Ecosystem restoration is at the top of the international agenda. The United Nations declared 2021 to 2030 a decade to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide. And climate scientists have recognized that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) will be impossible without harnessing the power of natural ecosystems to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

There is momentum for ecosystem restoration, but the money available is just a fraction of what’s necessary. Funders are now working to close the $300 billion annual finance gap for projects that protect and restore forests, grasslands and the world’s 108 different ecosystems. They are embracing novel funding mechanisms that take billion dollar investments, absorb the risk inherent in investing in growing entrepreneurs and community organizations, and parcel it out in bite-sized chunks. And they are learning which value chains they can activate as they restore land, ranging from the more familiar, like shade-grown cacao, to the obscure, like the nutritious juice of Brazil’s umbu fruit.

As big finance announcements make international headlines, activists and researchers are questioning long-held assumptions and shedding light on failed projects that created limited (or zero) benefits for biodiversity and carbon storage. A small number even harmed fragile ecosystems like grasslands through ill-advised tree-planting campaigns. 

One common theme lies behind most of those failures: Local communities — and the marginalized groups within them — were not leading the projects and received few, if any, of the rewards.

A man walks by his fruit trees in Makeuni County, Kenya.
In Makueni County, Kenya, farmers grow fruit trees on degraded land to boost local incomes. Photo by Third Factor Productions/WRI

Research finds restoration can create $7-30 in returns for every $1 invested, revitalize habitat for biodiversity and store massive amounts of carbon. But if those benefits aren’t equitably distributed to diverse people and power structures aren’t interrogated, ecosystem restoration projects can reinforce social inequities faced by traditionally marginalized groups like Indigenous peoples and women.

Recognizing these benefits, WRI joined a team of 47 researchers and asked in the Restoration Ecology journal how projects can create both social, cultural and ecological value in the long run. Drawing lessons from hundreds of examples, they identified a set of 10 people-centered rules the movement should embrace to make the UN Decade sustainable. Here are the six takeaways.

1. Recognize diversity and relations between people

The planning, implementation and monitoring of ecosystem restoration involves multiple types of people. The values, priorities, motivations and influence of every group — especially the ideas of marginalized and Indigenous communities — must be deeply integrated. Without unpacking why dominant social groups refuse to change, power imbalances and social inequalities will continue.

An assessment of where restoration could improve the Sidhi district of India’s Madhya Pradesh state highlighted how gender, caste and social class shape each person’s access to knowledge, ability to participate and opportunity to benefit. It revealed contrasting views on how to restore the land: Upper caste farmers with large landholdings prioritized profit, preferring to improve water recharge and biodiversity conservation; marginal landholders from India’s vulnerable Scheduled Castes and Tribes wanted  to improve access to food, fuelwood, and fodder so they could fulfil their basic energy and sustenance needs. Understanding this diversity of opinion will help the local government and communities use a balance of approaches that maximize revenue, social sustainability and ecosystem services for the greatest number of people.

2. Engage communities as restoration leaders and draw on their knowledge

Local communities must be at the center of ecosystem restoration. Restoration planners and practitioners need to understand them as more than “workers” or “beneficiaries.” They are powerful agents of change equipped with valuable local knowledge and capacities. Successful projects combine the local knowledge with high-quality quantitative and qualitative data and methods that can help people plan, restore and monitor.

In Ethiopia, local communities and the governments of three regions combined historical knowledge of best practices with locally produced, high-quality data that mapped where different restoration techniques could benefit each landscape. The biophysical data, when taken on its own, identified that certain areas could be completely reforested. When local leaders reviewed the results, they used their unique knowledge to help the mapping experts identify where a small number of trees of the right species could be added to cropland to boost yields and better serve environmental outcomes.

Three woman point to a map hung on the side of a building.
Unless local people are included in planning, implementing, and monitoring restoration, projects will fail. Photo by Panos Pictures / Food and Land Use Coalition

3. Equitably distribute the costs, risks and benefits of restoration projects

Healthier land is more valuable land. The people doing the hard work of restoration, especially smallholder farmers, deserve to reap its rewards. Newly restored land must be protected from powerful actors ready to swoop in and deprive communities of their assets, even if the government has officially recognized the tenure of marginalized groups. To combat that, communities must participate throughout the project cycle — from design to implementation — and agree to a defined distribution of costs, risks and benefits. For example, a planting initiative must continue to finance the local communities that maintain the trees every year. If not, all project costs and risks could shift entirely onto marginalized people, an unfair outcome that would threaten livelihoods and ecosystem health.

In southern India, Indigenous communities are restoring land in the Araku valley, where yields of the staple coffee crop are low and native plants were disappearing. To improve nutritional security and enhance incomes, the Naandi Foundation supported tribal farmers to grow coffee sustainably and transform their tired land into healthy agroforestry systems. Almost a decade later, Araku coffee grown under the shade of diverse native trees has reached the international market, and the local Indigenous communities have shifted from subsistence farming to self-sufficient and profitable export-oriented agriculture. The Araku model is a stellar example of when funding agencies, private sector, experts and local communities come together to lower costs and economic risk for Indigenous farmers.

4. Extend resource and land rights to address the historical and social context

Secure land tenure and resource rights are critical for successful ecosystem restoration projects. Reinforcing the rights of Indigenous communities, women and marginalized groups brings multiple social, economic and climate benefits. When governments recognize rights to the land that large landholders and previous administrations had expropriated, they mend relationships broken by centuries of colonialism. And when people can legally use the land’s resources, like trees and water sources, they can harness these assets for their households or sell them on the market. Extending these rights must consider social stability, which is equally important for successful restoration projects. The risk of disruption to local economies can be serious when changes come too quickly or are poorly funded.

In the Narmada district of Gujarat, India, the Forest Rights Act of 2006 recognized the historical ownership and management rights of communities and individuals. Previously, the government had argued that local communities were “encroaching” on their own land. After recognition, the people of Narmada have used government investment programmes to improve farm productivity and restore the local ecosystem. Today, the local village councils (gram sabhas) have earned millions of rupees annually from the sale of bamboo, a resource that the previous law had prevented communities from harvesting.

Three men build stone bunds in India's Narmada district.
In the Narmada district of India, men build stone bunds to stop erosion in its tracks – and keep the soil healthy. Photo by Panos Pictures/Food and Land Use Coalition

5. Create locally specific restoration approaches

Within grasslands, forests, mangroves and peatlands, restoration aims to enhance the ecological integrity of landscapes and human well-being within them. One-sized-fits-all approaches, like tree planting, can actively harm ecosystems like grasslands and peatlands and the local communities that steward them. It’s necessary to question the dominant discourses and craft restoration approaches that reflect scientific and local knowledge about a physical landscape and the people that live within it.

With the goal of reducing soil salinity within India’s Banni grasslands, a Gujarat state government tree-planting program introduced an invasive species, Prosopis juliflora (mesquite), that quickly ruined local biodiversity and threatened the livelihoods of the local pastoralist Maldhari community. But, as the campaign to restore the ecosystem and cut down the trees began, the locals resisted. They had quickly become financially dependent on producing charcoal from the invasive plants. Uprooting the trees before the annual monsoon season would help restore the native grasses that feed livestock, but the charcoal industry is also lucrative for the Maldharis. Future projects will fail unless they consider the community’s economic priorities — including the charcoal industry — as the grassland is restored.

6. Practice inclusive monitoring, evaluation and learning

A restoration project needs a robust monitoring system that tracks progress toward its goals. An inclusive and participatory monitoring, evaluation and learning framework can help people improve land restoration methods over time and keep the public informed. However, these systems can’t feasibly measure hundreds of indicators on environmental, social, cultural and economic impact. As monitoring costs balloon, there is less money for people revitalizing ecosystems. Instead, projects should track progress toward the top-tier goals that local people (and funders) identified during the planning process. Monitoring systems must be practical because even straightforward indicators, like the number of trees currently growing, are difficult to measure.

TerraFund for AFR100 — which works to finance 100 community-based non-profits and enterprises that are restoring Africa’s degraded land — is one effort embracing that approach. WRI and partner One Tree Planted will work directly with each organization over five years to combine data from the field with insights from satellite monitoring that can help community organizations track progress toward and report on key restoration goals, like the number of trees growing and people employed. By making these data-backed insights publicly available through visual dashboards like the TerraMatch platform, TerraFund for AFR100 aims to provide a lower-cost solution to the challenges of restoration monitoring.

Two woman and two children stand outside in India's Sidhi District with two cows.
People use the land in India's Sidhi district to grow crops, raise livestock, and protect the environment. Photo by Srishti Kochhar/WRI India

As the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration accelerates, we encourage all people restoring land — and their funders — to measure the success of projects large and small against these people-centered rules.

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This article reflects only the thoughts of its authors.