By Dr. Neelam Gupta
Ecosystem degradation is a global phenomenon. It is expected that by 2050, 95% of Earth’s land will be degraded. A whopping 24 billion tons of soil have already been eroded by unsustainable agricultural practices. This land degradation is the leading cause of losses of ecosystem functions such as nutrient cycling and climate regulation. These functions sustain life on Earth. The ecosystems that underpin our economy, well-being, and survival are collapsing, species are becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate, and climate change continues unabated” –IUCN expressed its concern for the crumbling environment of our planet.
In this context the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration 2021 – 2030 can be considered a final call for the mankind to work unitedly for saving our planet from plunging inexorably into an environmental crisis. UN declaration “aims to massively scale up the restoration of degraded and destroyed ecosystems as a proven measure to fight the climate crisis and enhance food security, water supply and biodiversity.”
Ecosystem Restoration, the theme for this year’s World Environment Day is laying a special focus on preserving our diversified ecosystem and creating a good relationship with it. Ninety-six million hectares of degraded land, unprecedented loss of biodiversity, and extreme climatic events are the key ecological challenges for India. Offering livelihood opportunities to millions of workers who migrated to their villages and recovery from economic crisis due to covid-19 pandemic have emerged as the biggest socio-economic challenges for the country. A framework of different policies and strategies are in place to overcome these ecological and socio-economic challenges. But right now they are loosely interconnected with independent aims and involvement of different governments’ institutions and departments.
A combination of developmental, social and anthropogenic pressures, has caused considerable damage to almost all types of ecosystems. Biodiversity and ecosystem service capability stand compromised. This is resulting in a range of impacts like poorer habitats for wildlife, increased human-animal conflict, impairment of water security and protection against natural disasters, higher risk of species’ extinction, lower carbon sequestration, etc. A number of protected areas stand legally protected but ecologically exposed. In the absence of scientific approaches to restoration, use of methods like afforestation has led to ecosystem alterations.
While degradation of terrestrial ecosystems is more visible, the situation is equally serious in other contexts such as freshwater and marine ecosystems.
One of the main objectives of the UN declaration is climate change mitigation and it is estimated that restoration can remove up to 26 gigatons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. While this is a laudable objective, this has to be dealt with cautiously without sacrificing the basic principle of ecological integrity that underpins restoration. We already see attempts in India to designate areas with low vegetation density as unproductive sites that need to be afforested. Increasing canopy cover is quoted as an urgent priority.
These objectives can have serious consequences for our varied biodiversity, and lead to the alteration of many unique ecosystems like arid, semi-arid and scrub forests. This in turn would threaten unique fauna that depend on these habitats. Policies and restoration methodologies have to be designed keeping ecological priorities in mind. In fact, empirical evidence shows that natural ecosystems are more effective at meeting the twin objectives of climate change and ecosystem services, and also markedly more sustainable.
Restoration ecology and conservation biology are two arms of ecological conservation that complement each other. The latter focuses on conservation of an individual or a related group of faunal species. Restoration focuses on reviving biotic and abiotic components of an ecosystem, and one of the objectives is improvement of the habitat for diverse species of fauna. In fact the success of a restoration project is often measured by the comprehensiveness of revival of the food chain. Restoration makes the conservation of flagship or threatened fauna more effective and sustainable. There is immense potential for conservationists from these two disciplines to collaborate with each other.
Ecological restoration offers scope for large-scale recovery of damaged natural systems. Taking India as a case in point, almost two-thirds of our terrestrial forests are outside of protected areas. Many of these forest areas are degraded due to high human pressure and a lower conservation priority. The protected areas in turn are affected by factors like presence of invasive alien species. At a ballpark estimate around 40-50% of our forests could be facing degradation to varying degrees.
This presents a huge opportunity to improve biodiversity, restore precious habitats for our wild fauna and improve quality of human lives. Importantly, restoration provides the unique potential for generating rural livelihoods based on activities aimed at building ecological resilience, thus making local communities active partners in the overall conservation effort. At an economic level, given the scale of effort required, the GDP generation potential is substantial. These social benefits should indeed strengthen the political will needed for this thrust.
The first challenge in the Indian context is the resource gap. Restoration ecology has a rather low presence in academic curriculum in India, and there is a paucity of dedicated degree or post graduate programs. Most practitioners are self-taught. Restoration ecology is a complex and specialised field, and institutions abroad offer programs that generate qualified restorers. The decade of ecological restoration cannot be successful unless we have sufficient number of trained restoration practitioners on the ground. In this context, SER has a certification program and also works with academic institutions in initiating teaching programs.
The second challenge is that of norms. The International Standards for ecological restoration were published in 2016, and provide the basic principles of restoration practice. It would be good to make these recommendatory for projects in order to ensure a higher degree of consistency in approach and methodology. Funding at a large scale is the third challenge. Restoration is a long-term activity that needs significant funding by the State. While there is intent to use compensatory afforestation funds for restoration, this can be successful only if the scope changes from afforestation to restoration, and forest management staff is trained appropriately.
Lastly, the question of long-term engagement. A typical restoration project lasts well over 6 years, and this raises the challenge of sustaining discrete projects for such long periods. Forest departments could partner with restoration agencies with the relevant qualifications and experience to answer this.
World Environment Day is a call for action for global community to recognize the seriousness of nature-based solutions for food insecurity, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and biodiversity loss. It won’t be quick or easy, and it will take deep changes to everything from the way we measure economic progress to how we grow food and what we eat.
But the beauty of ecosystem restoration is that it can happen at any scale – and everyone has a role to play. As Robin Wall Kimmerer, professor of environmental and forest biology, eloquently articulated in her book Braiding Sweetgrass: “As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.” Let’s make the next decade the ecologically transformative movement that our planet so desperately needs.