Countries have ambitious land-restoration goals, including Initiative 20x20, which aims to restore 20 million hectares in Latin America by 2020. CIAT’s Lou Verchot and colleagues are evaluating the progress in restoration across the region.

What does land restoration look like? It depends on who is doing the looking. It also matters who is doing the restoration project, and why.

“If you’re a farmer or a forester, restored landscapes look different,” said Dr. Louis Verchot, a senior scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), during a break at the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), held this year in Katowice, Poland.

With the stark warnings of this year’s special report on global warming by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – that major changes in how we use land and how we produce energy are required if we are going to have a chance of keeping the Earth warm by only 1.5 degrees. Understanding land restoration is as urgent as ever: When restored effectively, degraded landscapes can mop up significant amounts of the carbon dioxide that is responsible for most of the warming.

But so far, the full potential and the progress of the globe’s ambitious goals to restore landscapes – forested or otherwise – is poorly understood. This stems from a lack of monitoring that it built into many restoration projects. Without continued evaluation of restoration project, quantifying how a degraded landscape has recovered is not entirely possible.

Verchot and colleagues are working to change that with a study of 150-plus restoration sites across Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). The data, available online and the topic of a recent book chapter by Verchot and colleagues, will help governments, donors and civil society organizations better understand how to measure the impacts of restoration.

“We need to connect landscape restoration with climate change agenda,” said Verchot, a veteran IPCC author. IPCC is the international organization that periodically assesses scientific information on climate change and was recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

The study provides key information about the nature of restoration projects in LAC: area and type of landscape being restored, the costs and funders of the project, and, essentially, the monitoring of the restoration projects’ progress toward its stated goals, whether these be carbon sequestration, making degraded farmland productive again or fully restoring an ecosystem with an emphasis on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Many of these restoration projects are being undertaken in response to the Bonn Challenge, a recent global initiative to restore 350 million hectares of degraded lands across the globe by 2030. At COP20 in Lima, Peru, governments agreed to Initiative 20x20, which aims to bring into restoration 20 million hectares in LAC by 2020.

“We’re trying to understand how things are shaping up on the ground so that we can learn lessons and improve implementation in the future,” said Verchot. “We want to know who the players are; who’s doing what types of activities, at what scale; and how they are designing their projects. Do they have baselines? Are their objectives commercial? Are their objectives environmental?”

The study categorizes three types of restoration projects, ranging from well-funded and well-monitored to the opposite end of the spectrum.

The researchers call for much stronger project monitoring for several reasons. In order to demonstrate a project’s impact, it is necessary to be able to quantify what has been gained – in terms of carbon sequestration, economic income, or increases in biodiversity – depending on the project’s stated goals. Learning from past mistakes and improving future interventions is also complicated without adequate monitoring. Restoration should also focus more on the local stakeholders whose well-being is often directly influenced by the projects.

At COP24 in Katowice, Poland, CIAT’s Lou Verchot delivered a keynote address at the Agriculture Advantage 2.0 series of side events, which is hosted by CIAT and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Verchot talked about new research suggesting that tropical peatlands – which are important carbon sinks – may be underestimated in terms of the land area that they cover, especially in South America.

A necessary investment

The restoration goals selected by projects in Latin America and the Caribbean tend to reflect the aims of the donors, rather than the specific causes of degradation. Socio-economic components of restoration are well taken into consideration in the design of projects by large multilateral donors, but less so by other investors “Monitoring is often seen as a costly burden, as opposed to a necessary investment”, notes Verchot.

There are notable exceptions, said Verchot, who pointed to restoration interventions led by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Forest Investment Program (FIP) that give greater emphasis on the social component of restoration. Projects led by governments or investors are generally focused on creating jobs and profits.

Regardless of the size of the project, the researchers found that very little tends to be done to evaluate the underlying causes of degradation in the first place. Without understanding and addressing the reasons that caused a landscape to become degraded, it can be difficult to ensure the long-term sustainability of the project.

“One thing we need to do a better job of is understanding the incentives and disincentives to sustainable land management and then figure out what can be done for countries to create incentives for better land stewardship, recognizing there are entrenched interests in the status quo,” said Verchot.

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