Understanding the social landscape for restoration

Posted: 20th August 2020

Photo: Georgiana Andrei / Foundation Conservation Carpathia

By Dr David Thomas, Endangered Landscapes Programme Manager.

Governments around the world agree that climate change poses a global emergency, and that the level and rate of biodiversity loss has reached crisis point. Strategies to address both these issues recognise that it won’t be enough just to conserve – we also need to make significant efforts to restore intact, healthy ecosystems that provide the essential ecosystem services on which we all depend.

Continuing declines in biodiversity and habitat fragmentation mean that ecosystem restoration is as necessary in Europe as in other parts of the world. In response, the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 commits to deliver an EU Nature Restoration Plan. Research has used assessment of ecological integrity to identify areas that need to be protected and restored. However, across much of Europe the most significant challenges to achieving the region’s restoration targets might not be technical or ecological, but social. Most of rural Europe is inhabited and although significant parts of Europe have become depopulated as a result of aging populations and rural-urban migration, and this has been identified as an opportunity for rewilding, people remain part of these landscapes.

Restoration initiatives must acknowledge and respect the social and cultural values that exist in landscapes. Photo: © Zafer Kizilkaya

Understanding the nature-culture dynamic

Restoration promises to bring back biodiversity, reduce the risk of flooding, sequester carbon and create landscapes beneficial to health and wellbeing. Yet experience tells us that restoring ecosystems and biodiversity at the necessary scale can be challenging and face significant local opposition. In the UK for example, restoration projects at Glenfeshie in the Scottish Highlands, Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, Knepp in Surrey, and the Cambrian Mountains in Wales are among those where local communities were initially hostile to the planned changes.

But local people too want to live in homes free from the risk of floods, enjoy a countryside rich in wildlife, contribute to addressing climate change and be part of a thriving local economy – all benefits promised by these projects. The Langholm Moor Initiative is an example of a community working together to restore a landscape. So why have so many other landscape restoration projects been the subject of local opposition?

Conservation is typically about management to maintain the status quo in places that have been identified as valuable for their biodiversity. Restoration, in contrast, tends to be about change. And whilst some people find change exciting and exhilarating, others may find it unsettling and threatening. Many landscapes in Europe that are being targeted for restoration – because of their impoverished biodiversity, poor hydrological function, high carbon emissions or low agricultural productivity – have been shaped through centuries of human use. Cultural ties to the land, the traditions of use, and the created landscape – even one with degraded ecosystems and impoverished biodiversity – run deep and can make change unwelcome.

The language used to describe some approaches to restoration, particularly the term ‘rewilding’, also might not help. Most agrarian and pastoral communities have purposely ‘dewilded’ their landscape to some degree – removing the predators (and their habitat) that threatened them and their livestock, constructing dykes and drainage ditches to reduce the risk of fields being flooded etc. As agriculture has intensified, often under pressures of the market and encouraged by government subsidy, this has led to the separation of production from the natural functioning of ecosystems. Efforts to reverse these changes, without taking community perspectives into account, can be perceived as a direct challenge to the values and heritage of these communities, a hostile act that seeks to erase their cultural history. Top down planning and intervention fails to recognise the bonds that tie people to places, and discounts local knowledge that can contribute to successful recovery of the landscape. If it is to succeed, landscape restoration across much of Europe must understand and respect the histories of these places and aim to revive the connections between culture and nature.

Celebrating and re-establishing connections to nature are at the heart of ELP-funded projects. Photo: © Beleu BioFest

Finding acceptable uncertainty and stepping back

Another challenge is the level of uncertainty when working at landscape scale. General outcomes of restoration may be predictable, such as richer biodiversity, more carbon sequestering, and flooding attenuated. But many restoration initiatives, especially those working at landscape scale, aspire to restore ecosystem processes. In such cases the precise outcomes are often uncertain.

This is quite different from much of traditional (comfortable) conservation which uses management techniques to achieve a clear objective – maintenance of a desirable assemblage of defined species (a ‘‘favourable conservation status’ in EU-speak). Restoration (and specifically rewilding) by its nature requires ‘letting go’, a lack of control and being willing to let nature take the lead. But much of human history that has left its mark on the landscape has been about removing uncertainty, making environments predictable and productive. Restoration that reintroduces uncertainty will be counter-cultural for many of the communities most affected.

Harnessing skill sets

Across most of Europe the backbone of conservation strategies has been the creation of protected areas. These are places that are set-aside for nature, where conservation of biodiversity is the primary purpose, and where management and control is the responsibility of a single agency (usually an NGO or government department). Ecology has been the main training of those making management decisions, but the landscape-scale restoration envisaged in the new EU Biodiversity Strategy, which will often involve private lands, multiple owners, and with communities whose livelihoods are linked to the land, will need a different approach. Projects will need to be ecologically and socially sound, involving staff with local knowledge and connections to the communities, and with multidisciplinary training and skill sets, such as cultural awareness and listening skills, that are perhaps not typical among many currently working in conservation.

Ownership, institutions and spill-over

Large-scale ecosystem restoration will need action well beyond the boundaries of existing protected areas. This will require partnership – coordination and cooperation between multiple individuals and institutions, and active involvement of local people. The task may be made easier where a few large, private landowning individuals or institutions are involved, although even then local people may feel that their heritage or customary rights are threatened – or as neighbours they might fear spill-over effects. It is even more challenging where the landscape is characterised by highly fragmented, private ownership.

Large-scale restoration improves the chance of successful outcomes for nature, but where ownership is fragmented it can create new challenges. Photo credit: Mark Hamblin / scotlandbigpicture.com

Decisions and dispossession

On many (if not most) private lands, or land owned or managed by NGOs and government agencies, there exist public rights of way, and rights to extract and use resources. It may be as simple as having regular access to walk a dog or collect blackberries in the summer. Changes in the landscape that appear to affect the exercising of these rights may – with justification – be fiercely opposed.

Many small-scale projects can collectively add up to provide significant gains and many landowners and farmers are taking valuable measures on their land to encourage wildlife. Unfortunately, much of the high-profile, large-scale restoration that has come to public attention, especially in the UK, has been carried out by large landowners, NGOs or government agencies. For those on the periphery who are affected this can create a sense of powerlessness, dispossession and exclusion. They may understandably feel isolated from decision-making that affects them, and their experience and enjoyment of a ‘place’ where their life and future are invested. How decisions are made about significant changes to land management, even on private land, will be critical to the support that restoration receives at a local level.

Landscape restoration: not whether or where, but who and how…

Scientific evidence supporting restoration appears indisputable – in many cases restoration would bring back biodiversity, sequester carbon, and regulate water flows among a host of other ecosystem service benefits. With new knowledge and understanding of our impact on ecosystems, we can see that choices made about land use in the past – under one set of economic and social conditions and with knowledge available at the time – may not be the right ones today. Environmental crises mean that it isn’t a matter of whether we restore – it is a case of how we do it most effectively and equitably. Government’s role in this will be critical. Throughout Europe, regional and national policies have been responsible for swinging the pendulum far in one direction; a favourable policy background has the potential to reverse these trends in ways that are easier and more acceptable to communities. In this context, the EU’s new Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 and the UK’s proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme and proposals for a Nature Recovery Network, are encouraging.

But even with policies in place, it is likely to be a challenge to reconcile the cultural and social values that local communities attach to a landscape – unquantifiable assets that can’t be monetised and which are unique to a time and a place – with the more tangible services that landscapes provide, such as tonnes of carbon sequestered, protection from the risk of flooding and income from tourism and recreation. But decades of experience of conservation, coupled with an awareness and acknowledgment of some of the unique challenges of landscape restoration, help guide the way:

Engagement, consent and decision-making. In populated landscapes, local knowledge, engagement, leadership and collective action are essential for the sustainability of restoration. Approaches need to be adopted which engage communities (or ideally are led by them), which give them a genuine role in decision-making, apply robust social safeguards and which secure their informed consent for actions that affect their lands and livelihoods.

Listen. It is essential to take time to listen to local concerns and learn about local initiatives to restore. Local communities aren’t unaware of the problems, and their unique knowledge of place makes them essential implementers and powerful advocates of successful, sustainable restoration.

Recognise diversity. Local stakeholders themselves will rarely be in complete agreement with one another – given diverse human interests in an individual landscape it would be surprising if they were. Recognising that diversity, and along with it the differentials in power and influence, will be essential to adopting fair outcomes.

Integrate social and ecological objectives. The impetus for large-scale ecosystem restoration is rooted in an awareness of the significant economic and social costs, at global level, of environmental degradation. Issues such as climate change are a reminder of our shared dependence on one planet. However, within individual landscapes we need to ensure that social and ecological objectives, at local to national/global levels, are integrated, compatible and negotiated.

Develop trust. In large landscapes, involving multiple relationships between landowners, NGOs, government agencies, businesses and service providers, building trust can be complex and challenging, but is likely to be a key determinant of success.

Long-term commitment. Landscape restoration won’t be achieved overnight. Agencies and advocates need long-term commitment to supporting the process, especially during any transition period before new benefits come on stream.

Multiple scales. Addressing global climate and biodiversity crises will require large-scale approaches. However, working at scale can be complex, intimidating and damaging if things go wrong. Piloting initiatives at smaller scale, providing opportunities to learn lessons and build confidence, can help create conditions for autonomous adoption and scaling-up of effective restoration practices.

Skills. Organisations need to be equipped with staff with the right skills: individuals who are integrated with local communities, willing to listen, able to foster and forge partnerships, and who understand and are sympathetic to historical and evolving social and cultural contexts.

The imperative to restore health to Europe’s landscapes is driven by our awareness of the existential crisis we face if we don’t act. Even where the opportunity for restoration seems greatest – in those parts of Europe which have experienced depopulation – this needs to be a collective and collaborative effort that values the knowledge, skills and resources of all those with a stake in the outcomes and how they are achieved.

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