Put people first in Forest and Landscape Restoration: learnings from meeting in Philippines

By Cathy Watson

It was a small group of researchers, NGO leaders and government officials that gathered in the typhoon-battered city of Tacloban in the Philippines February 22-24. But collectively they had thought for many hundreds of years about forest landscape restoration (FLR).

Attending the third meeting of FLoRES – the Forest and Landscape Restoration Standards Taskforce – they planned to unpeel FLR and make it easier for others to understand.

Organizer Robin Chazdon said that many parties, from practitioners to governments to funders such as the World Bank and Global Environment Fund, want standards for FLR. “We’ve had donors say, ‘We are doling out tonnes of money and do not have a way to allocate it or know what to expect from projects calling themselves FLR’.

Like all in attendance, she holds that FLR needs core principles and that “without principles, the world risks repeating costly mistakes with business-as-usual approaches.”

“For this meeting I am particularly interested in how we can make FLR happen at scale and provide better guidance for people on the ground,” said the Emeritus professor from University of Connecticut.

Every other participant brought an interest from their work too. WeForest’s Victoria Gutierrez, the other organizer of the event, said, “I’m interested in the social and economic aspects of FLR. These determine long term success but are often seen as by-products of ecological restoration. I am frequently in meetings and they are not spoken about.”

“I’m interested in indicators,” said PhD student Liz Ota from Brazil. “Having short-term targets makes FLR easier but does not mean you get a forest in the end.”

“I am interested in how indigenous knowledge can help select species for FLR,” said Anatolio Polinar from the Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

“I’m interested in capacity development for FLR,” said David Neidel, who runs Yale’s ELTI programme in Asia.

“I’m interested in community reforestation capacity” said Australian professor John Herbohn.  “Top down models are insufficiently nuanced about the people part.”

On Day 1 the 16 participants visited a project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) that has helped to make FLR part of the way of life of an upland community on the island of Biliran.

In earlier years the community of Kawayanon rebuffed outsiders who told them how to use their land. Now it was welcoming. “We had a lot of problems with the way FLR was introduced,” said Romeo Debalos, president of the Peoples Organization. “But now we are happy.”

Environmentalist Nestor Gregorio, who leads the ACIAR FLR Project in the Philippines, explained what had happened. Desperate to reverse deforestation, the DENR had attempted three programs to plant and grow trees, but “the community was not brought on board” and the DENR retreated in frustration.

“DENR invited us in but said this community was difficult and that I was out of my mind to try,” said Gregorio. “The land was burnt twice a year. All the common problems of restoration were present.”

He and his team took a new approach. “We came and spent a year talking with the community and helping them to build their People’s Organization — before expecting that they plant a single tree.” This changed everything, and there was progress all round.

The community stopped setting fires, and the trees survived for the first time. Today it has a thriving agroforestry zone, a production zone of Acacia mangium, and a protection zone of indigenous species in the high forest land.

And the DENR, which had persisted with the community through thick and thin, changed its approach too. “We realize that we have to satisfy economic needs for communities,” said Bonifacio Polinar. “We are delighted to have you here to improve our survival rates.”

“In a really poor community like this one, it’s important to get the agroforestry component up and running,” observed Herbohn. “You have to work with the community, so they capture the value and not someone else.”

The Biliran case was food for thought on Day 2. “FLR has to interest people,” said Peruvian forester Cesar Sabogal. “We want people to discuss what we want them to discuss,” said ecologist Rhett Harrison of World Agroforestry. “But they have their livelihood at the front,”

The conversation then shifted to recommending that donors invest boldly in FLR. “FLR is a means to an end. It can reduce vulnerability to natural disasters and bring back vital ecological and social functions” said Pat Durst, FAO’s Asia forestry advisor for over two decades.

“A donor with a broad vision might see that FLR can bring about less irregular migration and less radicalization,” said another participant.

But there were also cautions that “FLR is not a tree planting competition” and that indeed, in some cases, restoration of formerly forested landscapes may not always need to put tree planting at the absolute fore.

“It is very easy for an agency to say that we are going to plant trees,” said Australian forester Jerry Vanclay. “But that won’t necessarily protect the catchment or provide a continual supply of clean water. Instead, you might need to focus on assisted natural regeneration, grazing animals differently or controlling burning. FLR done well means you go in and understand the community rather than come in with a predetermined solution.”

The last day of the meeting was spent looking at six FLR principles. Reviewed by the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration in 2018, they are:

  1. Focus on landscapes not individual sites.
  2. Engage stakeholders, including vulnerable groups, in decisions on land use, goals, implementation and benefit sharing.
  3. Restore ecological, social and economic functions to generate a range of ecosystem goods and services
  4. Maintain and do not convert or destroy natural forests or other natural systems. Aim for conservation, recovery, and sustainable management.
  5. Tailor approaches to local social, cultural, economic and ecological values and history. Draw on latest science, best practice, and traditional and indigenous knowledge.
  6. Manage adaptively for long-term resilience. Enhance species and genetic diversity. Adjust as climate, stakeholder needs, and societal values change.

If operationalised and applied to specific contexts, said delegates, these principles can help ensure success. “What’s the point of funding the same project five times in 20 years when you can do it once?” said John Herbohn.

“I really think these principles are critical or FLR can get diluted,” said another participant. “We need these to get a balance,” said Durst. “Too many people associated with FLR are stuck on the ‘F’ for forest and not enough on livelihoods.”

As participants headed back to Manila for a 3-day international conference on FLR, there was optimism. “It is about the way the program is designed, introduced, implemented,” said Nestor Gregorio. “Up to now social aspects have received scant attention, particularly livelihood. But once the social landscape is successful, the biophysical will just succeed.”

IUCN’s Li Jia, who manages its Restoration Opportunities Assessment Methodology across Asia, said: “Many restoration projects are very segmented because people think in single disciplines and institutions are in silos. But now more and more people see the connection between different parts of landscapes. I’m hopeful.”

“I’m happy with our conclusions,” said Victoria Gutierrez. “Trees grow on social landscapes.”

END

Cathy Watson is Chief of Programme Development at World Agroforestry (ICRAF), which invests heavily in restoration. She tweets @CWatsonICRAF and writes at http://blog.worldagroforestry.org/index.php/author/cathy-watson/ and https://www.theguardian.com/profile/cathy-watson