Forest landscape restoration: where to start?

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This blog is part of the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog’s month-long series on Restoring Landscapes

Forest landscape restoration is currently gaining momentum as a means of jointly addressing reforestation, climate change and future agricultural demands. There are several international initiatives aiming to promote forest landscape restoration at scale. International targets have been set, such as the CBD target of restoring 15% of degraded ecosystems by 2020, and the Bonn Challenge, which aims to restore 150 million hectares of lost forests and degraded lands worldwide by 2020.

Meeting with local stakeholders in the Halimun-Salak national park in Indonesia.  Photo: Cora van Oosten Meeting with local stakeholders in the Halimun-Salak national park in Indonesia. Photo: Cora van Oosten

Without denying the importance of these initiatives, the big question is where are these hectares to be found? And more importantly, who is to take up responsibility for its restoration? In other words, how are these global targets going to be translated into tangible action on the ground?

There are many ways in which forested landscapes can be restored, depending on the biophysical characteristics of the landscapes, but even more so on the interests of a landscape’s stakeholders, and the way in which they negotiate and make landscape decisions.

Landscape Stakeholders

Talking about landscape stakeholders, I firstly refer to a landscape’s inhabitants, who usually aim at maintaining or restoring their livelihoods and cultural identities. But I also think of private companies, which can turn a landscape’s resources into profitable businesses. And also of (inter)national investors, who provide the funding to restore a landscape’s value, without having to turn to the international donor community.

This sounds rather easy, but what happens when landscape stakeholders’ interests do not tally, but compete, and the interest of some tends to prevail over the interest of others? Which party is then to mediate between stakeholders, and assure that rightful access to land and resources is not taken away from those who rely on them?

Strong is the belief in governmental planning systems, which are to identify potential and priority areas, and rationally plan bankable restoration programmes. But most governments are not structured along the socio-ecological boundaries of landscapes, thus having limited capacity to intervene in processes as at landscape level.

I think it is more realistic to leave landscape restoration in the hands of local landscape stakeholders, who usually manage to join forces through all sorts of “landscape arrangements” - connecting public and private actors around a marketable landscape product. There are plenty of examples of such arrangements, but do we really understand how they emerge? And what do we know about how they can be upscaled to have impact at higher levels of scale?

Institutional Bricolage: the “do-it-yourself” approach

Over the past few months, I have started to see the shaping landscape arrangements as a process of “institutional bricolage”. Bricolage is a French word, which roughly means “do-it-yourself”. Hence institutional bricolage at landscape level means that multiple actors operate in informal networks across levels and scales to creatively piecemeal existing rules and regulations to make them suit their productive interests.

The outcome is often translated into informal networks, multi-stakeholder coalitions, or other partnerships in which public and private actors engage in a process of place-bound negotiation and decision-making. They creatively make use of the specific identities of place, and use these to create common visions,  brand their product, or otherwise give expression to their collective sense of place.

To me, this process of bricolage at a landscape level illustrates a place specific process, which makes it hard to be ‘upscaled’. But does this mean that it is impossible to accomplish impact at scale through locally ‘bricoled’ arrangements?

Scaling ‘up’, ‘out’ or scaling adaptively?

The answer very much depends on how we interpret the verb “upscale”. If we see scaling up as a process whereby initiatives are to grow bigger by extrapolating processes and structures to higher spatial levels, I am pessimistic, as arrangements which emerge out of a specific context cannot be extrapolated at scale.

If we interpret it as scaling out, which means we copy place-bound ideas and business models and transfer them through multiple smaller initiatives elsewhere, I am slightly more optimistic. But I get really excited when we scale adaptively, that is through innovation and adaptation, whereby scaling occurs through the rapid development of many new restoration initiatives based on initial and inspirational successes on the ground. I think this should be the aim of restoration programmes currently en vogue.

I truly hope that the current hype of forest landscape restoration will not lead to new blue prints and global planning exercises which are bound to be diluted in useless policy rhetoric.

Instead, I think we must make sure that the current momentum leads to a myriad of inspiring experimentation and pilot examples, interconnected through networks of practitioners sharing experiences and learning collaboratively - with the aim to give birth to innovative business models embedded in locally adapted institutional arrangements across the globe.

If you ask me, I’d say that only in this way, forest landscape restoration will succeed in making a difference, and turning century long degradation into lasting restoration at scale. The Global Landscape Forum, which will take place during the COP19 conference in Warsaw, would be an excellent opportunity to start.


Nice reflections with practical use.