- An integral part of nature-based solutions is landscape restoration, specifically Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR).
- A landscape approach to forest restoration would try to achieve objectives that support a wide range of stakeholders as well as social, ecological, and economic elements within the defined forest landscape. This is different from afforestation and reforestation activities, which has the simple objective of increasing green cover or restoring green cover.
- Forest landscapes have been receiving special attention in the last few years as they are unique in addressing the ‘triple crisis’ which the natural environment is facing today: the climate crisis, environmental pollution, and biodiversity loss.
- The views in this commentary are that of the authors.
For the first time in the history of the Conference of Parties (CoP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the cover decision text – increasingly seen as a political commitment resulting from these conferences – at COP27 in Sharm-el Sheikh, Egypt dedicated a paragraph to nature and nature-based solutions. The text “underlines the urgent need to address, in a comprehensive and synergetic manner, the interlinked global crises of climate change and biodiversity loss in the broader context of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the vital importance of protecting, conserving, restoring and sustainably using nature and ecosystems for effective and sustainable climate action.”
An integral part of nature-based solutions is landscape restoration, specifically Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR). Forest landscapes have been receiving special attention in the last few years as they are unique in addressing the ‘triple crisis’ which the natural environment is facing today: the climate crisis, environmental pollution, and biodiversity loss. With this decade being declared as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the world is in the midst of a new era that focuses on giving nature more space and integrating nature/biodiversity in land use and economic practices. The UN Biodiversity Conference Meeting that recently concluded in Montreal, Canada committed to putting 30 percent of land, water, and marine areas under protection by 2030. Growing interest in nature-based solutions and REDD+ carbon credits in carbon markets, new financing initiatives like the LEAF Coalition and the Forest and Climate Leaders’ Partnership, as well as bilateral partnerships between two countries, like the Indo-German Joint Declaration of Intent on FLR, are accelerating implementation on the ground.
FLR is a relatively new concept in a world where different aspects of nature, including forest, water, and agriculture, are taken separately and not as a whole. In India, for example, forests, water, agriculture, and horticulture have dedicated state departments that traditionally work within their specified jurisdictions and are very recently working in tandem following the whole of government approach to achieve common objectives. Different channels of communication exist between these departments and the local communities, though at times, their use has been limited.
The Landscape Approach embedded in FLR requires a completely new way of policy making, financing, implementation, and management. The first step to making this pivot in narrative is to help stakeholders develop an FLR perspective. This begets the question: what is a forest landscape?
Forestry beyond forests: Defining Forest Landscapes and the Landscape Approach
The India State of Forests Report (ISFR) 2021 recognises that the terms ‘forest cover’ and ‘recorded forest area’ describe different concepts in the Indian context. While the forest cover refers to all tree patches with canopy density of more than ten percent and an area of one hectare in size irrespective of land use, legal status and ownership, the term recorded forest area refers to all geographical areas recorded as forests in government documents regardless of the actual trees growing on such lands.
However, there has not been a formal definition of forests in India so far. After the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) Meeting in September 2019, the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) observed that the states and union territories are in a better position to define forests according to the unique conditions prevailing there.
Read more: [Explainer] What is a forest?
Without a uniform definition of forests, defining a forest landscape becomes murky. A landscape has been defined in many ways. For example, Denier et al (2015), as cited by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH background paper on Landscape Approaches (2019), defines landscapes as a “socio-ecological system that consists of natural and/or human-modified ecosystems, and which is influenced by distinct ecological, historical, political, economic, and cultural processes and activities. The spatial arrangements and governance of a landscape contribute to its unique character”. The definition recognises ecological as well as socio-eco-political aspects existing in an area, broadening the scope of work from mere nature management to involving wider interests and stakeholders. A landscape is not homogenous; it will include different types of ecosystems (forests and otherwise), governance systems and stakeholder groups. A key characteristic is the scale – both spatial and temporal. Landscapes cover large areas and show changes across a broad timeline.
If the prerogative of defining forests falls to states and union territories due to the unique prevailing conditions, we believe that it is important to broaden this exercise and bring wider stakeholders on board to define forest landscapes in each state and union territory, which would extend beyond forest cover and recorded forest areas. FLR – the concept that is increasingly going to be applied to solve the triple crisis – can only begin by establishing a clear and uniformly accepted definition for forest landscapes. An important outcome of crystalising a state-specific definition for forest landscapes will be the boundary of the forest landscape that considers administrative, agro-ecological, and social dimensions. This boundary is by no means impervious; a landscape is constantly influenced by actions from outside this boundary. However, even delineating a porous, fuzzy boundary greatly improves FLR implementation on the ground from the governance perspective.
The need for a uniform definition across stakeholders cannot be overstated: what the term ‘landscape’ describes can differ between social scientists who view social dimensions, ecologists who concern themselves with biophysical dimensions, businesspersons looking to derive goods and services from an area, and communities seeking livelihood options. Without reflecting and addressing the priorities of all stakeholders through a common definition, restoration efforts can become disjointed and even conflicting.
Leading from this, a landscape approach to forest restoration would try to achieve objectives that support a wide range of stakeholders as well as social, ecological, and economic elements within the defined forest landscape. This is different from afforestation and reforestation activities, which has the simple objective of increasing green cover or restoring green cover. Restoring ecological functionality is a key intended outcome in FLR which requires work on several ecosystem services, unique to that forest landscape, ranging from water security, air pollution, biodiversity, soil health, and non-timber forest produce. This approach would require vastly different tools and methods than traditionally used to manage nature. It will also require different governance structures, policy instruments, economic plans, and social interests. Priorities will differ at various scales. For example, over shorter time scales, the priority objectives could be food security and securing livelihoods, and over medium to long time scales, biodiversity improvements and ecological function may become priorities. While present-day forest management considers ecosystem services like water security, carbon sequestration and livelihoods, using the landscape approach will achieve multiple socio-ecological and economic benefits simultaneously over larger areas and timescales.
State-wise Forest Landscapes Maps
There is precedent in adopting such approaches in India. The watershed development programmes of the Department of Land Resources, Ministry of Rural Development and the Watershed Development Fund of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) have been functioning for many years with a core objective of improving water resources and ancillary objectives related to improving ecological and social parameters. Under the watershed programmes, the unit of functioning has been a watershed, which is analogous to a landscape as it transcends traditional land-use boundaries. Watersheds – the foundation of these initiatives – have been mapped out in detail in the Watershed Atlas of India.
Developing a shared understanding of forest landscapes and FLR amongst all the stakeholders in a state can lead to the development of a state-wise forest landscape map. Such a map can be informed by different related documents like the Watershed Atlas of India and the Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India, among others. This could become an excellent tool to bring together several independent FLR pilots and projects currently being implemented in India onto a common frame of references. It will also help visualise what a forest landscape means for all stakeholders. Establishing this clearly defined unit of intervention will enable next steps required to successfully implement FLR at scale in line with appropriate priorities.
Written by Saurab Babu and Aruneema Singh, Junior Advisors, GIZ India with inputs from Kundan Burnwal, Senior Advisor, GIZ India.
Banner image: A landscape under restoration at Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo by Saurab Babu.