Growing at altitudes of up to 5000 meters, polylepis forests, comprising 28 recognized shrub and tree species endemic to the mid- and high-elevation regions of the tropical Andes mountains, are a significant origin of the flow of water into the headwaters of the Amazon River.
Crucial to fighting climate change, they absorb mist from the clouds, transforming dry, eroded landscapes into wetlands and habitat for threatened species.
Due to decades-long deforestation for fuel wood and grazing, only 500,000 hectares remain across the Andes. Now High Andean communities, mainly Quechua-speaking Inca descendants, are coming together to bring them back and restore their watersheds.
Acción Andina (Andes Action), powered by Global Forest Generation, is scaling up a time-tested, 19-year, community reforestation model. Developed and implemented by Peruvian conservation non-profit Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos, it has resulted in the planting of over 3 million native trees, including 1.5 million polylepis.
Restoring forests which grow just below the (retreating) glaciers is a cost-effective solution for long-term climate resilience.
“Protecting remaining tropical forest while restoring degraded forest and other ecosystems could represent as much as 30 per cent of the immediate solution to climate change,” says UN Environment Programme (UNEP) ecosystems expert Tim Christophersen. “Community involvement in planting the right tree in the right place is an important element of any reforestation programme.”
Acción Andina’s on-the-ground leaders forge ties with the communities which focus their ancient Inca tradition of “Ayni” (close to reciprocity) on reforestation for mutual benefit. On-the-ground conservation leaders harness ancient Incan traditions in local communities to bring the model to scale.
Over the next 25 years, Acción Andina aims to protect the remaining 0.5 million hectares of critically important native polylepis forests in six South American countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru) while reforesting an additional 0.5 million hectares.
Almost gone but not lost, these forests serve as water reservoirs for communities, habitat for wildlife and biodiversity and ensure the functionality of the entire Amazon. From upslope communities to major downstream cities and the Amazon, all depend on water to thrive.
“Bringing back forests means ensuring the future of indigenous cultures,” says Constantino Aucca Chutas, indigenous leader and President of Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos.
“Their tradition of shared community service is an invaluable asset for restoration,” adds Florent Kaiser, Executive Director of Global Forest Generation.
Acción Andina’s success depends on scaling a network of experienced leaders with long-term trusted community relations and deep local cultural understanding across the Andes.
“We support our leaders with core leadership and conservation management skills and equip their organizations to scale their project management capacities. This allows Acción Andina to form a growing network of on-the-ground agents that partner with communities to build a massive restoration workforce across the Andes,” says Kaiser.
“Conservation partners in each country enable communities to secure titles to their land, which reinforces identity and provides legal protection from exploitation by timber, mining and oil companies. The process of designating a protected area generally takes 2 to 3 years; it involves resolving land use disputes, establishing land use agreements and long-term conservation plans to ensure ecosystem resilience and access to native seed stocks for reforestation,” he added.
Restoration needs to become a “movement”
Acción Andina is working to connect existing and develop new cutting-edge community restoration projects, and is funded by a mix of donations, private investments, payment for ecosystem services investments and multilateral funding.
“We are in the process of building the infrastructure to make individual projects and the whole initiative investable. This is a requirement to scale up implementation and impact significantly. We are planting 1 million trees in the next planting season (2020–2021) but across the initiative there is potential for 10 million trees per year or more,” says Kaiser. “While long-term finance is vital, successful restoration needs to become a decentralized social and cultural movement. Only then will we mobilize enough momentum to work at the scale needed and attract further finance.”
“All restoration projects have to be managed in an integrated way. This costs money and requires long-term efforts. Technically it is possible to plant trees for US$0.10 to US$0.30 per tree, but effective, long-term restoration means you easily end up at costs of US$3 to US$5 per tree or more. The race-to-the-bottom for tree-planting is dangerous. We have to educate civil society, donors and investors about it, and change the market,” Kaiser continued.
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030, led by the UN Environment Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and partners such as the Africa Restoration 100 initiative, the Global Landscapes Forum and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, covers terrestrial as well as coastal and marine ecosystems. A global call to action, it draws together political support, scientific research and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration.
For more information, email Tim Christophersen.
This article originally appeared on the UNEP website.
Reprinted here (with minor edits) by permission.