, mounting pressure from civil society forced the Indonesian government into action, and they committed to rewet and protect 2.6 million hectares of damaged peatlands within five years. While peatlands continue to burn — with more than 500,000 hectares destroyed in 2019 alone — there are many success stories of people managing their peatlands without burning them. For example, by damming the canals that originally drained and dried part of Central Kalimantan’s peatlands, local people are now sustainably managing more than 20,000 hectares and lowering the risk of future fires.
5. Ocean and Coasts
The ocean also is facing unprecedented challenges: Only 3% of it is unaffected by humans. Between 1970 and 2000, seagrass meadows, which support 20% of the world’s largest fisheries, declined by roughly 30%, while mangrove forests, which help reduce flooding and coastal erosion, declined by 35% as coastal development and demand for charcoal expanded. Since the 1870s, half of reefs’ coral cover, which protect the homes of more than 500 million people, has died. Considering that some of these “blue carbon” ecosystems can store up to 10 times more carbon than the same expanse of forest, their declining health is concerning.
Mangroves, a special type of ecosystem where the sea and the land meet, are especially important for fisheries and protecting coastal communities against sea level rise. Every $1 invested in protecting and restoring them leads to $3 in benefits.
In Senegal’s Casamance delta, NGO Océanium and the Livelihoods Funds have mobilized 100,000 people to restore more than 10,000 hectares of mangroves — and produce an extra 18,000 tons of fish annually to boost local food security. The newly planted mangrove saplings have brought at least one positive impact to 95% of local people. In addition to protected coasts and improved food security, some farmers experienced increased rice yields in freshwater paddies that are now protected from salty ocean water.
How Can the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration Be Successful?
The restoration commitments that governments and corporations have for 2030 are impressive: restoring 350 million hectares of degraded landscapes, protecting and growing 1 trillion trees, expanding mangroves by 20% and sustainably managing 30 million square kilometers of the ocean.
The secret to global success, however, lies in boosting the capacity of local leaders. First, decision-makers from local and regional governments, NGOs, and small businesses need access to lessons that past restoration projects have learned, as well as monitoring data that can help them prove their success to funders and inspire others to replicate their accomplishments.
Second, they need strong public incentives and government policies that provide technical expertise and pay them for the ecosystem services they are protecting and restoring.
And finally, thousands of restoration project developers and entrepreneurs need access to training, mentorship, and networks that can help them tap into the billions of dollars of private finance earmarked for ecosystem restoration.
Kenyan Nobel Prize laureate Wangari Maathai once said that “It is the little things that citizens do that will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.” By investing in millions of people whose own “little thing” is restoring ecosystems near and far, we can turn the dream of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration into a more sustainable future for all.
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The author would like to thank Katie Flanagan, Luciana Gallardo Lomeli, and Maria Potouroglou for their input.