10 Principles of Ecosystem Restoration

The decade we’re currently in — from 2021 to 2030 — was recently declared the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration by the United Nations General Assembly. This decision was made in response to the urgent need to stop and reverse ecological degradation. It also deals with the critical need to restore damaged terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems worldwide.

While this looks straightforward, it’s hard to do in reality. This is because a project of this scale needs buy-in from dozens of world leaders and investments in the billions. It also needs thorough research and dedicated teams. But before all that, it needs to have a shared vision between everyone supporting this project. This vision becomes the North Star for all activities and a guardrail to ensure everyone is going about ecosystem restoration correctly. 

The United Nations laid out principles that function as a touchstone for all ecological restoration-related activities. 

1.    Ecosystem restoration contributes to global sustainable goals

We all live on this planet, so ensuring our work contributes to sustainable goals is crucial. Our mission is to save life on Earth, and the Earth itself, so the goals are naturally lofty. This principle states that all restoration efforts, programs, and initiatives, no matter the scale, will help meet global goals for preserving life on Earth. These goals—called the UN Sustainable Development Goals—seek to improve livelihoods for everyone worldwide by ending poverty, protecting biodiversity, providing clean water, and more. Ecosystem restoration is one of the ways we can achieve many of these goals on a global scale. 

2.    Ecosystem restoration promotes broad engagement and social equity

Once again, building on the fact that we all share this planet, this principle dictates that all stakeholders, especially under-represented groups, should be given equal and inclusive opportunities to engage in “meaningful, free and active ways.” Ecological restoration is a long-term project that will take decades longer if we limit ourselves to exclusive participants. To get everyone to participate, equal and regular access to information is critical, as is ensuring a pivotal role for local communities in decision-making processes. The principle calls for building trust and respect through ground-level and inclusive governance. 

3.    Ecosystem restoration calls for a diversity of restorative activities

Almost any nature-friendly activity might be called ecological restorative, so this principle sets a definition that participants follow. In the proposal’s own words: “the activity must result in a net gain for biodiversity, ecosystem health and integrity, and human well-being, including sustainable production of goods and services.” Whether done singly or collectively, restoration activities can be implemented in degraded ecosystems of any kind, including cultural, semi-natural, natural, and urban landscapes and seascapes. The UN has also helpfully defined categories of activities, which include:

  • reducing negative socio-environmental impacts
  • recovering ecosystems to where they would have been had the degradation not occurred
  • Reducing threats like pollution and contamination

4.    Ecosystem restoration benefits nature and people

This principle clarifies that restoration isn’t an end-all or a substitute for nature conservation. Restoration should support natural recovery processes and not cause more degradation. To truly halt degradation, we must pay equal importance to conserving existing ecosystems and protecting them from harm. This is what it means to achieve the highest level of recovery.

5.    Ecosystem restoration should acknowledge and address what went wrong

Restoring ecosystems doesn’t mean papering over the cracks and pretending degradation never happened. This principle clearly states that all restorative activities should directly address the causes of degradation and biodiversity loss. If they aren’t, any action that looks good in the short term may fail in the long run because the root cause wasn’t addressed. One way to do this is to adopt sustainable practices that enhance biodiversity conservation while reducing the environmental impacts of our cities and other urban infrastructure. An example of this is agroforestry, which acknowledges that agriculture is essential for survival, but how it’s being carried out is unsustainable. It then provides an alternative that moves away from destructive practices to regenerative ones without endangering life and livelihood. 

6.    Ecosystem restoration encourages and asks for all kinds of knowledge

For ecosystem restoration to work at its highest, it needs the support of all kinds of intelligence, including Indigenous, local, and scientific ways of working. Integrating everyone’s know-how establishes a close connection with nature and between stakeholders and creates a productive decision-making environment. Knowledge about effective practices shouldn’t just be passed along through word of mouth, but documented, shared, and replicated to avoid mistakes and reach successes each time. Doing so will also help the world identify gaps in knowledge and reach out to the right communities to fill those gaps. A critical point to note is that information collection should be consensual, and sharing should keep in mind the diversity of cultures and levels of language and literacy globally. Only when we consider all our differences will we be able to build a wall to climb over them.

7.    Ecosystem restoration is based on achievable and realistic goals

A crucial key to achieving positive long-term impact is planning. This principle calls for establishing realistic and achievable goals of short, medium, and long-term lengths right in the planning phase of any restoration project. To be realistic, it should include targets and indicators that specify the direction of change needed and whether there are any deadlines. To be achievable, this plan needs to clearly communicate expected results and enable monitoring and adaptive management. It also needs to make room for trade-offs and compromises in a way that is transparent and won’t derail ecosystem recovery.

8.    Ecosystem restoration is tailored to global and local contexts

Restorative activities can happen at any scale but have ripple effects on both the local and larger landscapes. Therefore, this principle says it’s essential to consider the multiple contexts while defining project objectives and aligning with local needs. Doing this requires a thorough understanding of land- and seascape-level factors such as threats, ecological networks, boundaries, and energy exchanges. It also recommends using spatial planning processes to tailor projects to the larger landscape while respecting and focusing on the local landscape. When we achieve restoration at both the grassroots and eagle-eye levels, we can maximize our net gain from these activities. 

9.    Ecosystem restoration needs monitoring beyond a project’s lifetime

To understand whether we’re meeting objectives and goals, monitoring biodiversity and ecosystem health regularly is important. These pulse checks are invaluable for understanding the processes of change and the patterns that form over time. It’s an iterative process that can help identify unexpected results and use them to improve future actions. It’s important to note that this principle calls for monitoring not just during the project, but beyond it. This is to ensure medium and long-term impacts are also correctly recorded. 

10. Ecosystem restoration is enabled by policies

An enabling policy environment is necessary to achieve restoration objectives in the long term. This environment should ideally span multiple industries, sections of society, and networks. Promoting successful ecosystem restoration activities at local, national, and global scales can, in turn, facilitate how these laws and policies are designed, adding more to our arsenal in the fight against ecosystem degradation.

The final word

Ecological restoration is at the heart of what we do at EcoMatcher. We partner with local communities worldwide to plant trees in areas that need them. Doing so helps us achieve sustainable goals fairly and inclusively. By playing the role of a mediator, we put the power of transformation in the hands of everyone, including local organizations and the youth. After all, that’s the best way forward!