Getting answers to the right questions before any restoration intervention helps ensure effective and healthy ecosystem regeneration, especially in savannas and grassy biomes
Many of the earth’s ecosystems are in need of restoration. Restoration can be used to regain the functionality of ecosystems, help protect areas from disaster (such as coastal flooding, avalanches), increase the presence of rare species, return an area to an improved state, improve livelihoods by diversifying species in agroforestry systems (e.g. providing shade for commodities like coffee and cocoa), or to secure carbon credits.
However, restoration is a societal decision. When, where, how, with what plants and animals, and for what purpose are all questions that need to be answered when planning a restoration intervention.
IUCN has been working on restoration issues since the 1990s, with a large focus on restoring functionality to forest ecosystems. Most recently, IUCN and WRI developed a tool to help governments decide on restoration priorities through a national or subnational approach. Although its focus has been on forested ecosystems, the tool can be enhanced to extend its application to non-forest ecosystems, and has already been piloted for identifying restoration opportunities in the savannas of northern Ghana.
With the right information on the target ecosystem, an organisation or individual can decide the best way to restore it. But without this information, decisions can lead to restoration interventions that are inappropriate for the target area, potentially doing much more harm than good. A clear example is in cases where grassy biomes have been “restored” simply by planting trees. These interventions have assumed that the area was once forest, rather than a biodiverse savanna.
Grassy biomes can be ancient ecosystems, containing endemic species, providing habitat, containing cultural sites, and serving a multitude of livelihood needs including providing food, shelter, and medicine. In eastern and southern Africa, vast expanses of savannas provide habitat for rare species, and are important pastureland for the cattle of pastoral people. Elsewhere, in West and Central Africa, savannas may be the grazing, hunting and gathering grounds for local people and their animals, and are part of important cultural landscapes, such as the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site in Southern Africa.
These savannas have often been encroached by forests or agricultural expansion, leading to today’s need to restore these original grassy ecosystems. But uninformed restoration can be as damaging as degradation. For example, in the Brazilian Cerrado, a world-renowned biodiversity hotspot, savannas are being planted with the wrong species of trees and causing further water loss in an already drought-stricken area.
When making decisions about any restoration intervention, it is important to understand the ecosystem targeted for restoration: Was it forest or savanna? Are there rare or endemic species? It is truly degraded? What will the restoration intervention achieve, at what cost and to whom? How is the ecosystem currently used and valued by local people? What is its historical and cultural value?
And change has started. In North America, there are many subnational programs in place to restore the biodiversity of the prairies that have been degraded by agricultural practices. In Australia, some of the largest savannas remain intact. Grasslands in many other parts of the world, including Kenya, are being restored.
Before such decisions are made, these target ecosystems, whether they are forests, drylands, or savannas need to be understood. IUCN supports a comprehensive approach to such efforts and seeks to collaborate with restoration projects to ensure that ecosystems are appropriately restored for both biodiversity and humanity.