Located in the Indian state of Manipur, Keibul Lamjao National Park is the world’s only floating wildlife sanctuary. The park’s Loktak Lake—the largest freshwater lake in northern India—is a spectacular sight, dotted with green patches and rings of vegetation known as “phumdi” that float atop the water. A biodiverse park, Keibul Lamjao provides sustenance to the people and animals of Manipur—including sangai, an endangered subspecies of brow-antlered deer revered by locals as the binding soul between humans and nature.
Tropical forests globally are being lost at a rate of 61,000 square miles a year. And despite conservation efforts, the global rate of loss is accelerating. In 2016 it reached a 15-year high, with 114,000 square miles cleared.
At the same time, many countries are pledging to restore large swaths of forests. The Bonn Challenge, a global initiative launched in 2011, calls for national commitments to restore 580,000 square miles of the world’s deforested and degraded land by 2020. In 2014 the New York Declaration on Forests increased this goal to 1.35 million square miles, an area about twice the size of Alaska, by 2030.
Ecological restoration is a process of helping damaged ecosystems recover. It produces many benefits for both wildlife and people – for example, better habitat, erosion control, cleaner drinking water and jobs.
That’s why the Bonn Challenge is so exciting for geographers and ecologists like us. It brings restoration into the center of global discussions about combating climate change, preventing species extinctions and improve farmers’ lives. It connects governments, organizations, companies and communities, and is catalyzing substantial investments in forest restoration.
However, a closer look shows that a struggle remains to fully realize the Bonn Challenge vision. Some reforestation efforts provide only limited benefits, and studies have shown that maintaining these forests for decades is critical to maximize the economic and ecological benefits of establishing them.
Putting trees back on the land
So far, 48 nations and 10 states and companies have made Bonn Challenge commitments to restore 363,000 square miles by 2020 and another 294,000 square miles by 2030. The United States and a Pakistani province have already fulfilled their commitments, restoring a total of 67,000 square miles.
Restoring forests poses political and economic challenges for national governments. Letting forests grow back inevitably means pulling land out of farming. Natural forest regeneration mainly occurs where farmers have abandoned poor quality land, or where governments discourage poor farming practices – for example, near wetlands or on steep slopes. Opportunities for natural regeneration elsewhere are limited.
As a result, much forest landscape restoration under the Bonn Challenge focuses on improving existing landscapes using trees. Restoration activities may include creating timber or fruit plantations; agroforestry, or planting rows of trees in and around agricultural fields; and silviculture, or improving the condition of degraded forests.
One early success, the “Billion Tree Tsunami” in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, has exceeded its 350,000-hectare pledge through a combination of protecting forest regeneration and planting trees. Similarly, Rwanda has restored 700,000 of the 2 million hectares it pledged, primarily through agroforestry and reforesting erosion-prone areas, and created thousands of green jobs.
However, these “restored forests” are often poor replacements for natural habitat. For animals dwelling in tropical forests, agroforestry and tree plantations can look more like green deserts than forests.
Many tropical forest wildlife species are only found in mature tropical forests and cannot survive in open agroforests, monoculture tree plantations or young natural regeneration. Truly restoring tropical forest habitat takes a diversity of forest species, and time.
Nonetheless, these working “forests” do have ecological value for some species, and can spare remaining natural forests from axes, fire and plows. In addition, scientists have estimated that restored forests could sequester up to 16 percent of the carbon needed to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, while generating some US$84 billion in assets such as timber and erosion control.
Restored, but for how long?
Benefits for wildlife and Earth’s climate from forest restoration accrue over decades. However, many forests are unlikely to remain protected for this long.
In a 2018 study we showed that forests that naturally regenerated in Costa Rica between 1947 and 2014 had only a 50 percent chance of enduring for 20 years. Most places where forests regrew were subsequently re-cleared for farming. Twenty years represents about a quarter of the time needed for forest carbon stocks to fully recover, and less than one-fifth of the time required for many forest-dwelling plants and animals to return.
This problem is not limited to natural forests. Agroforests worldwide are under pressure. For example, until recent decades, coffee and cocoa farmers in the tropics raised their crops in agroforests under a shady canopy of trees, which mimicked the way these plants grow in nature and maximized their health. Today, however, many of them grow their crops in the sun. This method can improve yield, but requires pesticides and fertilizer to compensate for added stress on the plants.
And although timber plantations sequester additional carbon with every harvest and replanting, their replanting is dependent on shifting market demand for wood. Once they are harvested after six to 14 years of growth, tropical timber plantations can be abandoned as a bad investment and replaced with higher-yielding row crops or pasture.
Solid foundations for recovery
If the Bonn Challenge is to achieve its goals, nations will have to find ways of converting short-term restoration pledges into long-term ecosystem recovery. This may require tightening the rules.
Some countries have pledged to protect unrealistically large areas. For example, Rwanda committed to restore 77 percent of its national territory, and Costa Rica and Nicaragua pledged to restore 20 percent of their territories apiece. Another flaw is that the Bonn Challenge does not prevent countries from deforesting some areas even as they are restoring others.
It will be impossible to track overall progress without an international commitment to monitor and sustain restoration successes. International organizations need to invest in satellite and local monitoring networks. We also believe they should consider how large international investmentsin sectors such as agriculture, mining and infrastructure drive forest loss and regrowth.
Countries like Indonesia that may be considering a Bonn Challenge pledge should be encouraged to focus on long-term impacts. Instead of restoring 10,000 square miles of one-year-old forest by 2020, why not restore 5,000 square miles of 100-year-old forest by 2120? Countries like Costa Rica that have already pledged can lock in those gains by protecting regrown forests.
The U.N. General Assembly recently approved a resolution designating 2021 to 2030 as the U.N. Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. We hope this step will help motivate nations to keep their promises and invest in restoring Earth’s deforested and degraded ecosystems.
MATTHEW FAGAN is an assistant Professor of Geography and Environmental Systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
LEIGHTON REID is a faculty associate at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
MARGARET BUCK HOLLAND is an associate Professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION
When we think of civilization, we think in Western terms: skyscrapers, factories, and automobiles. But as we progress, there is a growing need to live in tune with the natural world. While our affinity for the environments may seem relatively new, some civilizations have lived in such a way for centuries. The forests of Peru are home to 15 “uncontacted” tribes, groups who live in voluntary isolation and reject all connections to the outside world. However, the reverse is not true. Industrialization and deforestation threaten to take large pieces of territory from these indigenous peoples.
In December of 2017, the Congress of the Republic of Peru approved the construction of a road that would run along 172 miles of Peru’s eastern border with Brazil before connecting with the Interoceanic Highway, a 1600 mile stretch that links the two countries. The road was pitched as a way to jumpstart the economy in an area of Peru that was cut off from tourism and trade, but activists are worried. Clearing a way for the road would decimate 4 national parks and violate 5 protected areas belonging to the indigenous tribes. Activists also predict that the road will be a catalyst for more development, both legal and illegal. Drug traffickers are always looking for new opportunities to expand, and a road through the Amazon would provide just that.
Some smaller encounters are equally devastating to relations between the outside world and the indigenous tribes of the Peruvian forest. In April 2018, Sebastian Woodroffe, a Canadian scientist who traveled to Peru to study hallucinogenic medicine, was killed in an apparent lynching after he was accused of killing 81-year-old Olivia Arévalo, a local shaman to the tribal village of Victoria Gracia. Authorities launched an investigation after videos surfaced on social media of Woodroffe being dragged along the jungle floor by assailants. They later exhumed Woodroffe’s body from an unmarked grave. The incident has proven to be disastrous to public perception of the tribes.
When asked why they choose to remain isolated, members of these tribes often point to encounters their people had with colonists in the past and the violence and disease that resulted. Today, history seems to be repeating itself as modern society reaches further into an untouched and irreplaceable ecosystem.
JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself.
But releasing genetically engineered trees into forests to counter threats to forest health represents a new frontier in biotechnology. Even as the techniques of molecular biology have advanced, humans have not yet released a genetically engineered plant that is intended to spread and persist in an unmanaged environment. Biotech trees – genetically engineered or gene-edited – offer just that possibility.
One thing is clear: The threats facing our forests are many, and the health of these ecosystems is getting worse. A 2012 assessment by the U.S. Forest Service estimated that nearly 7 percent of forests nationwide are in danger of losing at least a quarter of their tree vegetation by 2027. This estimate may not sound too worrisome, but it is 40 percent higher than the previous estimate made just six years earlier.
In 2018, at the request of several U.S. federal agencies and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine formed a committee to “examine the potential use of biotechnology to mitigate threats to forest tree health.” Experts, including me, a social scientist focused on emerging biotechnologies, were asked to “identify the ecological, ethical, and social implications of deploying biotechnology in forests, and develop a research agenda to address knowledge gaps.”
Our committee members came from universities, federal agencies and NGOs and represented a range of disciplines: molecular biology, economics, forest ecology, law, tree breeding, ethics, population genetics and sociology. All of these perspectives were important for considering the many aspects and challenges of using biotechnology to improve forest health.
A Crisis in US forests
Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg. Forests face higher temperatures and droughts and more pests. As goods and people move around the globe, even more insects and pathogens hitchhike into our forests.
We focused on four case studies to illustrate the breadth of forest threats. The emerald ash borer arrived from Asia and causes severe mortality in five species of ash trees. First detected on U.S. soil in 2002, it had spread to 31 states as of May 2018. Whitebark pine, a keystone and foundational species in high elevations of the U.S. and Canada, is under attack by the native mountain pine beetle and an introduced fungus. Over half of whitebark pine in the northern U.S. and Canada have died.
Poplar trees are important to riparian ecosystems as well as for the forest products industry. A native fungal pathogen, Septoria musiva, has begun moving west, attacking natural populations of black cottonwood in Pacific Northwest forests and intensively cultivated hybrid poplar in Ontario. And the infamous chestnut blight, a fungus accidentally introduced from Asia to North America in the late 1800s, wiped out billions of American chestnut trees.
Can biotech come to the rescue? Should it?
Although there are many potential applications of biotechnology in forests, such as genetically engineering insect pests to suppress their populations, we focused specifically on biotech trees that could resist pests and pathogens. Through genetic engineering, for example, researchers could insert genes, from a similar or unrelated species, that help a tree tolerate or fight an insect or fungus.
It’s tempting to assume that the buzz and enthusiasm for gene editing will guarantee quick, easy and cheap solutions to these problems. But making a biotech tree will not be easy. Trees are large and long-lived, which means that research to test the durability and stability of an introduced trait will be expensive and take decades or longer. We also don’t know nearly as much about the complex and enormous genomes of trees, compared to lab favorites such as fruit flies and the mustard plant, Arabidopsis.
In addition, because trees need to survive over time and adapt to changing environments, it is essential to preserve and incorporate their existing genetic diversity into any “new” tree. Through evolutionary processes, tree populations already have many important adaptations to varied threats, and losing those could be disastrous. So even the fanciest biotech tree will ultimately depend on a thoughtful and deliberate breeding program to ensure long-term survival. For these reasons, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee recommends increasing investment not just in biotechnology research, but also in tree breeding, forest ecology and population genetics.
The committee found that the U.S. Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, which distributes federal oversight of biotechnology products among agencies such as EPA, USDA and FDA, is not fully prepared to consider the introduction of a biotech tree to improve forest health.
Most obviously, regulators have always required containment of pollen and seeds during biotech field trials to avoid the escape of genetic material. For example, the biotech chestnut was not allowed to flower to ensure that transgenic pollen wouldn’t blow across the landscape during field trials. But if biotech trees are intended to spread their new traits, via seeds and pollen, to introduce pest resistance across landscapes, then studies of wild reproduction will be necessary. These are not currently allowed until a biotech tree is fully deregulated.
Another shortcoming of the current framework is that some biotech trees may not require any special review at all. The USDA, for example, was asked to consider a loblolly pine that was genetically engineered for greater wood density. But because USDA’s regulatory authority stems from its oversight of plant pest risks, it decided that it did not have any regulatory authority over that biotech tree. Similar questions remain regarding organisms whose genes are edited using new tools such as CRISPR.
The committee noted that U.S. regulations fail to promote a comprehensive consideration of forest health. Although the National Environmental Policy Act sometimes helps, some risks and many potential benefits are unlikely to be evaluated. This is the case for biotech trees as well as other tools to counter pests and pathogens, such as tree breeding, pesticides and site management practices.
How do you measure the value of a forest?
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report suggests an “ecosystem services” framework for considering the various ways that trees and forests provide value to humans. These range from extraction of forest products to the use of forests for recreation to the ecological services a forest provides – water purification, species protection and carbon storage.
The committee also acknowledged that some ways of valuing the forest do not fit into the ecosystem services framework. For example, if forests are seen by some to have “intrinsic value,” then they have value in and of themselves, apart from the way humans value them and perhaps implying a kind of moral obligation to protect and respect them. Issues of “wildness” and “naturalness” also surface.
Paradoxically, a biotech tree could increase and decrease wildness. If wildness depends upon a lack of human intervention, then a biotech tree will reduce the wildness of a forest. But perhaps so would a conventionally bred, hybrid tree that was deliberately introduced into an ecosystem.
Which would reduce wildness more – the introduction of a biotech tree or the eradication of an important tree species? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but they remind us of the complexity of decisions to use technology to enhance “nature.”
This complexity points to a key recommendation of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report: dialogue among experts, stakeholders and communities about how to value forests, assess the risks and potential benefits of biotech, and understand complex public responses to any potential interventions, including those involving biotechnology. These processes need to be respectful, deliberative, transparent and inclusive.
Such processes, such as a 2018 stakeholder workshop on the biotech chestnut, will not erase conflict or even guarantee consensus, but they have the potential to create insight and understanding that can feed into democratic decisions that are informed by expert knowledge and public values.
JASON A DELBORNE is an Associate Professor of Science, Policy, and Society in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, North Carolina State University
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION