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Nine principles for the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (commentary)

Reindeer calf at Lake Inari in northern Finland, image © Markus Mauthe / Greenpeace

  • Oil drilling on Russia’s Arctic coast has led to loss of vegetation and the organic soil layer, with sediments now running into rivers: permafrost thawing is also increasing due to carbon emissions.
  • Without clear parameters for what constitutes successful restoration, restoration projects in places like this may achieve one narrow objective, such as carbon capture, but may not also benefit biodiversity, or the health, wellbeing, and livelihoods of people and local communities.
  • In April, a group of restoration experts met to define ‘net gain’ from restorative activities, establish a framework to help prioritize nature-based restorative activities and draft common principles for all types of ecosystem restoration, in support of the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.

Naryan-Mar is a sea and river port town on the Arctic coast of Russia with a population of 22,000. It is a tundra ecosystem, with shallow peat soils. The local Nenets and Komi Indigenous people are reindeer herders, hunters and fishers that use the land for reindeer pasture.

But oil drilling has severely degraded the land. And the building of roads and pipelines has led to the loss of vegetation and the organic soil layer, with sediments now running into the rivers. Permafrost thaw is increasing and with it, greenhouse gas emissions.

Restoring this tundra ecosystem is essential: to mitigate climate change, to maintain ecological balance, and to protect the livelihoods of the local community and of the Indigenous peoples living on the land.

Aerial view of tundra in Naryan-Mar, on Russia’s Arctic coast. Photo courtesy of Tatiana Minayeva.

In 2015, a small group of passionate local scientists started a project to restore this remote area. The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) recently hosted a virtual ‘field trip’ with the project organizers. Yulia Deniso, one of the self-described “tundra rescuers” is a project team member helping monitor ecosystem recovery. She described the group’s effort, “Our aim was not just to sow grass but to restore the real tundra.”

But restoration in such fragile ecosystems is far from straightforward. Disturbed areas extend rapidly due to erosion, further reducing resilience. “Rain and wind wash away and spread the sand, and the roads and paths turn into deep gullies,” Yulia explained. “The disturbed area grows ever larger. Now you can see it from space.”

Presenting key concepts for the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration

The dawn of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration has led to a massive spike in interest in restoration around the world. To fulfill the Decade’s ambitions of transformative change we must increase the pace, the amount, and the effectiveness of restoration. Thus practitioners, policy-makers, and investors need strong and consistent guidelines to help plan and implement projects, and to measure their success.

Without clear parameters for what constitutes effective restoration, projects may achieve a narrow objective – such as re-sowing grassland – which, alone, may not also benefit biodiversity, mitigation of climate change, and the health and wellbeing of local communities.

With these challenges in mind, in April 2021 a group of 58 restoration experts met for the Third Global Forum on Ecological Restoration, hosted by SER and IUCN’s Commission on Ecosystem Management (IUCN-CEM). Their goals included:

Nine common principles of restoration

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration Best Practices Task Force (BPTF) joined SER and IUCN-CEM to develop a set of principles to underpin and clarify work implemented in support of the Decade. These were based on existing published principles for different types of restorative activities under the Decade, including SER’s Principles and Standards for Ecological Restoration, Second Edition.

See related: The nine boundaries humanity must respect to keep the planet habitable

Reindeer calf in Finland, a region adjacent to Russia’s Arctic coast where ecological restoration projects are currently underway. Photo © Markus Mauthe / Greenpeace.

The draft principles provide universal guidelines for planning, measuring and valuing projects to balance outcomes for both people and nature.

The principles articulate that ecosystem restoration:

  1. Promotes inclusive and participatory governance, social fairness, and equity from the start and throughout the process and outcomes
  2. Includes a continuum of restorative activities
  3. Aims to achieve the highest level of recovery possible for ecosystem health and human wellbeing
  4. Addresses drivers of ecosystem degradation
  5. Incorporates all types of knowledge and promotes their exchange throughout the process
  6. Is tailored to the local context, while considering the larger landscape, seascape, and socio-ecological and cultural settings
  7. Is based on well-defined short- and long-term ecological and socioeconomic objectives
  8. Plans and undertakes monitoring, evaluation, and adaptive management throughout the lifetime of the project or program
  9. Integrates policies and measures to ensure longevity, maintain funding, and, where appropriate, enhance and scale up interventions

In Naryan-Mar, the team designed and implemented their project consistent with the SER International Principles and Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration, one of the bases for the UN Decade principles. Government financing for projects like this in Russia is only just beginning to appear, but is often limited to projects that focus on carbon capture. Providing governments and other funders with a holistic view of what constitutes net improvement, along with common principles to guide projects, will help ensure that outcomes benefit ecosystems and the people that inhabit them, for the long term.

Ecological and ecosystem restoration projects should aim to achieve net positive impact in ecosystem integrity, native biodiversity, and human wellbeing combined. When the focus is on just one aspect, the restorative activity may improve that aspect while degrading others, which would not result in net improvement overall.

With so much riding on the success of the UN Decade, it’s vital that we have common, global principles and a strong scientific foundation for implementing restoration. The newly released definition of net gain and the nine common principles are open for public consultation through 19 July 2021. The final versions will be announced at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in September 2021.

Jim Hallett is Chair of The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER), and Cara Nelson is Chair of the Ecosystem Restoration Thematic Group, IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Tero Mustonen of Snowchange Cooperative describes the group’s Landscape Rewilding Programme, which is restoring Arctic and Boreal habitats using Indigenous knowledge and science. Listen here: