Restoring ecosystem integrity

Tribe's face

Environmental insecurity

The world is becoming harder to live in comfortably and securely.  There are the direct consequences of misusing our environments, such as the damaged and burning forests, soil erosion from cleared steep land, salt accumulation in flat irrigated land, the spread of deserts in over-grazed and desiccated lands, siltation and pollution of waters, stifling of coral reefs, and droughts, flash-floods, land-slides, and the disastrous health effects of toxic and unsanitary water and air.

Then there are indirect influences: for example, the inexorable steep rise in greenhouse gas emissions from industry, transport, household heating, forest fires and decaying vegetation.  Their effects on climate are likely to be accelerated drastically when tipping points are reached – tipping points like a sudden widespread melting of Arctic permafrost, or changes to major ocean currents.  This all amounts to a ‘war between the generations‘ – there may be gloom now, but there’ll be doom later if we don’t act forcefully and soon.

On top of all this, there is a constant background incidence of natural disasters, such as volcanoes, typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis.  Finally, many of the most productive ecological landscapes are supporting burgeoning human populations while also being among the most disaster-prone locations on Earth.

Foremost among the world’s most heavily-populated and disaster-prone locations are the coastal zones of the Indian Ocean.  Here, over 600 million people live close to sea level, subsisting on fishing and farming or else making a living somehow in sprawling settlements that include some of the most ramshackle cities in Asia.  In a typical year, many of these people endure poverty and pollution, monsoon rains, storms and flooding, as well as steadily declining fishing yields, the creeping consequence of destructive fishing, over fishing and damage to fish feeding and breeding grounds.

But in a bad year, they may be savaged by typhoons and storm surges as well, and on 26 December 2004 they had to experience the great tsunami, which a quarter of a million of them did not survive.

Putting back the pieces

Sometimes it takes a calamity to make people think in new ways, and the tsunami did that.  Studying the ways in which it impacted the coasts, and the different kinds and levels of damage it did in different places, led to the thought that long-term damage to coastal ecosystems prior to the tsunami may have increased people’s vulnerability to large waves.

It had long been known that coastal wetlands, especially ones like mangrove forests, coral reefs and big sand dunes, could absorb wind and wave energy, but for decades there had been pressure on these ecosystems, from the mining of coral rock and sand, and the clearance and drainage of coastal wetlands for aquaculture, settlement and infrastructure.  This progressive damage went largely unnoticed until the tsunami, but thereafter it became of considerable public interest to know if coastal ecosystems had a role in mitigating the impacts of the tsunami.

Since the answer was very much ‘yes’, a policy priority throughout the region became to restore coastal ecosystems as fast and as widely as possible, with the aim of improving both environmental and livelihood security.

Hundreds of groups began investing in such activities, in partnership with communities and local and national governments.  Lessons were quickly learned, though, notably that it’s much harder to restore ecosystems than to destroy them, so motivation must be sufficient for the long haul.

This requires tenure security to be addressed, so that local people who are being asked to help plant or rebuild have a reason to participate in the long term.  It also requires environmental education, so that all partners understand why they are doing what they are doing, as well as training, so that they know how to do it best.  A UN-supported study by the NGO Wetlands International in Indonesia, for example, found that half of 30 million mangrove seedlings planted after the tsunami had died because of such problems.

Halting deforestation

Similar ideas apply to one of the other great challenges in the modern world: tropical deforestation.  Such large areas of forest have been cleared for farming and ranching in particular, that whole catchment systems are now unable to hold themselves together under storm conditions, spreading mudslides and floods downhill in times of environmental crisis, and with them death and misery affecting millions of people.

Here again, to halt and reverse these processes demands security of land tenure, livelihood security, education and political leadership of a high order, and few countries have yet risen to this challenge.  But the importance of reforestation is so great that it’s becoming a priority in many places, and some important successes have been scored.

Costa Rica in Central America, for example, had some of the highest deforestation rates in the world, an average of 38 sq km per year being lost from 1973 to 1989. By 1985 forest cover had been reduced to just 24% of the original forest area.  The country then became a leader in plantation forestry, sustainable forest management, and the design and implementation of innovative forest policies aimed at protection and use of forest resources and promotion of the forest sector.

A quarter of the country was protected and landowners elsewhere were paid to preserve and restore natural forests.  Costa Rica is now the first developing country to have halted and reversed deforestation, with some 46% of the national territory is now under forest at some stage of growing back.  So it can be done!