Large-scale, long-term restoration of ecosystems via integrated, community-led projects is key to revitalized future for all

Over the last century, we’ve degraded 75% of the world’s habitable land. At current trends, 90% will be degraded by 2050. Unsustainable land use and farming practices are the main causes of this degradation, eroding soils, triggering food and water shortages, destroying biodiversity and releasing carbon.

And agriculture produces one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Landscape degradation lies at the heart of the environmental, social and economic risks identified in the recent World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report. As landscapes degrade, natural resources deplete, economies fail and conflict and forced migration abound.

There is abundant evidence for the link between environmental destruction and social and economic unravelling – 40% of all intrastate conflicts over the last 60 years have been linked to natural resources.

Scientific models forecast that more than 143 million people in three regions—sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America—may become climate migrants by 2050. And it’s estimated that land degradation currently threatens 50% of the global gross domestic product (GDP).

But there is hope. As it’s at the heart of the world’s most pressing challenges, tackling landscape degradation provides a huge opportunity to address multiple interconnected global risks.

For too long, environmental, social and economic risks have been dealt with in silos. Integrated landscape restoration—the large-scale, long-term restoration of degraded ecosystems through community-driven approaches—can help us eradicate these silos and holistically tackle global risks (as first documented in the groundbreaking 2002 book, The Restoration Economy.)

Let’s explore how.

Mitigating climate and environmental risks

Landscape degradation exacerbates and causes climate change and environmental disasters on a local and global scale. One example is water. Too much or too little water is often the greatest problem facing local communities. Just as the risk of flooding worldwide increases – predicted to impact 221 million people and result in $ 1.7 trillion yearly by 2050 – so does the risk of large-scale droughts, with even Europe now on the verge of a water crisis.

The blame for these risks usually falls on climate change and extreme weather events.

But research suggests land-use changes in water catchment areas – like deforestation, intensive agriculture and wetland drainage – are the underlying reasons for flooding and droughts.

Landscape restoration can reduce water-related – and other environmental – risks by protecting and restoring natural ecosystems, making them more resilient to and mitigative of climate change effects. Wetland and forest restoration, for example, are cost-effective approaches that generate at least 28% more added value than built infrastructure, like flood barriers, dams and storm drainage systems.

Natural infrastructure creates multiple benefits, such as air pollution reduction, carbon capture, natural habitat conservation (including species migration), and soil restoration. That protects people from risks and promotes the ecological functioning of the landscapes we all depend on.

Supporting thriving local and global economies

Just as degraded land destroys GDP, healthy landscapes provide a foundation for economic prosperity and food and water security.

Integrated landscape restoration places nature and people at the heart of socioeconomic recovery and growth.

Thriving natural ecosystems support thriving local economies, providing a stable source of income for communities and preventing rural-urban migration.

Through creating a shared landscape restoration plan, local stakeholders can upskill, strategize and implement integrated land management practices – like rewilding and regenerative agriculture – that protect the natural ecosystem and support local people with resilient production areas in the long term.

In this way, integrated approaches to landscape restoration bolster local economies, ensuring that the natural resources they need to survive and do business flourish well into the future.

We see examples of this all over the world. Entrepreneurs in Southern Spain, for instance, are combining forces to restore an area of 1,000,000 hectares over 20 years, aiming to revitalize rural populations, create biodiversity corridors and combat desertification.

Likewise, restoration of the Chilika catchment (watershed) in India—covering 356,000 hectares—since the year 2000 has led to increased biodiversity and a diversified income for local communities.

Cross-sector and multi-level collaboration to tackle interrelated risks

A long-term landscape approach promotes action far more than a single project or sector approach can, cutting across institutional boundaries and policies and national borders. Just look at the Great Green Wall Initiative, a Pan-African tree planting initiative that stretches 8,000 km, covering 780 million hectares across 11 countries.

At the same time, integrated landscape restoration is led by local people, making it more effective in the long term. Landscapes are where communities live and work; by working at the landscape level – across scales of at least 100,000 hectares – we can directly impact communities.

When actors from farming, policy, business, finance and conservation come together in multi-stakeholder partnerships, it encourages trust between groups.

In this way, integrated landscape restoration stimulates cross-sector partnerships and breaks down economic, political and social silos: which is critical for addressing complex risks.

Featured photo is courtesy of Living Lands.

This article by Willem Ferwerda (CEO, CommonLand) and Lily Maxwell-Lwin (Content Lead, Commonland) originally appeared on the website of the World Economic Forum. Reprinted here (with minor edits) by permission.

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