Wanjira Mathai, project leader for the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies and a member of the Global Restoration Council, is the lead author of this blog post. She is also the chairperson of the Green Belt Movement, an organization founded by her mother, the late Wangari Maathai.

As the public excitement subsides from the UN Climate Summit 2014, the hard work of turning commitments into reality begins. One of the most far-reaching of those commitments is the New York Declaration on Forests, a global framework that identifies 10 actions to improve the world’s forests. One such action in the Declaration aims to restore vitality to 350 million hectares of degraded forest landscapes by 2030—a move that could reduce emissions by up to 8.8 billion tons per year by 2030, the equivalent of taking more than two-thirds of vehicles off the roads.

While restoration holds great promise for many countries, this ambitious new target is especially important for Africa. As we’re already seeing, if done right, restoration could boost food and water security, improve livelihoods, and curb climate change in some of the most vulnerable regions on Earth.

What Does Restoration Mean for Africa?

Africa is already experiencing some of the most dramatic extreme temperature events ever seen. In 2012, 70 percent of major droughts occurred in Africa, with more than 16 million people affected. The African continent has already warmed by about 0.5 ºC over the last century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts worse to come—without dramatic action to reduce emissions, average annual temperature on the continent is likely to rise by 3 to 4 ºC by the end of this century, resulting in a 30 percent reduction in rainfall in sub-Saharan Africa.

We know that restoration could be a key part of the solution to these problems. Agriculture, forestry, and other land use change accounts for about one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Restoring degraded lands—rather than continuing to chop down pristine forests for agriculture and other purposes—can help to both reign in warming and adapt to higher temperatures.

How to Achieve the Restoration Target in the Declaration?

The Declaration’s restoration component will be fulfilled only if it benefits those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as rural communities throughout Africa. As Declaration signatories move forward with commitments, it’s important that they keep a few things in mind:

1) It’s about cooperation and planning.

We now have a target, but the question is: How do all the restoration stakeholders—such as landowners, farmers, national and subnational governments, scientists, researchers, the private sector, and NGOs—feed into that target? Right now everyone is running in their own direction. We need coordinated, national efforts with a common agenda that can engender a mass restoration movement. That goes against the traditional wisdom of many NGOs and government agencies. They are used to waving their flags as high as they can because they are all struggling for the same pot of money. Restoration could be so much more effective if we worked together—including engaging local communities.

For example, The Green Belt Movement (GBM) in Kenya is working in partnership with the Clinton Climate Initiative, the Government of Spain, and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to restore degraded land in the Enoosupukia Forest Trust Land and the Maasai Mau Forest. GBM encourages local communities to work together to plant trees in degraded areas, which helps prevent soil erosion, store rainwater, and provide food and firewood. Communities receive a small monetary token of appreciation for their work, and the trees planted help mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon. To date, more than one million trees have been planted across 1,000 hectares of degraded lands—enough to sequester 200,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

Yet, this is a drop in the ocean--we need urgently to scale these efforts up to create an impact at planetary scale. The science, knowledge, capacity, and commitment already exist for restoration. The missing piece is the collaboration between partners. And we need increased technology transfer and finance to facilitate the process.

2) It’s about matching science with policy.

Existing structures and government policies don’t necessarily facilitate restoration. For example, Kenya uses the “non-resident cultivation” method for forest plantation development. The concept is based on farmers shifting cultivation to new areas, so farmers do not have rights to the land they till. In theory, under this system, farmers cultivate crops in agroforestry systems for a period of three years, after which time the trees dominate the sites and cultivation is no longer possible, so farmers move to other land. In reality, farmers often restrict tree growth so they can stay in those fields longer. This has led to land being degraded and to a massive deficit in national tree planting. Scientists and policy makers need to work together to understand the right balance for both forestry and agriculture, society and the environment – all of which need to coexist across landscapes. Governments need to be more than experts in signing treaties; they need to also facilitate action on the ground.

3) It’s about women.

Women in Africa are often responsible for providing their households with the basic necessities of life—food, fuel, and water. Biomass like wood and forest products provides 80 percent of the primary domestic energy supply in Africa. This practice exploits forests and degrades land. It’s also hard on women—GBM was founded to respond to the needs of rural Kenyan women, who reported that their streams were drying up, their food supply was less secure, and they had to walk further and further to get firewood for fuel and fencing.

GBM empowers women to work together to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind soil, store rainwater, and provide food and firewood. For example, the Wangari Maathai Institute and the U.S. State Department’s wPOWER Project are working with women to restore landscapes and provide fast-growing alternatives, such as bamboo, to reduce pressure on forests as a source of fuel and charcoal. Bamboo not only sequesters carbon, it also provides the raw materials for a myriad of commercial products. Women can help drive the restoration movement with entrepreneurship in green energy.

4) It’s about communication.

We must ensure that legislators and media are well-informed, equipped, and engaged. With the right information, journalists can spread the word to the public and legislators can create policies that foster the right environment for the restoration agenda to succeed. We cannot do it without them.

From International Commitment to Real Action

The New York Declaration on Forests provides the big picture. At the community level, we’re already seeing the benefits of restoring landscapes. Now we need to scale successes across Africa—and across the world—through cooperation, good planning, matching science with policy, gender empowerment, and strong communications. It’s time to work together to start a restoration revolution.