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It’s been nearly 15 years since a vanguard of African countries first committed to restore degraded farms, forests, grasslands and other ecosystems through the Great Green Wall movement. Today, the economic argument for regenerating land is more compelling than ever: For every $1 invested, people can expect $7-30 in return. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which could push an estimated 30 million Africans into extreme poverty, land restoration has become a critical tool to improve food security and create sustainable jobs.
At the same time, the most recent IPCC report presents a grim picture. The effects of climate change are growing worse every year, and several African regions like the Sahel will experience rising temperatures, exacerbating the vulnerabilities people and nature currently face. It’s clear that we need to massively and quickly restore nature and farmland to reduce poverty, reverse biodiversity loss, and store planet-warming greenhouse gases. That’s why 31 countries have pledged since 2015 to restore 128 million hectares of land through the AFR100 Initiative.
Given the scale of the challenge and country commitments, many are asking critical questions about progress for AFR100 and the Great Green Wall: How much land is under restoration? Where, and what impact is it having on the climate and communities? In short, are Africa’s locally led land restoration movements on track to achieve their promise?
Answering these questions is difficult because monitoring restoration — in Africa and elsewhere — is notoriously complicated.
Robust Restoration Monitoring Systems Hold the Answer
Monitoring can help communities, governments, companies, NGOs and donors understand where restoration interventions — such as planting and maintaining trees — are having an impact on carbon storage, biodiversity and rural livelihoods. It can help those doing the hard work of restoration see where success can be replicated, learn quickly from failures, and adjust their projects where needed.
For funders, monitoring can show where their investment is having real impact. With renewed interest in nature-based solutions to climate change, more companies than ever are looking to invest in Africa’s restoration movement. And the promise of restoration to produce triple wins for the climate, biodiversity and economic development is exciting government donors in the Global North.
Despite the wide recognition of the importance of monitoring, we still know little about the impacts of restoration in Africa. For example, the regreening of large parts of the Sahel like the Maradi and Zinder regions of Niger is commonly cited as a restoration success story, but there is little concrete evidence that it led to reductions in poverty or improvements in biodiversity.
We must reimagine and pursue a vision for restoration in Africa that is economically and socially transformative for some of the most vulnerable communities. But without monitoring indicators that can track these outcomes, it will be hard to know if “successful restoration” does more than add green to the landscape.
A robust, credible, cost-effective and inclusive monitoring system can provide those insights and prove that this vision is achievable. So, why is there none in place?
Why Monitoring Land Restoration in Africa Is Tricky
Put simply, monitoring restoration isn’t as easy as counting trees. Nine barriers stand in the way:
1. There is no common understanding of what counts as “restoration.” Restoring degraded landscapes involves much more than planting trees. People use many techniques across Africa, ranging from capturing water in the soil by digging holes to growing trees on farms and re-seeding grasslands. These techniques also go by many names — “climate-smart agriculture,” “reforestation” or “watershed management” — but many practitioners don’t realize that they’re also “forest and landscape restoration.”
2. Lack of common definition of “restoration monitoring.” Some technical organizations define “monitoring” as assessing restoration opportunity or publishing self-reported and unverified data. In our view, monitoring can’t stop there: It needs to use transparent, fit-for-purpose, and scientifically robust techniques that help people regularly assess changes in the land’s health.
3. Restoration is a slow process (and takes a while to produce measurable results). A tree doesn’t grow in a day, a terrace doesn’t slow erosion in a month, and soil health doesn’t recover in a year. Effective techniques for monitoring large-scale deforestation already exist (like Global Forest Watch, which relies on satellites). These same techniques don’t work as well for mapping the slow recovery of the landscapes. Impact is particularly challenging to track because such restoration methods take years to realize their benefits. By the time they do, most projects — and their monitoring programs — have long run out of funding.
4. It’s not enough to track progress within the neat boundaries of a project. Monitoring needs to consider the total impact of all the slow changes happening throughout the wider landscape. If a community plants trees to restore one patch of forest, only to cut down a nearby natural forest for charcoal, less carbon would be stored than if the forest was permanently protected and the "restoration” never started.
5. We don’t know the reference, baseline, and target conditions of most landscapes. To monitor restoration, it’s critical to understand the historical and current contexts of each landscape and the specific ecosystem and livelihood goals that stakeholders have identified. Without that kind of detailed data, governments and project leaders have trouble knowing what kind of restoration is needed where. The lack of historical and baseline information – combined with the fixation on funding tree-based solutions — has led to disastrous projects that further degrade the land. Planting trees in a historic grassland, for example, can threaten water security, carbon sequestration and biodiversity.
6. Tree-based restoration is the easiest to track, but the techniques still aren’t perfect. Restoring trees to cropland (the largest opportunity in Africa) and degraded forests feature prominently in national restoration commitments. Yet, the satellite monitoring techniques that can efficiently and consistently capture where trees are growing are still under development. The most common techniques often undercount trees in drylands and outside dense forests, resulting in a lack of detailed data to inform restoration action at the local level, where key land management decisions are made.
7. There is too little focus on evaluating restoration’s impacts: Funders and the NGO community need to see tree-planting as only one way to restore land, rather than the default. But, where growing trees is the right decision, we need to devise new, scalable techniques that link tree growth with improvements in carbon storage, local incomes, and the other tangible goals.
8. There is no consistency in how projects track success or report to initiatives like AFR100 and the Great Green Wall. Each restoration project comes with its own method for tracking progress. One project may only care about the survival rate of its trees, while another focuses on income and jobs created. This siloed approach makes it difficult to compare projects or report on total progress within a landscape or country. Part of the challenge is the growingnumber of platforms and tools for monitoring, each with its own methods (and funders). Many rely entirely on self-reported, unverified data, whose lack of reliability restoration practitioners consistently challenge. This siloed approach requires the 11 countries that are part of both the AFR100 and Great Green Wall to report to two different platforms, using different tools and methods. That increases costs for cash-strapped governments (and risks countries double-counting their work).
9. Institutions mandated to monitor land restoration have weak capacity. The capacity of national and subnational government agencies to set baselines and monitor a complex set of indicators remains low within the majority of AFR100 countries. Ideally, they should collect data, evaluate the long-term impacts of projects, report findings at the national level, and then communicate it to AFR100 and the Great Green Wall. However, programs often rely on technical support from NGOs and researchers, whose availability only during short funding cycles makes effective capacity development difficult. The resulting lack of local ownership and use of data is a particular challenge for the sustainability of monitoring.
4 Criteria for an Effective Restoration Monitoring System for Africa
It’s clear that monitoring restoration in Africa is complex and context-dependent, but it’s not impossible. Years of working closely with local and national governments, communities, project developers, investors, and other stakeholders point to four key actions for developing a flexible yet consistent restoration monitoring system:
1. Work With Communities to Agree on Common Goals and Vision for Restoration
In each landscape, local government officials, project developers and community leaders could use the Road to Restoration guidebook to foster a shared understanding of a socially and environmentally sound vision of restoration progress and monitoring. By selecting common objectives (such as climate adaptation or job creation), setting a single baseline, and agreeing on basic measurable indicators to track, people working across an entire landscape can monitor more efficiently and effectively.
The same approach can be used at the national and pan-African levels to establish flexible yet complementary systems. Some countries, like Malawi, have already started this process and can share their learnings with peers. At the same time, regional initiatives like AFR100 and the Great Green Wall need to establish basic reporting requirements to ensure that all projects are collecting basic indicators. Ideally, this would result in a nested monitoring system, where individual projects are contributing to national restoration goals, and countries to continental and global goals.
2. Select the Right Methods and Tools for Generating Data
Collecting good data is difficult and expensive. People restoring land typically use a combination of field surveys, document reviews and satellite analysis. This requires serious investment in staff time and technical expertise, a time-consuming effort for cash-strapped governments and project developers. Tracking progress also requires consistent measurements of the same indicators over time, which can further increase costs. Tree cover, for example, is often assessed every three years (depending on the location) to capture change consistently.
Most monitoring and evaluation staff working for local and regional governments can’t produce this data yet. Technical experts need to equip these local leaders with adaptable tools and skills that can help them independently track restoration progress.
Here’s an example of how it could work for an agroforestry project in Rwanda: A district mapping expert could consult an existing spatial dataset (or create a new one) to understand the historical conditions and baseline state of land and tree cover on a collection of farms. Then, they could deploy the Restoration Opportunity Assessment Methodology with local government officials and university researchers and highlight where different restoration techniques work best. Next, communities and other local actors would use that data to guide their agroforestry projects.
Then, the mapping expert could deploy a mix of cost-effective techniques to create reliable project monitoring data. For instance they could host a Collect Earth mapathon, which uses the knowledge of local people to collect data on tree cover (and other indicators) to track change in the landscape since the project’s start. Land Degradation Surveillance Framework could be used to measure improvements in soil health or the citizen-science Regreening Africa App to monitor socio-economic indicators, like the number of farmers enjoying improved food security.
3. Choose How to Manage and Store Data
When restoration practitioners own, manage and analyze their own data, they are more likely to use it to improve their programs. This is especially important for governments, which are often required to use publicly owned data to report on progress. Managing long-term datasets can be complicated: Finding space to host the data, streamlining programming languages, processing analyses, and maintaining systems all take computing power and money.
That data shouldn’t be hidden from the public or locked in the servers of the private sector. That’s why a commitment to open data, transparency and responsible data use is important. Restoration programs should build a central place where all stakeholders can share and use data.
Fortunately, there is a growing number of open-source platforms that manage and store restoration data for a low fee. The Kenya Water Towers Agency, for example, is using the customizable MapBuilder platform to track its efforts to protect and restore the country’s vulnerable watersheds. Now, they are working on a data-sharing agreement so that people restoring land can benefit from its insights.
4. Visualize, Report and Share Data
Once people are collaborating, have the data collected, and know where to store and how to manage it, they need to make it usable. Given the number of indicators associated with restoration goals, developing simple messages on overall restoration progress can be complicated, even when the data is available. Visually attractive maps and reports backed by independent data can help people restoring land prove to investors, communities and partners that they are making progress. Communicating those key insights can then help build up public trust in restoration programs.
Some platforms are starting that hard work. The Bonn Challenge Barometer takes self-reported data from national governments and provides top-line stats on restoration progress to an international audience. Dashboards such as those available on the TerraMatch platform can automatically create visually attractive progress reports that project developers can share with funders and partners. Similarly, the Sustainability Index for Landscape Restoration can present complex data into a simple 0-1 scale that can communicate overall progress to the public and high-level decisionmakers.
Tracking The Impact of Africa’s Restoration Movement
There are many people engaged in Africa’s restoration movement, from young entrepreneurs to experienced government officials and eager technical experts. By failing to build a flexible yet consistent restoration monitoring ecosystem, we are failing them. We need strong political will and a spirit of collaboration.
If Africa’s restoration leaders can break through these technical challenges, we can develop robust monitoring systems at national and continental levels for tracking the outcomes and impacts of restoration. A better measurement system will ultimately help revitalize more landscapes to benefit people, the environment and rural economies.