[Commentary] India holds great promise in this Decade on Ecosystem Restoration

Farmlands. Pic from UNEP-India.

  • The United Nations has declared the decade 2021-2030 as the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
  • In India, ecosystem restoration could also form the basis of post-COVID recovery, say officials of the United Nations Environment Programme.
  • Ecosystem restoration can only happen if all stakeholders are involved in the process.
  • The views expressed in this commentary are of the authors.

The World Environment Day on June 5 marks the formal launch of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), a decade where efforts to massively scale up the restoration of degraded and destroyed ecosystems will be made. The declaration of 2021-2030 as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is purposeful and hopeful, bearing in mind the unsettling revelations of landmark scientific findings of the state of our biosphere. It reveals that this decade matters most in preventing catastrophic climate change and bending the curve on biodiversity loss, without which an estimated 1 million species face the threat of extinction, many within decades.

While there is some momentum on a global response to the threats of climate change, it is imperative that human action is rooted in restoration of the world’s degraded and destroyed ecosystems. With a window for action becoming ever so small, in halting and reversing the trends of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, the UN Decade hopes to inspire a global movement, a generation for restoration.

As long as ecosystems are not degraded, they are a source of wealth for society. Healthy ecosystems, whether they be forests, rivers and lakes, oceans and coasts, mountains, grasslands and peatlands, or farmlands and urban landscapes, provide us with ecosystem services, the numerous benefits that humans and other life forms gain from a well-functioning ecosystem. These include benefits such as food, fibre, medicine, climate regulation, water purification, fresh air, and aesthetic value.

The ecosystem services from forests, such as providing water even in summer is usually forgotten. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier/Mongabay.

A chance to mend the fractured relationship with nature

However, through several decades, having often served short-term economic interests, our actions have resulted in a diminished ability of ecosystems to provide and support both humans and biota in the long-term. Homogenized landscapes, reductions in the productivity of land and aquatic systems, in water quality, and genetic and functional diversity, alongside increasing risks of climate change, spread of zoonoses and episodes of disasters bear witness to a fractured relationship with nature.

As the UN Decade is launched, the message that it brings is not one of despair but of hope; hope that in restoring our relationship with nature, our health and quality of life can be restored. A recent study published in Nature indicates that restoring as much as 15 per cent of land in priority areas could avoid 60 per cent of expected extinctions and remove around a third of the extra carbon dioxide that has been pumped into the atmosphere. In hindsight, if we had proactively invested in the sustainable use and management of our environment, it is likely that many of the crises of our times, such as COVID-19, the climate and the extinction crises could have been avoided to a large extent.

It is in this spirit that the UN Decade calls for a transformative way of working and seeks to catalyse a global movement. It recognizes that restoration cannot be achieved without the participation of the whole of society and needs to be self-driven, participatory, and carried out in a decentralized manner, following guiding principles on ecosystem protection and restoration.

For India, scaling up ecosystem restoration activities assumes national importance as India is one of the mega biodiverse countries of the world, holding four of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Owing to its diverse physical and climatic conditions, it accounts for nearly 8% of the recorded species with approximately 47,000 plant species and over 100,000 animal species. However, the pressure on ecosystems and biodiversity is also immense, as India, within 2.4% of the world’s land area, supports 18% of the global human population and accounts for 15% of the world’s livestock.

Ecosystem restoration can help in post-COVID recovery

Further, ecosystem restoration for India is not only about protecting its ecosystems and biodiversity or mitigating the impacts of crises occurring at a global scale; it provides solutions to solving challenges of food and water security and of securing the livelihoods and the well-being of millions in the country. Nearly half of the India’s 1.3 billion are directly dependent on agriculture and forests, with approximately 20 per cent, including indigenous communities, women and marginal farmers dependent on forest resources.

A 2018 study on the Economics of Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought in India, done for the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change revealed that India’s GDP suffers a loss of 2.5% on account of land degradation and the cost of inaction would be far greater than that of restoration. Moreover, with land degradation and climate change closely intertwined, the Economic Survey of India 2017-2018 indicated that the impacts of climate change could reduce agricultural income by 25 per cent.

In the post-COVID context, with an estimated 10 million Indians having lost their jobs from the second wave, investing in ecosystem restoration becomes even more essential in addressing the rising unemployment rates and dipping household incomes. While conventional strategies in crisis-recovery often deprioritize nature conservation, generally looked upon as a complementary goal, nature conservation and restoration are not opposing goals but rather serve as a long-term vision for society and for economies.

The United Nations Environment Programme has found that for every dollar that is invested into restoration, at least $9 of economic benefits can be expected in return. Given that approximately 30% of India’s land area, i.e. 96.4 million hectares stands degraded, scaling up ecosystem restoration will address these complex and wide-ranging issues including biodiversity, climate, livelihoods, and food security in the country.

Recognizing the importance of restoration to the socio-economic wellbeing of the country, as well as to the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals, India has made substantial commitments to restoration. It joined the Bonn Challenge in 2015 with a pledge to restore 13 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020 and an additional 8 million hectares by 2030. This was further increased to a target of 26 million hectares by 2030 during the Conference of Parties (CoP) of the United Nations Convention on Combating Desertification (UNCCD) held in Delhi in September 2019. Moreover, as one of its three Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), India has also committed to the creation of a carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) from additional forest and tree cover by 2030.

A degraded mangrove stand in Kerala. Restoration of ecosystems such as this can have environmental and economic benefits. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

Blending in with existing national programmes

In India, restoration targets are reflected is several of its flagship programmes. Directly, the National Afforestation Programme (NAP) is focused on the rehabilitation of degraded forests and afforestation around forests. Further, the National Mission for a Green India (GIM) under the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) is aimed at improving and increasing tree cover as a climate adaptation and mitigation strategy.

A key focus of the National Biodiversity Action Plan is also to implement strategies for the reduction in rates of degradation, fragmentation and loss of natural habitats. Recognition that natural resources are intrinsically linked to rural livelihoods is also reflected in flagship schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM).

Potential for restoration through MGNREGS lies in its plantation and rejuvenation of water bodies subcomponents, through which provisions for livelihoods in afforestation, tree plantation, horticulture, and construction of new ponds has been made. Similarly, schemes under NRLM, bifurcated into farm and non-farm livelihoods, focus on interventions to enhance natural capital and present opportunities for ecosystem restoration.

However, in achieving restoration both at pace and at scale, there is a need to overcome the various barriers to large-scale restoration. The UN Decade has identified six primary barriers to scaling restoration. These include limited awareness of societies of the negative effects of ecosystem degradation and conversely the benefits of investing into restoration; the lack of financing for restoration; shortage of legislation and policies that incentivise ecosystem restoration; limited technical knowledge and capacity for ecosystem restoration; and limited investment into long-term research.

The recently released State of Finance for Nature 2021 report highlights that investments in nature-based solutions will have to triple by 2030 and increase four-fold by 2050 if we are to resolve planetary crises. It further recognizes that currently, with public funding making up 86 per cent of finance-flow into nature conservation and restoration, private sector finance and engagement will have to be significantly scaled up.

The village pond brimming at Kadwanchi village in Maharashtra even during the drought. Ecosystem restoration such as this can be implemented as a part of existing governmental schemes. Photo by Meena Menon.

Ecosystem restoration requires everybody’s participation

Further, while restoration goals have often taken the form of tree plantations, restoration initiatives would need to also provide significant resources for the conservation and restoration of freshwater, marine, coastal, and other undervalued ecosystems. In realising restoration at scale, a diverse group of stakeholders including civil society, academic institutions, women’s groups, indigenous communities, youth, farmers’ groups and the marginalized will also need to be a part of Generation Restoration.

Individuals have an integral role to play in ecosystem restoration through right lifestyle choices and raising public awareness on its importance. Some examples of individual action include judicious use and management of water including rainwater harvesting, waste segregation at source, recycling, planting trees and encouraging plantations of native species, developing and maintaining green spaces, and choosing nature-inspired housing and energy-efficient solutions.

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is a global call to reimagine, recreate and restore the balance in nature, and along with it, restore our sources of livelihood, our health and our quality of life.  Let us make peace with nature.

Atul Bagai is the head of India Country Office of UNEP, and Reuben Gergan is Biodiversity and Plastic Pollution Consultant with UNEP India.

Read more: Bringing biodiversity and conservation to the forefront in India. 


Banner image: With diminishing land productivity, a growing emphasis needs to be placed on alternatives to conventional farming practices. Photo from UNEP-India.

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