Can social innovation help accelerate forest and landscape restoration?

Reflections on how inclusive processes pushed by a landscape governance system could bring the social-ecological innovation required to find innovative solutions for contemporary wicked problems.

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sunlight filters through leaves
Photo: Aurélio Padovezi.

In times of economic crisis, it may seem eccentric to think about forest restoration, but countries that decide to invest financial, intellectual, and social capital to recover degraded landscapes as a strategy for economic and environmental development have made successful gains.

Costa Rica recovered 80% of the total area of the country, improving the quality and availability of water, increasing the lifetime of its hydroelectric dams, and leveraging the ecotourism industry. The United States created a growth program including forest restoration as a response to the 1929 crisis and recovered 10 million hectares of forest in 30 years. China, in turn, employed thousands of workers in its “Grain for Green” program and managed to increase its forest cover by 8.1 million hectares between 1999 and 2006.

Aiming for the duel goal of increasing the multi-functionality of degraded landscape and enhancing people’s well-being, Forest and Landscape Restoration (FLR) has been pointed out as a solution for many current intertwined wicked problems, such as climate change, mass species extinction, poverty, water and food security.

Photo: Aurélio Padovezi.

Today, there is a growing political will to promote FLR around the globe. To date, more than 60 countries are voluntarily committed to restoring more than 170 million hectares of degraded forest landscapes under the Bonn Challenge: an international initiative launched in 2011, aiming to promote the restoration of 350 MM of hectares through FLR by 2030.

As a response, investments already flow to support FLR. From 2004 to 2015, more than USD 8 billion of private capital was invested in FLR, which represents 16% of the current total annual funding, signaling a rapid advancement in this agenda. The beginning of the United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) should speed it up even more, creating a favorable political environment for attracting investments in research development and concrete implementation actions at large-scale.

Implementing FLR actions on the ground means to keep and restore areas that provide key ecosystem services, such as protecting aquifer recharge zones. It also means to enlarge sustainable agri-food systems, such as agroforestry and regenerative agriculture, thus improving the quality of life and health for farmers, consumers and many other living beings.

Because each landscape has its history, culture, ecological features, and economic and political characteristics holding particular assets, as a rule, there is no one-solution-fits-all for FLR acceleration. Most of the time, the institutional and financial environments required to boost the FLR transformation are simply not there.

That’s why Landscape Governance is crucial to leverage and sustain lasting FLR initiatives. In an FLR process it is crucial to decide where, how, for whom, and by whom to restore the landscape, and what impacts are desired from landscape governance. A continuous negotiation and power-balance between stakeholders will create a favorable environment for collaboration and novel solutions. Therefore, it is fundamental to include and empower often marginalized stakeholders, such as rural and indigenous communities, smallholders, and other local dwellers.

Photo: Aurélio Padovezi.

Although promising, the FLR agenda has many challenges to overcome. The lessons learned from past experiences have shown difficulties in adapting to the countless social, technological, and political transformations that have occurred in the last decades. Both governments and markets seem to be unable to respond with the agility and intensity required by an increasingly dynamic and connected society that demands more efficiency and transparency in managing landscapes’ multiple products and services.

Social Innovation has been conceptualized as an alternative approach that represents the search for solutions where existing institutions, policies, and markets are inefficient, positioning itself at the forefront of different sectors of society (public, private, social, educational, economic, health). This was motivated mainly by its perspective of solving social, economic, environmental, and institutional problems through social transformations.

When connected to the local development process, social innovation promotes social inclusion through bottom-up approaches and capacity-building processes transforming power relations, remodeling governance structures, and incentivising political participation; in short, transcending economic relations, but also being able to affect them. The social innovation approach is represented by a set of new ideas (which could be products, services, or processes) seeking to satisfy human needs by generating new social relationships, which not only benefit the society but also enhance their capacity to act.

Graphic created by the author.

Unfortunately, organisations promoting the FLR agenda have not yet dedicated enough time to understanding the transformation and leveraging the role of social innovation, as well as the mechanisms that can enable socio-ecological innovations. Bringing these two concepts together, as well as the many different actors who work to promote them can leverage unexpected ways to foster more sustainable landscapes.