The wonder and hope of planetary ecological restoration

Replacing a sea front that used to be concrete, restored dunes now protect the shore at Durban's North Beach.
Replacing a sea front that used to be concrete, restored dunes now protect the shore at Durban's North Beach.

How do we heal the planet, Mother Earth? Not with technology, but with people.

Dealing with the issue of climate change demands acknowledging that humanity is racing headlong towards destroying the world as we know it. Which can make keeping one’s psychological moorings intact quite difficult (something under-estimated, I suspect, by most employers in the environmental sector). I often seek mental anchorage in the growing movement for ecological restoration, which the eco-technocrats sometimes call ecosystems-based adaptation, and permaculture – “you can solve all the world’s problems in a garden”, says one of its leading lights. Well, the milieu demands we all become gardeners.

Ecological restoration is the art of working with nature – and, most importantly, the people living in any particular ecosystem – to restore not only nature, but the lives of people. We tend to under-estimate the human impact on the landscape – forgetting that a dramatic human influence on the environment on the environment long pre-dates the racing climate change that has now been accelerated by the Industrial Revolution. All too many people assume that our deserts are largely natural. But this is not so – human beings have been changing landscapes for thousands of years through clearance for agriculture, bush burning, grazing and overgrazing, and harvesting of wood. Large parts of northern Africa, in Egypt, Tunisia used to be fertile and forested, before early civilisations – ancient Egypt, Carthage and Rome, began the over-exploitation of those environments. Before climate change became the most high-profile environmental issue, many considered desertification and land degradation ‘the greatest single environmental threat to the future well-being of the Earth’.

Pre-conquest Mexico City, an artist's impression in Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology.
Pre-conquest Mexico City, an artist's impression in Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology. Pic: me.

Two years ago, I passed through Mexico City. It was one of the driest, most polluted environments I have seen. My impression was perhaps not completely fair – I was there midst their very dry winter. But my shock deepened when I discovered that the city is built where once were lakes.

There is speculation that Australia’s deserts were created by the burning of coastal forest by the Aborigines.

When forests are destroyed, and land degraded, the carbon that was held by plants and soil is released into the atmosphere and dissolved in the oceans, causing climate change and ocean acidification.

Africa is the continent most threatened not just by climate change, but also by desertification, as the quiet cousin to the UNFCCC informs us. The Sahara Desert continues to advance.

But this post is about promise, not threat; it is about the amazing things that people are doing to restore and heal damaged land, to create forest and restore watersheds, and in so doing, build livelihoods. The greatest examples of ecological restoration that I know of are in China and Niger.

The Loess Plateau

Effects of restoration on the Loess PlateauEveryone on Earth, but most particularly those concerned with climate change, should know the story of forest landscape restoration on the Loess Plateau in China, a huge region which has been rendered dry and barren by thousands of years of badly managed subsistence agriculture. A 2009 short film, Hope in a Changing Climate (link to YouTube video), tells this amazing story:

In the Loess Plateau, an area the size of Belgium has been successfully restored over ten years. A barren, brown landscape, denuded and degraded, has been brought back to life; a people entrenched in back-breaking poverty now work, farm, herd and live, in a functioning, green ecosystem where rainfall infiltrates, water is retained and crops are readied for export.

Hope in a Changing Climate not only covers the story in China, but shows how the same techniques have been used on a lesser scale in Africa, in Rwanda and Ethiopia. In Rwanda, their modest hydropower schemes were threatened by watershed damage. The Rwandans have begun to reverse this, through restoration.

The experience of the Loess Plateau has been documented by journalist John D. Liu of the Environmental Education Media Project, and also described in mainstream press articles. If you’re keen to see a more detailed account of the restoration process, you can find it in a series of videos posted by the Permaculture Research Institute (Australia’s greatest gift to the world).

The most important part of the process was human – getting the consent of the local people. Even in totalitarian China, this basic democracy was the most vital part of the process. The people had to be persuaded to keep their flocks in check – they can no longer wander free to eat all plants down the roots (domestic animals can be part of the solution too, in holistic planned grazing, and used to promote plant growth).

There is a lesson here for those climate change technocrats who are all too ready to sweep aside the rights of local people in their measures for “reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation” (REDD).

The tops of hills were returned to nature and forest, extensive terracing created new fields for agriculture, and various types of dams captured silt, arrested erosion and reduced water loss, restoring water tables.

Land regeneration in Niger

Niger is home to what has been described as “one of the most successful land regeneration projects in the world”, the Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration project. Since the 1980s, the project has helped with the restoration of three million hectares of land, “bringing back biodiversity in flora and fauna, increasing soil humus (and thus carbon) content, improving water retention and microclimates, and dramatically improving the health and viability of local communities”. The techniques used there are now being employed in Chad, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Mali.

Tony Rinaudo, a key advisor to the Niger project notes that this approach was only employed after other approaches had failed. What made the difference was a particular insight:

Then one day I understood that what appeared to be desert shrubs were actually trees which were re-sprouting from tree stumps, felled during land clearing. In that moment of inspiration I realised that there was a vast, underground forest present all along and that it was unnecessary to plant trees at all. All that was needed was to convince farmers to change the way they prepared their fields. The method of reforestation that developed is called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR). Each year, live tree stumps sprout multiple shoots. In practising FMNR the farmer selects the stumps she wants to leave and decides how many shoots are wanted per stump. Excess shoots are then cut and side branches trimmed to half way up the stems. A good farmer will return regularly for touch up prunings and thereby stimulate faster growth rates.

The Niger experience has been described in the New York Times. It has immense benefits for local people, as it can “directly alleviate poverty, rural migration, chronic hunger and even famine in a wide range of rural settings […] contributes to stress reduction and nutrition of livestock, and contributes directly and indirectly to both the availability and quality of fodder.”

Restoring the Earth’s water

Of course, if one is to turn back deserts, one needs water. The technocratic approach to this problem is to create energy-dependent vast engineering schemes with megadams and concrete, generating huge carbon emissions. But there are other ways, ways that will last, ways that have lasted. It’s not widely recognised, but Sri Lanka is the site of the world’s largest and most ancient water harvesting landscapes.

Building water retention landscapes with permaculture

I did not realise until reading about Tamera in Portugal, that southern Europe is experiencing advancing desertification. But it is. At Tamera, a permaculture eco-village and peace research centre, resident researchers are working to turn back the drying by building water retention landscapes. Their website is a little awkward to navigate, but the best impression of what’s underway there is given by this video. In just five years, the creation of a series of lakes at Tamera has transformed the land there. These lakes differ greatly from dams – built with earth, oriented with the prevailing winds to allow maximum oxygenation of the water, they blend with the land as if they’d always  been there, and springs sprout from the land near them. It’s worth reading this passionate account by Bernd Mueller of this work. As he says:

Desertification is in most cases not a natural phenomenon but the result of incorrect water management on a global scale. Deserts do not arise because of a lack of rain, but because humans treat water in the wrong way.

The Tamera water project has been entered in the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, a prize for “solutions that have significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems”.

One of the key minds behind the restoration of landscapes at Tamera is an unconventional Austrian permaculturist, Sepp Holzer. Who is Sepp Holzer? As the website Celsias relates:

In the coldest part of Austria, a farmer is turning conventional wisdom on its head by growing a veritable Garden of Eden (link to 5 min YouTube video) full of tropical plants in the open on his steep Alpine pastures. Amid average annual temperatures of a mere 4.2 degrees Celsius (39.5 Fahrenheit), Sepp Holzer grows everything from apricots to eucalyptus, figs to kiwi fruit, peaches to wheat at an altitude of between 1,000 and 1,500 metres (3,300 and 4,900 feet).

Want more permaculture marvels? How about the account of how these techniques revived, within a few months, 10 acres of highly salted, hyper-arid, almost flat desert, 400m below sea level and 2km from the Dead Sea in Jordan: Greening the Desert. That project went into decline, for lack of human continuity, but it seems regional interest in permaculture continues to grow. More on that here.

Food forests

So if we are to restore our forests, how will we eat? One clue comes from the past: not all the ancients were destroying land in order to live.

As Permaculture magazine relates:

In 1975, Geoff Lawton discovered a remarkable oasis in the Moroccan desert, a remnant of an ancient sustainable agriculture, the 2000 year old food forest farmed by 800 people. He returned to document it 28 years later. Date palms are the main overstorey species with an understorey of carob, bananas, quince, olives, figs, pomegranates, guava, citrus, mulberries, tamarinds, grapes… and many more smaller species. He found the food forest to have a wonderful atmosphere – cool, lush, shaded as if he was inside an organism, safe and secure yet surrounded by desert.

There’s more about food forests here, and this video, also by Geoff Lawton, gives a quick tour through seven different food forests.

The marvel of sand dams

A couple of years back, in London, I attended an Earthwatch-hosted debate at the Royal Geographical Society. The topic was the water crisis, or water crises, that are growing around the world, and the debate invited five people to propose solutions, after which, the audience voted on what they thought was the best one. It was not a format that provided much space for seriousness, but the most impressive and inspiring presentation, was by Simon Maddrell of the NGO Excellent Development, who talked about sand dams (and won the audience vote, which included mine).

I’d never heard of sand dams! I like to think I know about such things, so was simultaneously peeved and delighted to discover this extraordinary story of ecological restoration in Kenya.

A sand dam, it turns out, is a low retaining wall built across a river bed that traps sand and silt in times of flood. The sand and silt, in turn, trap water (up to 60% by volume) which is then accessible to local people, is automatically filtered, begins to restore the water table, and to restore local ecology. People who have had to walk literally days to get water, now have ready access to it again, and rates of intestinal disease decline rapidly. Combined with terracing, tree-planting and the restoration of local vegetation, sand dams can become the centre of whole new micro-climates. In fact, as whole regions start to follow this process, regional climate soon begins to change.

Before sand dam
... and after.

You can view a six-minute video on sand dams and the work of Excellent Development, which has now supported the construction of over 200 sand dams on YouTube.

Dams designed to catch silt are referred to by hydrologists as warping dams, and they are also deployed on the Loess Plateau.

For a great many other examples of related work, see the fairly comprehensive and accessible book Transforming Landscapes, Transforming Lives: The Business of Sustainable Water Buffer Management, produced by the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the FAO.

Update: 19 April 2012

Muna Lakhani of the Institute for Zero Waste has reminded me about dew ponds, air wells and various techniques for water harvesting.

I have stumbled on yet another reference that indicates how short are our memories about the shape of our planet:

 … in 1500 the Amazon jungle as we now know it did not exist. At that time, and for many centuries before, the Amazon basin was a thickly settled agricultural region full of sizeable cities and towns with thriving local and long distance trade. The first Spanish explorers to travel down the Amazon described it in these terms, which were dismissed as fables by later writers who knew only the “green hell” of the postcollapse Amazon. Only in the last two decades or so have sophisticated archeological studies shown that the conquistadors were right and their critics wrong.

This history (so I understand, I have not seen the refs myself) is outlined in Albert Bates’ The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, and Charles Mann’s 1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus.

Then, another spectacular story of recent ecological restoration, this time from Indonesia, via the massively popular TED talks.

By piecing together a complex ecological puzzle, biologist Willie Smits has found a way to re-grow clearcut rainforest in Borneo, saving local orangutans — and creating a thrilling blueprint for restoring fragile ecosystems.

Published by

David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.

6 thoughts on “The wonder and hope of planetary ecological restoration”

  1. What a great overview! Thanks for all these resources. I’d like to add two points to your already excellent article.

    One is that archeological evidence suggests (amid debate) that the fruit-bearing Amazon forest is largely the creation of earlier civilizations that were nearly completely extinguished by the European diseases that came with the conquistadors. Charles Mann provides an excellent synopsis in his book 1491.

    The second is that, in North American and Europe, beaver dams and wood jams historically provided many of the same services as those described above. Beaver were trapped nearly to extinction to fuel a hunger for fur, wood jams were removed to simplify the river channels for human settlement, and the large trees that would create new jams were cut for lumber and fuel. In addition to storing water and sediment as described above, these “natural” dams provided additional functions such as creation of additional habitat types and refuge for instream organisms. Ideally, our society will continue to evolve so we will allow these other critical dam types back into our rivers and, where that is not possible, our dams can continue to evolve even further than the ones described here.

  2. Denise, thanks for absolutely fascinating additional comments… just when you think you’re beginning to understand just how much we’ve changed this planet, you have to think again. It seems so much of “nature” is unnatural…

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