Call for a holistic fundable metric for ecosystem restoration

Jun 2021

Picture a tree, picture it full of leaves and green. Remember the last time you sat beneath a tree, looked up at its crown, felt the wood… What did you feel? What if you are as nerdy as I am, and stand in front of that tree and realise there are litres and litres of water pumped up to that crown, not using any energy. You revel at the sight of the branches exponentially multiplying into more branches and form the leaves so that it can absorb maximum sunlight to produce its food. I even imagine the evaporation and all the other life – mosses, other plants, insects, birds, reptiles, mammals – that live in that tree. I imagine the roots that are connected to the roots of the others through a vast and jaw-droppingly intelligent mycelial network. I know that bacteria eat the excess sugars that the tree overproduced and turn those sugars in electrons, which a group of Wageningen University smart people learned how to harvest and run a lamp on. When there are no Wageningen University students near the tree with electrodes in their pockets, the electrons fuse the Hydrogen Atoms and Oxygen Atoms in a 1 to 2 ratio — producing H20. My goodness – what a wonderful thing that tree is. It’s an incredible symbol of the ecosystem.

Another great thing about trees is – you can count them when there are more.

And yet, I have a problem with the tree. I think I am one of the few that can write a paragraph on a tree. I have a degree in International Policy Studies – so imagine what a true ecologist could write? And don’t even try to get a real tree-expert started. But I do have a problem with the tree, as it unknowingly finds itself pushed into a role of the posterchild of successful ecosystem restoration.

This World Environment Day Ecosystem Restoration Camps was pleased to co-organise, together with Greenpop, the closing session of the day at the Launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The session was called “Beyond Trees: The way forward for inclusive ecosystem restoration.” We organised this event because we are experiencing difficulty matching our work with the funding-requirements of the tree-campaigns that are sprouting up everywhere since the launch of the UN Decade was announced. Both Ecosystem Restoration Camps and Greenpop are frequently approached by these initiatives to help plant trees, and both organisations note that the intention to plant trees is important but can also come with limitations. For example, the price paid per planted tree is often very low, or there is a drive to plant as many trees as possible in an area. As the “tree” becomes the preferred unit of measurement of impact and success, funding streams are directed singularly to the tree, rather than to a full ecosystem restoration project. And that is a bit of a problem for us.

A holistic approach to ecosystem restoration requires us to go “beyond the tree”: we are concerned about the full ecosystem, and also about social impacts and livelihood creation inside healthy, functioning ecosystems. To encourage a focus on the whole of ecosystem restoration, we believe it is important to discuss the search for a more balanced unit, one that is scientifically sound, attractive, also easy to communicate and that will support successful and diverse restoration initiatives. We think that this restoration unit should be accessible by small-scale, community-based projects, so it must be able to be used and presented by local communities to potential funders.

If you have ever been inside a very badly degraded ecosystem – you’ll know there is a lot of work that is needed to be done before you can even start planting a tree. Most of these systems are in arid regions of the world, highly unlikely to be able to carry a lot of trees until the restoration of the system has progressed for years. That process desperately needs funding too – but the price you get for planting a tree (which is, again, where so much money is flowing towards) does not come close to the cost of restoring degraded ecosystems.

At our World Environment Day event, Zoë Gauld-Angelucci from Greenpop and Thais Corral from Sinal Do Vale shared how they are approaching ecosystem restoration. Thais made it very clear that she starts from the perspective of humans living in the ecosystem. Food, water, life in general are the things she is trying to restore. Often in her work, the focus is not so much on planting new trees but on keeping the trees that are already there alive. Zoë told us that Greenpop started as a tree-planting organisation and has since grown into a more holistic ecosystem restoration organisation. Although tree-planting is still central to their work, they too find that a project entails so much more than trees and that the price donors pay for a tree is insufficient. John Liu, founder of the Ecosystem Restoration Camps movement reinforced these points by highlighting that the price does not in any way cover the full value that the tree or the ecosystem contributes to life on earth. We need to understand the much higher value of a tree, and work towards a system where that value is reflected in the price.

Felix Finkbeiner, Founder and CEO of Plant for the Planet, agreed that the race to the lowest price for trees is a problem. On their platform the ability to search for the cheapest tree is actually turned off. The platform will also develop a new functionality where projects can seek funding for another metric of ecosystem restoration, such as a square meter, or anything else that you can quantify and fund per unit. Felix however rightfully pointed out that when it comes to the communicative value of the tree, the simplicity of the metric of numbers of trees, and what the tree symbolises that it will be nearly impossible to find a better metric. And he is right!

We did not expect that we would come to a conclusion on this new unit during this session. We intended to initiate dialogue and plant a seed that could lead to a global effort to seek such a new metric. But can we challenge ourselves to help humanity understand the complexity of ecosystem restoration by defining a new metric that serves the complexity better? Can we find a fundable, countable metric that attracts the same type of wonder?

So now imagine an eroded hillside. When you stand on top of the hill, the larger stones and rocks underneath your feet are a bit wobbly because the soil that held them together has been washed away. You look at the gullies eroded into the side of the hill where the water rushed down during the last heavy rain. You see the swales being built. The half moonshaped dams with larger holes inside the crescent to hold plants. After the next rain, which you hope will arrives in the next few months, you imagine you will see the first plants sprouting up – robust plants that can survive in this environment. You know their roots are digging deep into the dying soil, fed by compost tea. Slowly the soils and hillsides are opening up. Water permeates the soil now, and no longer rushes down. Organic matter is being built up as some plants shed their leaves or die. Years later, more trees grow on the hillsides, and down in the valley and – on less steep slopes – polycultures have begun to be farmed. You know that deep inside the soils, mycelial networks are emerging again. You know that the nitrates, salts, and other remaining pollutants are being consumed by the plants. You see the ponds that now maintain their water level, and you see small streams emerging. The temperatures are dropping when you cross from the still degraded lands into this restored land. People are working, smiling, growing their food and enjoying a relationship with earth.

Think about that scene – and now call it something that we can count and secure funding for.