Restoring degraded landscapes can bring water, food and income to local people while safeguarding the environment. But if communities, companies and governments rush the land restoration process, there can be unintended consequences. Examples of the negative effects of attempts to restore landscapes include campaigns that plant trees in the wrong places and large projects that violate the rights of the people living on the land or ignore gender, class and other social differences.
What does “proper planning” look like, though? How can the land be restored effectively?
Every landscape and country is different, but these three steps to land restoration can help avoid pitfalls and accelerate success.
1. Understand the State of the Land and Plan with People
When initiating a restoration process, communities and government must understand the current physical state of their landscapes. Part of this undertaking must assess the social landscape by mapping the actors involved in or impacted by restoration activities.
Because landscape restoration is about more than planting trees, it’s essential to recognize and integrate people’s needs, priorities and local expertise in all parts of the process.
Throughout Africa’s Sahel region, for example, farmers and herders often fight over who has the right to use the land. Gender matters, too: in Brazil’s Amazon, men have access to first-hand information on restoration while women rely on second-hand sources, creating a power imbalance that reinforces gender inequality.
Communicating with those who live on and use the land can help local leaders understand what tree species make sense to grow, what economic benefits people find most useful and how incentives can be used to encourage local residents to keep the land healthy. This kind of social landscape analysis helps bring marginalized voices into the conversation, build more inclusive and successful restored landscapes and mediate conflict.
Our research shows that economically disadvantaged people have access to different information than governments and people from privileged backgrounds and have different land restoration goals. Including them at an early stage encourages their participation in the larger planning process.
Kenya’s national government worked with partners, like WRI, to collect key data on the physical state of the land, as well as how different interest groups — from government officials to communities — interacted with and shared information. With this, they could map potential, showing the total area that could benefit from restoration, paired with quantified economic, social and environmental benefits.
Armed with strong biophysical data and a keen understanding of their social landscape, the Government of Kenya made a scientifically informed commitment to revitalize 5.1 million hectares (12.1 million acres) of land with the potential of storing more carbon than two years of its total emissions.
Similar analysis showed that nearly half of India’s territory, over 140 million hectares (346 million acres), could benefit from protecting forests and restoring landscapes, mostly from restoring patches of land across farms and pasture worked by smallholders — not just planting millions of trees to create a forest. With the right restoration interventions, India could sequester an extra 3 to 4.5 gigatons of above-ground carbon by 2040 (around twice India’s annual emissions), a significant portion of India’s nationally determined contribution (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement on climate change.
2. Set Goals and Make Choices
It’s one thing to map where landscape restoration is needed; it’s another to plan where to restore land and why. For example, a farmer considering how to use a piece of her land could either restore her land to protect biodiversity and maximize carbon storage, or she could grow trees across her farmland in an agroforestry system to produce food sustainably and boost her income. But she can’t do both. These decisions are important, especially when the goal is to maximize impact and minimize costs.
Many national and local governments, landowners and communities already decided on some key goals and priorities in their development, agriculture and climate plans, like Kenya’s objective of achieving 10% forest cover by 2022 or Malawi’s vision of ending food insecurity. To succeed, this process must build a shared vision for the landscape that centers the voices of people working on the ground.
Once local people inclusively make decisions, set their goals and identify the right criteria, those restoration potential maps (highlighted above) can adapt to show which areas could benefit most.
In Ethiopia, the national government first mapped potential restoration areas showing that more than 70% of the country could benefit from restoration. The government then led a priority exercise to produce a map that identified three key areas whose transformation could efficiently meet national goals. Next, they did a more detailed analysis to provide guidance at the local level. This guidance detailed the types of land restoration (e.g., agroforestry, reforestation, etc.) best suited for different locations based on the priorities identified by a diverse set of local stakeholders.
3. Build Systems to Track Progress
Once local communities, the government and other stakeholders choose their priorities and decide how to use the land most efficiently, it’s time to build systems to measure progress, before any trees get in the ground.
These systems help local leaders show how close they are to achieving their pledges, help people in the landscape adaptively manage their projects to better fit their priorities and inspire funders to continue investing.
Thanks to the Road to Restoration guidebook, governments and their agencies can easily and inclusively select the right indicators and metrics that can help them track progress.
The Kenya Water Towers Agency (KWTA), for example, worked with local communities and government agencies to build a custom system to track how restoring key watersheds is improving the quality and quantity of the water that nourishes over 50 million people.
Governments and communities can communicate about their success by building a Sustainability Index for Landscape Restoration, which evaluates progress toward the environmental and social goals that the government has set with a simple 0 to 1 score.
El Salvador designed an index that reflected local priorities and measured carbon storage, biodiversity, economic health and water quality in its degraded El Imposible-Barra de Santiago landscape. Now it hopes to expand the system nationally.
Coordination is also key to building effective monitoring systems, especially in Brazil with its various restoration programs. That is why a group of organizations, in collaboration with the Brazilian Coalition on Climate, Forests and Agriculture, is working to build a collaborative national platform to compile and organize this data to create one accurate index for restoration progress.
Creating a Shared Understanding of Success In Landscape Restoration
The collaborative process needed to follow these three steps is also needed to get trees in the ground. The process behind producing data and building a monitoring system is just as important as the data itself. Success relies on the most important actors — local communities and a network of monitoring specialists and restoration practitioners who know what data are needed and can extract insights to make sure restoration is on track.
When governments set a baseline, choose goals and priorities, and measure progress in coordination with communities, entrepreneurs and NGOs, they build a shared understanding of what success looks like in the restored landscape. Together, they can design comprehensive action plans — with people at their center — that build on the relationships and data to accelerate action.
During this U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, we encourage more governments, communities and landscape leaders of all kinds to follow these three key steps on the road to restoration.