The announcement by the United Nations terming 2021-30 as the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration could not have come at a more appropriate time.
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The rapid expansion of global economies over the last 60 years, along with an increase in development-led human pressures, have resulted in over-exploitation and degradation of natural resources at a pace that far exceeds their natural ability to recover.
Increased movement of people and goods has led to a rise in the invasive alien species all around the world, which heavily impact the biodiversity. Degradation has also impaired ecosystem service capability across the board.
There is an urgent need to reverse this trend and assist ecosystems to recover at a rate faster than their degradation. This calls for a shift from the traditional model of endangered species-focused conservation to a new one of ecosystem restoration. This applies to India as well.
We are one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. However, most of our unique ecosystems stand degraded to varying degrees today. Not just forests, many other ecosystems like wetlands, rivers, estuaries, grasslands and deserts, are damaged. Restoring them is a mammoth task, but one that will yield major benefits for our biodiversity and citizens. The question, then, is how we go about it.
Identifying restoration priorities
The first step should be to identify priority areas for restoration. A pre-requisite for this is a reasonably robust inventory of degradation of different ecosystems at a national level. We could then build a restoration strategy around the three top priorities for the country.
This would help direct policy-making, project identification, resourcing and implementation towards these key priorities. Projects that can deliver benefits across more than one priority may receive greater attention.
The first priority should be restoration aimed at enhancement of ecosystem services. A good example would be water security, which requires attention to our catchment areas, freshwater lakes, rivers, etc.
The degradation of Shola grassland ecosystems in the Nilgiris has been a cause for major concern in this context. Activities like sand mining and unsustainable mini-hydel projects have made many of our rivers a sad shadow of their past. The provision of fresh air in our cities is another urgent need that calls for restoration of urban green spaces.
The second restoration priority would be enhancement of biodiversity. Many of our forests have lost much of their native plants due to invasion by alien species. As a result, they are legally protected, but ecologically unprotected. Development pressures like roads, railways and tourism have led to degradation of multiple ecosystems, including coastal and high altitude ones.
The third priority of restoration would be prevention of natural disasters. Although this by itself is an ecosystem service, identifying this as a separate priority is warranted by the scale and breadth of natural disasters that we have been facing in the last two decades.
Landslides in several parts of the country have shown us the damage denuded hills can do. In the absence of healthy mangrove forests, cyclones are leaving a trail of lost life and property even in the hinterland areas. We need to urgently revive our natural disaster prevention mechanisms.
Developing a policy framework
An ecological restoration policy at the national level is needed. The policy has to strike a balance between the needs of climate change, biodiversity conservation and ecosystem integrity.
Research findings indicate that biodiverse ecosystems are far more efficient in sequestering carbon and providing ecosystem services, and this should help us move away from putting excessive focus on tree-planting drives.
The policy also has to include aspects like goal setting, monitoring, leveraging diverse streams of knowledge, public-private partnership, funding, etc. The policy should recognise that the primary responsibility for restoration lies with the State and communities and private sector organisations can at best play an ancillary role.
Building capacity for restoration
Unlike other geographies like North America and Australia, ecological restoration is a relatively new discipline in India and hence our restoration capacity is quite limited. The discipline has grown rapidly around the world in the last 30 years, with well-defined principles and protocols.
Best practices for restoration of many ecosystem types are available. Adapting these to Indian conditions would benefit our restoration initiatives significantly.
Ecological restoration is a specialised discipline with a high focus on sciences dealing with restoration, plants, soil, hydrology, geology, etc. Hence, there is an urgent need to create dedicated graduate and post-graduate courses on ecological restoration as part of our academic curriculum, using courses offered by universities overseas as reference.
Training models also need to be designed for forest departments, who are key stakeholders managing many of our ecosystems. Short-term training programmes for field supervisors will also be essential.
Most restoration projects in India are small in size. In comparison, projects in countries like Australia are planned and implemented on a large scale. Scaling up needs many enablers in place. Knowledge sharing and collaborations, where successful projects serve as guidance for new ones, will help reduce the learning curve.
Developing low-cost, replicable restoration models will enable restoring larger areas with same funding. Integrating various restoration projects within a landscape could help derive greater synergies and scale.
Restoration research needs to focus on finding scalable solutions to field challenges. Leading institutions like Indian Institutes of Technology need to focus their environmental engineering studies on ecological restoration.
Accessing funds for grassroots restoration work is currently challenging. Funding agencies, including corporate CSR, need to allocate larger resources for this crucial activity.
Ensuring stakeholder engagement
The success of large scale restoration efforts needs involvement of a wide range of stakeholders including local communities. This can by itself be a driver of livelihoods. Many countries have public-private partnership models for restoration where accredited organisations participate in the process, both on non-profit and for-profit models.
Developing metrics for assessing the economic value of restoration will help generate greater appreciation among the wider public, and the evolution of a greener GDP model.
Accomplishing all of the above may take the initial few years of the decade of restoration. But having these building blocks in place will ensure that our restoration program is targeted and effective. Otherwise, we run the risk of continuing to witness adhoc and dispersed efforts on a small scale.