The fate of heads of state across the globe is tied in large part to their ability to ensure employment, economic growth, and access to cheap food and clean water. Rising food prices have helped topple dictators across the Middle East. Europe, the United States, Japan and other major economies are spending trillions of dollars to restore growth and jobs.
Too often, efforts to address environmental challenges such as pollution, habitat loss and global warming are seen as in conflict with job creation, economic growth and development. Some have suggested that protecting forests will lead to scarcity of land for farming, exacerbating the rise in food prices.
While there are often trade offs, this is not always the case. Recent analysis by WRI’s team of experts, working with the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration, has unveiled one of the greatest potential opportunities for combined economic and environmental gains.
We estimate that over two billion hectares of land has potential to be restored, providing better soil, water, and natural resources that improve human wellbeing locally and globally. These “lands of opportunity” have suffered various forms of degradation. All were originally forested and would benefit people with varying degrees of restoration.
Restoration at Work
In the Sahel region of Africa, lands have been degraded on a massive scale by overgrazing, inappropriate agriculture and periodic drought, fueled by misguided policies that have prevented local people from taking proper control of land with certainty that they will benefit from their efforts. Now, after 30 years of effort by well-grounded development workers who have watched, listened and understood deeply local needs and motivations, unimagined transformations are taking place. In Niger and neighboring countries over five million hectares of land has been restored to productivity through an innovative combination of trees and crops, together with the government giving ownership of trees to locals. Five million lives have been improved as harvests have grown and family incomes have increased from selling tree products. Women spend less time collecting firewood, small businesses are being created, nutrition has improved and the annual “hungry period” greatly reduced.
Starting in 1993, in the Loess Plateau area of China, the World Bank with Chinese partners and a great deal of persistence, helped restore a ravaged, eroded landscape devoid of trees to an area with productive fields, less soil erosion and a healthy economy. Incomes doubled, unemployment fell from 30 to 13 percent, grain output doubled, and sediment flowing into the mighty Yellow River was cut by 100 million tonnes annually, reducing problems downstream.
In Shinyanga District, Tanzania, 350,000 hectares of semi-desert, that had earlier been rich miombo and acacia woodland, has been restored, greatly benefiting the three million local people. Soil fertility and productivity improved once the government revoked certain regulations and enabled villagers to practice traditional tree management techniques. Incomes leapt as a result of improved livestock productivity and income from tree products.
Each of these three examples of restoration, from regions suffering decades of degradation, highlight the clear benefits – environmental, social, and economic – of restoration. Many other similar stories are being collected, most impressively by visionary film maker John Liu. John is systematically documenting, through long time series of repeated visits to the same places, stories of restoration success. He uses the films that result to help spread the word that restoration works.
Landscapes of Opportunity
These examples add up to millions of trees planted, nurtured, and owned by millions of people who directly benefit. But as WRI’s analysis shows, there is potential and need for dramatic amplification and replication of these efforts. The founders of the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration recognized this opportunity, most notably the head of the UK Forestry Commission Tim Rollinson, and IUCN’s Stewart Maginnes.
The Partnership has steadily build support for a vision of scaling up restoration worldwide. Their efforts helped inspire my colleague Lars Laestadius to design the global analyses. Stewart and Lars, with their teams and local partners are now taking the next step and designing national assessments of restoration potential in Ghana and Mexico. These efforts are finer scale and are driven by local partners and ultimately by the local people who live on and own the land in question.
The Bonn Challenge and Global Restoration Council
A global process has gradually gathered steam to support local restoration efforts. This process got a major boost in Bonn on September 2, 2011, where the German Government hosted a meeting of ministers and experts who together announced the “Bonn Challenge” calling for action to restore 150 million hectares of land by 2020. Governments including India, El Salvador, the United States, and Norway joined with Germany to lend their support to the process.
To further build political support to help meet the Bonn Challenge, WRI proposed the creation of the “Global Restoration Council.” Our board member, Dr. Goran Persson, who was Prime Minister of Sweden for 10 years and led that country’s economic recovery, announced the Council and will lead its creation. Other leaders of similar stature are being invited by Dr. Persson to join the Council and then work to mobilize resources and leadership to further enable local restoration efforts.