In recent years, forest restoration has gained momentum. While international efforts have traditionally focused on stopping deforestation, in light of an ever-growing human population and climate change, conserving existing forests is unlikely to be sufficient. Forest restoration is one of the most promising strategies for tackling some of the major environmental problems of our times. Transforming degraded, unproductive land into functional and productive landscapes would provide multiple benefits to society and future generations.
Recognizing this opportunity, international and national leaders are demonstrating unprecedented political will. In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly paid homage to the world’s forests, by designating March 21st as the International Day of Forests to “celebrate and raise awareness of all types of forests and of trees outside forests”. Moreover, under the global ecosystem restoration agenda, a number of ambitious forest conservation and restoration targets have recently been set, including CBD Aichi Target 15, Bonn Challenge, New York Declaration on Forests, and Sustainable Development Goals 15.
Forest restoration is not a new concept. On a recent trip to the Shenandoah Valley, near Washington, D.C., I learnt that, in fact, most of the landscape I was admiring was the result of the hard work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), also known as “Roosevelt’s Tree Army”. The Civilian Conservation Corps was a public work relief program that represented a major part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and an effort to protect remaining forests, which he considered “the lungs of our land [that] purify our air and give fresh strength to our people”. The program provided employment to 3 million young men during the Great Depression, and developed much needed conservation and infrastructure projects for a country that had been devastated by over logging and farming practices that eroded soil. It is estimated that nearly 3 billion trees were planted and 800 parks constructed nationwide and upgraded by the CCC.
A difference between then and now is that today we can be smarter about which trees we plant at a given site. Over the past 10 years, research focused on ecological restoration, natural regeneration, landscape ecology and economic valuation of ecosystem services provided by forests has grown dramatically. This research was spurred by a realization that in order to successfully promote restoration efforts at different scales, a basic understanding of the ecological and biophysical processes in forest ecosystems is necessary.
Yet, at this stage greater research is still needed to help build capacity and the business case for restoration. Many restoration efforts have ended in failure, and today we still know very little about what allows projects to success. We need better understanding of a number of ecological processes: how plant functional traits and their interdependence affect ecosystem functioning, the role of genetic diversity in ecosystem functioning, and the interactions between below-ground biodiversity and forest health and restoration success. In particular, in light of global climate change scenarios, incorporating insights from the relationship between biodiversity and the stability of ecosystem health will be critical to restoring stable forest functions. Since the cost of forest restoration can be substantial, it is critical to ensure that efforts are well planned and based on sound comprehensive economic analysis so that decision makers can see that the benefits of restoration outweigh the costs in the long term.
With financial support from the Presidential Agency for International Cooperation of Colombia (APC Colombia), the IDB BIO Program partnered with the Instituto Alexander von Humboldt, to generate rigorous baseline data on the value and supply of biodiversity and ecosystem services provided by tropical dry forest in Colombia. Tropical dry forest are in fact considered to be the most heavily utilized and disturbed ecosystem in the world, especially in the Americas. A lack of understanding of the economic value of the ecosystem services they provide has resulted in an absence of explicit policies for their preservation, management and use, leading to their continued destruction and degradation. The work the Program is carrying out is therefore especially relevant in this type of human-dominated landscapes.
In a time when our climate is changing and 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods, we cannot afford to lose more trees. With business-as-usual scenarios projecting a loss of forest area of up to 170 million hectares by 2030, restoration offers a promising complementary measure to conservation. However, while research has grown dramatically, meeting restoration targets remains a challenge. Moving forward, further work is needed to inform, operationalize and implement restoration initiatives successfully at different scales while addressing the needs and aspirations of landholders. The road to restoration needs to be built on solid ground.
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