On the 8th of May 2015, Science published an article “Commiting to ecological restoration” advocating for meaningful ecological restoration, authored by 13 prominent restoration academics and reviewed by 3 more. As the article points out, ecological restoration is exploding onto the international scene as governments line up to commit to it as a way of addressing climate change and biodiversity loss. At the 2014 climate summit in New York assembled parties committed to restoring 350 million hectares in the next 15 years. That’s an area 168 times the size of Wales. When governments line up to commit to environmental issues on such a grand scale, given recent failures to hit environmental targets many may wonder: Can these commitments be trusted?
Indeed, the authors are concerned about these commitments being met with high yielding forest monocultures to maximise carbon sequestration, known as ‘carbon farms’ or flood prevention projects where trees are planted in cities to reduce storm surges. They point out that these actions will do little to halt biodiversity loss; they will not help us as a society make the changes necessary to pull out of our trajectory of environmental decline.
To pre-empt these possibilities, the authors have built a general framework: a checklist which can be used to assess whether an environmental intervention is in fact really ecological restoration. It’s not detailed, and assumes knowledge of ecological restoration, so I’ve defined some of the terms they use. There are four things that they say restoration needs to have:
Firstly ‘ecological integrity’, which means the restoration project is biodiverse and the processes which sustain it are intact. Secondly, ‘long term sustainability’, which means that this integrity is likely to persist. Thirdly, that the project ‘benefits and engages with society’. Finally, that the project is ‘informed by the past and the future’, meaning that the ecosystem is historically what would usually be found in the area, and takes into account likely future environmental change.
The authors then demonstrate how the checklist can be used. The projects that score worst are a collection of 434 clean-up schemes carried out after mountaintop removal mining in southern Appalachia, USA. The project which scores highest is a stream restoration in Haida Gwaii, Canada, which the authors regard as ‘exemplary’. These projects differ in their scores on the checklist, but what is not detailed in the article is why the projects are so different. It is critical to understand the way in which these different restoration outcomes came about, whose interests they represent and what that means for pulling out of our downward trajectory.
The mountaintop removal restoration represents ‘business as usual’ in which mining companies spend the least possible money to ensure that they do not incur sanctions for breaking environmental laws (which are insufficient anyway). Forced by legislation (fought for by environmentalists) the companies carry out restoration, but in their failure they represent the interests of powerful organisations that primarily value profit maximisation. They exemplify why government commitments to restore cannot be trusted and the continuation of the trajectory of environmental decline.
The Haida Gwaii example demonstrates what is necessary to create real restoration. There are many important factors which lead to such different outcomes but what is most apparent in Haida Gwaii is the presence of a community of people who are willing to sustain a fight for a different way of thinking about our place in the environment.
For decades residents of Haida Gwaii (approximately half of them members of the Haida First Nation who descend from a lineage that stretches back for over ten thousand years) have fought. Firstly to stop exhaustive industrial logging and secondly to restore the areas which have been damaged by logging. There have been personal sacrifices: elders and allies arrested for blocking logging roads, days in meetings, representations made. The process requires resolve, tenacity and the time and energy of hundreds of people.
The restoration projects represent the interests of the Haida, which are to “to take care of the land, the surrounding waters and the people who call [Haida Gwaii] home.” It represents engagement with the dirty work of politics, the pain of conflict and the relentless questioning of business as usual. Haida restoration work is praised in international journals, but their struggle is not over; the Haida are now fighting against oil transport planned to go through their territory. Business as usual fights back.
The Haida case shows that an area 168 times the size of Wales will not be restored in any meaningful way without a fight. We won’t pull out of our downward trajectory without resolve and tenacity. As academics we must acknowledge the messy world outside our polite checklists, and if we want real ecological restoration we must fight for it.
By Ella Furness
Sustainable Places PhD student