Restoring nature the right way: 10 principles

Zeno Prast
September 28, 2022

During the General Assembly of the United Nations in March 2019, the council titled the decade 2021-2030 as the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. This formalised the obligation to halt, reduce and revert the degradation of nature’s ecosystems. 115 countries have pledged to revitalise 1 billion hectares of land and coastal areas together, mobilising their governments, businesses and citizens to contribute. To encourage participation and ensure positive outcomes for local wildlife and communities, the council created 10 universal restoration principles to guide project implementation. This framework was meant to lay the groundwork for projects as they require cooperation between multiple governments, local authorities, and local communities. Let’s have a closer look and unpick each principle that an ecosystem restoration project should adhere to:

1. Contribute to the UN sustainable development goals

All over the world sustainable projects, programs and initiatives are popping up, varying in scale from local spots to entire seascapes and large plots of lands. Effective restoration has the potential to address more than one SDG at once, as it helps achieve goals on biodiversity, climate and land-degradation neutrality whilst creating fair jobs and improving livelihoods. By aligning the interests of stakeholders on all levels, from regional to global, the UN believes that these goals are within reach by 2030.

2. Promote inclusion, social fairness and equity

It is crucial that all, and especially under-represented groups, have the opportunity to be engaged and integrated in meaningful restoration activities. Throughout the restoration process and beyond, active participation of the local communities is key to create the desired long-term outcomes. Activities include providing relevant information for all groups involved and capacity development. Furthermore, it is imperative to provide effective incentives, improved livelihoods, food security and a key role in decision-making for the local communities affected by the developments. As an example, in Jordan the European organisation IUCN empowers local female communities to engage the locals to collaborate and together restore the barren and degraded area around the city Duleil.

3. Encompass the full width of restoration

The United Nations considers ecosystem restoration as any activity that results in net gain for biodiversity, ecosystem health whilst heeding principles 1 and 2. As such, the range of activities that needs to be considered is broad. The starting point is to reduce negative environmental impacts throughout supply chains and productions, for example pollution caused by products or unsustainable resource use. Secondly the active removal of contaminants, pollutants and other hazards should be incentivized and widely adopted. Lastly, existing ecosystems should be fortified, and heavily degraded areas such as old mining facilities could be restored into the healthy ecosystems they once used to be. As an example, in Minnesota the local communities filled three old connected open-pit mines with water to create a large lake. Now nature is reclaiming its place in the old production system and it has created a tourist hotspot that benefits the entire local community.


4. Aim to recover the highest level of biodiversity, ecosystem health and human well-being

The restoration of ecosystems cannot be considered without taking heed of what is already there, in terms of indigenuous nature and the people living in harmony with it. Any forest and coastal restoration projects need to pay the highest possible level of respect to the livelihood and well being of local communities or indigenous peoples. Moreover, the planned restoration uses the appropriate native species and avoids any potentially invasive species. ReefSystems is a Dutch company that creates artificial coral reefs off the coast of Kenya to restore the damaged coral reefs and bring back the wildlife. Not only will this project restore an ecosystem, but it will also boost the livelihoods of local communities, who live on the fish populations in the reefs. Furthermore, will the new coral reefs attract scuba diving tourism to boost local economies.

5. Mitigate the direct and indirect causes of degradation

The degree of direct and indirect causes of degradation should be mapped and appropriate actions taken to reduce, prevent and mitigate any further degradation. This includes halting incentives for programs that cause any direct or indirect degradation. Sustainable practices should be an integral part of the production systems, and contributions to the restoration of nature widely promoted. Sustainability should not only be introduced in production systems but also in infrastructure development, urbanisation and consumption of products. As an example, the Forest Carbon Partnership released a report discussing the drivers of deforestation and land degradation in Europe with advice on how to halt the processes for political leaders.

6. Share and integrate all types of knowledge

Projects should seek to include the wide variety of knowledge available, including indiginous, traditional, local and scientific knowledge. Fostering inclusivity and consensual decision making increases the effectiveness of the restoration process and engagement from all parties involved. In addition, sharing knowledge about effective practices and approaches so they can be developed, adapted and replicated around the world for successful outcomes and avoiding failures. The IUCN has integrated traditional knowledge in Burkina Faso by using a technique called Zaï. They are using this technique to farm more sustainably by planting seeds in pits filled with organic manure. The pits contain water and nutrients and concentrate it at the plants’ base. This fights the deforestation and land degradation plaguing the area.

7. Keep the ecological, socio-economic and cultural objectives well defined and realistic

While in the planning stage, achievable and realistic short, medium and long-term objectives are required. These objectives need to be well-defined, meaning that there are clear indicators to measure the data, compared to a baseline to measure changes and time-bound when relevant. The data should be shared transparently for all to monitor the progress of restoration projects. A good framework and approach is provided by the Science Based Targets Network (SBTN) - the framework is compiled of targets that are in compliance with the limits of our planet. The associated organisations develop targets in agreement with the criteria of the framework. Afterwards the target is up for review by the community, after which it can be validated and accepted.

8. Design the projects relation between the micro and the macro level

Ecosystem restoration can be initiated at every geographical scale, from the plots of land of a single farmer to whole wilderness areas. At any scale, it’s important to consider the broader context in which the intervention takes place. Next to the local needs, the restoration projects should also consider the threats from and for large land and seascapes to ensure success. Also exchanges of energy and organisms across ecosystem boundaries, ecological and hydrological connectivity, and transboundary effects should be factored into the planning of these projects. A great example is provided by Rewilding Europe’s project in the Central Apennines in Italy, where they are establishing ‘co-existence corridors’. Within these corridors, local communities will learn to live alongside the spectacular wildlife of the Central Apennines, of which the Marsican brown bear is the most iconic species. By reducing the damage caused by such wildlife, and by allowing communities to benefit from it, people living here will become ambassadors for the landscape's wildlife.

9. Include reviewing, monitoring and developing beyond the projects

The restoration projects require constant review and monitoring to realise the projects’ full potential. Furthermore, progress should be reviewed to check if the goals and targets, that were set in the planning phase, are being met. To reach nature-positive, the baseline data measured at the start of each project must be surpassed. An Artificial Intelligence system called Terra-I has one of the best monitoring systems in the world. Terra-I keeps an eye on vegetation loss by comparing data from weather stations and measurements against previous data from ecosystems on the South-American continent. Afterwards it makes a prediction of how ‘green’ the land should be according to the data and compares the measurements against satellite imagery to see if the ‘greenness’ matches and can recommend follow-up actions.

10. Create laws and policies to support implementation

All restoration projects need the proper paperwork before getting started, and so governmental support is a decisive factor. Projects have the possibility to be more streamlined and efficient when all relevant governmental entities work as one. To establish successful long-term positive impacts institutions, sectors, governments and stakeholders require closer cooperation. Favourable laws and regulations make this job somewhat easier. Bhutan is one of the trailblazer countries when it comes to environmental laws. In its constitution, they have stated that at all times 60% of the country must remain forest, and they are actively engaged in the preservation and restoration of those forests on the national and regional levels.  

To conclude, these ten guiding principles provide clear guidance to successfully develop a nature-positive world that will benefit both nature and human well-being. By following these principles, and working together to scale projects that adhere to these principles, we can halt the current degradation of nature and restore, renew and regenerate damaged ecosystems back to their full health.


Black Jaguar Foundation Report

United Nations
Decade of Ecosystem Restoration
Sustainability Development Goals

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