Lessons I’ve Learned Through Ecosystem Restoration

A permaculture expert explains how to repair damaged ecosystems more effectively.

volunteers plant sea grass on a beach in Florida

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As a permaculture designer and consultant, I have been involved with a range of ecosystem restoration projects. These include both small-scale and landscape-scale schemes to repair damage to degraded environments, boost biodiversity, and build toward a better future. 

It is clear to me, as it will no doubt be clear to readers, that ecosystem restoration is crucial. As we seek to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and work to reverse biodiversity losses, restoration is an important part of the global solution.

But while it is widely understood that ecosystem restoration is "the right thing to do," there is far less understanding about what exactly it means, and how it is to be achieved. Here are some crucial lessons I have learned through my work.

We Can't Oversimplify the Complexity of Ecosystem Restoration

One of the most prevalent misunderstandings about ecosystem restoration is that it is all about action, especially planting trees.

It is important to understand that forest and woodland ecosystems are not the only crucial environments to conserve and restore. Ecosystem restoration pertains to a huge range of different systems—to farmland soils, to peat bogs, to grassland systems and other terrestrial systems—and, of course, to our seas and oceans, too.

There can be a tendency sometimes to oversimplify (often just to get the message across) the complexities of restoring degraded ecosystems.

Actions we take must be carefully and very specifically tailored to a particular location and site. Unfortunately, blanket statements are sometimes made about the "right" thing to do in a particular bioregion or climate. But while other projects can help to inform best practice, bespoke solutions always offer the best chances of success.

Sometimes We Need a Passive, Not Active, Approach

Ecosystem restoration is not always about actively intervening. In many instances, passive intervention can be just as effective, if not more so, than active. This involves putting paid to damaging actions and simply letting nature take the reins.

In short, in ecosystem restoration, what we don't do can be as important as what we do. Often nature already has the answers, even if we do not.

Sometimes We Do Need Active Restoration Efforts

There are situations in which humankind has degraded the environment to such a degree that natural, passive regeneration is impossible. This is when careful tailored action is required to rehabilitate the environment to the stage where natural regeneration can continue.

It is important to understand that any actions we take—for example, earthworks like sowing and planting or species reintroduction—are the starting point for ecosystem restoration, not an endpoint.

Effective Data Collection and Monitoring Is Crucial

Another key thing to remember is that we cannot succeed in ecosystem restoration without knowing how well we are doing. Many schemes start off well, but fail to undertake the data collection and monitoring that is crucial both for the long-term success of the scheme itself and for global knowledge building.

Finding science-based solutions always necessitates taking a scientific approach. Being able to monitor progress and quantify successes and failures is hugely important. 

Community-Led Efforts Are Essential

Without the involvement and, ideally, the leadership of local people, ecosystem restoration efforts struggle to succeed. When a community feels a sense of belonging and a deep connection with the land, this provides a firm foundation for future conservation and restoration work.

An understanding of indigenous relationships with the land, the taking on board of indigenous knowledge, and the complete emotional and physical involvement of those living on and near the land are all key to truly sustainable plans.

Societal Considerations Cannot Be Overlooked

While I dislike taking an overly anthropocentric (human-centered) view, environmental issues cannot be separated in our complex modern world from socio-economic ones. We need to look holistically at people and planet and appreciate the complex web of human life and its interaction with the natural world in order to form viable restoration solutions. We need to look at the root causes of degradation and how to fix them in order to restore and rebuild.

We should not look at nature merely in terms of "natural resources." But at the same time, it is important to understand how nature can thrive and still provide humanity with the things we need. It is only when we consider the natural environment and human society as interdependent and interconnected that we can really continue to make progress in this arena.