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Socio-economic Benefits of Forest Landscape Restoration

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The human population has grown exponentially over the last few decades and along with it, there is an increasing demand of land for various uses. This trend is projected to continue over the next century, increasing the need for more systematic and stringent management of land resources. An increasing amount of attention has been given recently on restoring “degraded” land and forests – low productivity sites which have declined in its provision of resources and ecosystem services. The global efforts for forest landscape restoration were encouraged further with the Bonn Challenge in 2011 which saw over 56 governments, private associations, and companies pledge to restore over 168 million hectares of land by 2020. In this essay, I will first discuss the potential environmental and socio-economic benefits of these programs, then list the various factors that could inhibit or sustain its progress.

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Environmental Benefits from Forest Landscape Restoration 

A widely accepted definition of FLR, according to the Global Partnership of Forest and Landscape Restoration is “an active process that brings people together to identify, negotiate and implement practices that restore an agreed optimal balance of the ecological, social and economic benefits of forests and trees within a broader pattern of land uses . Landscape restoration programs could bring crucial benefits for conserving biodiversity and preventing the extinction of species. Long-standing conservation strategies were mainly focused on managing forest reserves and protected areas. Although well regulated protected areas have shown high effectiveness in reducing the effects of human disturbance on natural ecosystems, relying on them alone is not sustainable in the long term ]. Biodiversity is projected to continue declining due to increasing threats.

Many forest reserves are located within human-modified landscapes with a mosaic of different land uses. By focusing management on a spatial level of the landscape, several measures can be put into place to enhance the effectiveness of conservation. A major limiting factor of protected areas is the restricted range of suitable habitat for wildlife. Climate change will further narrow the range of habitat within reserves of which species are climatically adapted to survive. This increases the pressure for biodiversity to persist, especially when the available reserves are small and patchy, to begin with. Through FLR, patches of land can be recovered to “ecological corridors” that increase connectivity between reserves across land that is used for human activities. If managed properly, these can effectively reduce the harmful effects of small populations. The Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact is an example of a large-scale FLR program that was established in 2009 which brings together over 300 local and international institutions with the aim to restore 15 million ha of forests by 2050. If this target is accomplished, the Atlantic Forest will reach approximately 30% of forest cover, the minimum threshold required to prevent biodiversity loss.

Besides its advantage to biodiversity conservation, an increase in forest cover also increases the capacity for carbon sequestration in addition to the expansion of water catchment area. Agricultural land close to natural habitats can also be made more hospitable to species of interest by establishing land-sharing practices.

Socio-Economic Benefits of Forest Landscape Restoration

Recovery of degraded land into more productive terrain can benefit humans in multiple ways. It is estimated that 75% of land worldwide is degraded, potentially affecting the livelihoods of over 3.2 billion people. Ideally, an effective FLR program recognises and integrates opinions from multiple stakeholders into its planning and decision-making process. These are people who can, directly and indirectly, benefit from the restoration of the targeted land.

Recruitments of locals to participate in restoration efforts can provide multiple job opportunities while giving them training on sustainable land management. Provision of jobs is crucial as a source of income for livelihood. FLR also uniquely combines information from the latest science with traditional and indigenous knowledge, to facilitate smooth integration of land restoration practices into local communities (IUCN and WRI, 2014). Additionally, when the restored land is then suitable for agriculture, stakeholders can benefit financially from the products harvested. In the case of forest restoration, previously degraded lands could also potentially be used for ecotourism or recreational purposes in the long term. These outcomes would help to alleviate poverty in certain countries as well as ensure food security. A well-managed landscape with a mosaic of land uses could also reduce human-wildlife conflicts by putting in place protection measures for both wildlife and stakeholders to coexist peacefully.

On a larger scale, Forest Landscape Restoration programs could drive collaboration between local governments, international bodies, non-government organisations (NGOs), private companies, and local citizens. This is crucial to develop a deeper understanding and agreement on land use within a country.

In theory, there is a lot of potential in carrying out forest landscape restoration. However, considering the large scale of the project, there are bound to be complications in its implementation.

First, consider the many layers of stakeholders involved. Stakeholders are parties that would be directly or indirectly affected by the modification of a particular landscape. This means that it would range from local communities, managing practitioners, private investors, non-governmental organisations, and governments. Many problems could arise when bringing in so many perspectives. There will almost certainly be trade-offs and conflicts between each party’s goals and objectives and deciding between these would require putting certain values on qualities of the land or species of interest that are not easily quantifiable. Moreover, the imbalances of power across stakeholders could potentially lead to distrust, corruption, and manipulation (Sayer, 2013). Many countries also have long-standing disputes over land rights which further complicates the planning and allocation of resources. High care must be taken to ensure ethical and just outcomes from restoration efforts. According to a survey conducted by Sayer J et al., for a successful implementation of the landscape approach, practitioners must identify and include all stakeholders in the decision-making process (Sayer, 2013). All stakeholders must be given equal access in the discussion, and information available must be disseminated accessibly to ensure effective and transparent communication. Outcomes and incentives from restoration must be distributed fairly across the board. Stakeholders have to be trained to obtain certain sets of skills that can allow them to engage with the process more.

The large scale of Forest Landscape Restoration programs demands a high, and constant source of funding. There are multiple layers of funding involved including traditional investors such as pension funds and banks, private equity impact funds, governments, grants from international organisations, private companies, and crowdfunding. Attracting investors into restoring a degraded land could be quite challenging especially if the restoration process has a high risk of failing, e.g. the condition is the land is of very low quality (Sabogal, 2015). Landscape approaches also differ from sectoral approaches in which the direction and methods of restoration are constantly reviewed and modified along the way in an adaptive, continuous-learning pattern. This adds an element of uncertainty in ensuring successful outcomes. In addition, there are not many examples of successful restoration programmes that could be modelled after yet and in most cases, positive outcomes will only start to be seen several months or years into the restoration effort and are difficult to quantify.

Practitioners in landscape restoration should carry out comprehensive cost-benefit analyses that take into account all potential returns for investments including financial, social, and environmental benefits. It is important to inform investors of the long-term goals of the program as well as continuously assessing and measuring progress. The existence of monitoring tools such as the Bonn Challenge Barometer – which evaluates FLR programs across two areas: success factors put into place, and specific results and benefits – could act as a rough guideline to set goals and assess the efficacy of landscape restoration programs.

Studies have shown that a large proportion of FLR has failed to meet its goals due to the lack of attention given to monitoring the source and genetic qualities of the forest reproductive material used to plant its trees (Thomas, 2015). When the FRM are unsuitable to the conditions of the land, it has been shown to increase initial mortality, poor growth, and low reproductive success in the long term. Many of these effects are only observable later when trees reach maturity and are difficult to predict in the early stages of planting and management. Based on advice from the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), choosing the right seeds to plant in degraded lands requires paying attention to the suitability of species within replanting site conditions, ensuring genetically diverse lineages with broad variation in important traits, and whether these traits can withstand additional pressure due to climate change (Thomas, 2015).

Traditionally, seeds were sourced based on their availability in local nurseries, and limited funds might pressure practitioners to prioritise cheaper, but lower quality seeds. It is important to note that geographical proximity does not necessarily indicate adaptiveness to local sites as the conditions and compositions of a mosaic landscape are usually contrasting to normal conditions on local lands, especially when a particular site is highly degraded. The FAO recommends holding provenance trials prior to planting to understand the resilience of certain genotypes in a variety of environmental conditions – this is called the genotype by environment interaction (GxE) (Jalonen, 2017). To reduce dependence on local availability of seeds, resources can be allocated to set up nurseries specifically for restoration. However, this would introduce new costs to train staff and seed collectors to ensure good quality forest reproductive material.

Practitioners must also keep in mind the potential effects of climate change that could affect tree growth and survival at the restoration sites. The FAO suggests three strategies in sourcing forest reproductive material to withstand harsher climates. When the GxE of germplasms are known and climate change effects projected to be low, it may be sufficient to use seeds from a mix of local tree populations. In conditions where both are unknown, composite provenancing can be carried out. It is a method that mixes germplasm from local populations, ecologically compatible populations of intermediate distances from the site, and distant populations with diverse ecology to create a lineage of trees with high genetic variation and gene flow. An alternative to this is admixture provenancing – creating large gene pools with reproductive material sourced from a large variety of environments with no spatial context to the planting site, then leaving natural selection to select for the best adapted genotypes. This method could be used when the GxE interaction is not well known. There are certain scenarios of climate change that might require translocation of the FRM beyond their natural dispersion range, for example, due to extreme shifts in temperature. However, it is not recommended to rely solely on climate models when planning to move trees to further distances, given the uncertainties from both climate prediction models and species distribution models. Reliable data from field assessments may inform practitioners if these steps need to be carried out. Overall, practitioners must put into place certain guidelines and regulations to ensure the minimum quality of seeds used in replanting forests are met.

Conclusion

With the focus of conservation gradually shifting to regarding biodiversity as ecosystem services with tangible financial, societal, and cultural values, forest landscape restoration programs offer a holistic approach in forest management to balance out the benefits to both nature and humans. Ongoing FLR programmes such as those under the Bonn Challenge has shown promising progress with increasing hectares of degraded land being recovered and many job opportunities created. Thorough planning and good governance, along with an adaptive and dynamic management system are essential to ensure desirable outcomes and returns in investment in the long term.   

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