Can we restore Earth’s lost landscapes?
The environmental strategy of restoration means re-creating lost ecosystems for some. For other people it’s about managing the new ones that are developing
Luc Gnacadja, former executive secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, put it like this: “Degraded landscapes are underperforming assets. Restoration should be very attractive to investors. And for governments, the cost of continuing inaction is much higher than the cost of restoring those landscapes. So why isn’t more restoration being done?”
Nobody came up with a clear answer. There was much talk of the need for “paradigm shifts” in economic thinking but little clarity about how such a shift could be achieved. Perhaps there was a clue in the adaptation one speaker made to a familiar aphorism. “Politics should not be just the art of the possible. It should be the art of changing what we think of as possible.”
Perhaps this is already happening, and more than we realise, given the international and national mandates for restoration. But if restoration is not to become just another UN buzzword, more observed on paper than in practice, like “development” and “sustainability”, a great deal needs to be done.
Costa Rica is often, with some justification, held up as an example of what a poor small country can achieve through putting conservation, and restoration, close to the top of its agenda. One of the founders of its national-park system, Alvaro Ugalde, who has worked with the biologists Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs to restore and conserve entire landscapes in his country’s Guanacaste province, spoke about some of the principles he lives and works by.
“There can be no conservation without justice,” he said. “You must be patient, you must listen to the people, you must speak their language. You must never take territory from indigenous people. But you can work with them for common aims. If you fulfill your promises they will fulfill theirs.”
Listening to people has not always been a strong point of restoration movements, especially in the US. Volunteer movements have sometimes run far ahead of public opinion, especially when working on public land.
A vision of restoring an almost extinct system of prairie savannah to the forest preserves of greater Chicago, for example, produced some suberb results in terms of restored native plants and biodiversity in the 1980s and 1990s. But it also sparked a political backlash from people who felt aggrieved that their local parks were being transformed without consultation. Restoration was banned for 10 years in many parts of Cook County as a result.
Restoration has come a long way in its first 25 years as a formal movement, but some very simple lessons seem to need to be learned again and again.
Paddy Woodworth’s new book on ecological restoration projects around the world, Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century, is published by University of Chicago Press