Posted on 30 June 2023
WWF is working across nine African countries to help restore forests and forest landscapes on an unprecedented scale
Imagine an area twice the size of the island of Madagascar. An area where nature no longer functions in the way that it should: where forests have been cleared, where rivers and streams no longer provide enough clean water, where wildlife is disappearing, where soils have become eroded and lost their fertility and farmers struggle to make a living. Now imagine that area brought back to life: with more trees, with biodiversity returning, with streams flowing again, with flourishing farmland.
That’s the promise of AFR100
(the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative). To date, 33 countries across the continent have pledged to begin restoring almost 130 million hectares of deforested and degraded land by 2030. Meeting these commitments will transform the lives of millions of people, play a significant role in mitigating and adapting to climate change, and help to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity.
Imagining all this is one thing. Making it happen is quite another. Despite these impressive commitments, progress on the ground so far has been slow, measured in hundreds of hectares, not millions, compared to pledges made.
To try to change this, last year WWF launched its own Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR) in Africa initiative. Working in nine countries where WWF has a strong presence, the initiative aims to kickstart the restoration process across 13.5 million hectares of degraded and deforested landscapes by 2027 as our contribution to AFR100.
“It’s not about planting trees”
So what does this look like in practice? “First of all, it’s not about planting trees,” says Lawrence Mbwambo, conservation manager at WWF-Tanzania and one of the architects of the initiative.
That may seem like a strange thing to say about an initiative that will see millions of trees planted over the next few years, from Cameroon to Mozambique. But Dr Mbwambo is keen to emphasize that forest landscape restoration is about something much bigger. It's about 'growing trees' at landscape level whereby a number of integrated strategic interventions come into play, deploying a myriad of actors.
“Forest landscape restoration is about the whole landscape, about supporting ecological systems to regain their functionality and provide social and environmental services. So you’ll have issues to do with soil, to do with agricultural practices, livestock grazing, freshwater, rivers and lakes. You’ll have issues related to poverty, to energy, to livelihoods,” says Dr Mbwambo.
Above all, forest landscape restoration is about people: about meeting the needs of the people who live there, and addressing the issues that have led to deforestation and degradation in the first place. That’s why improving agricultural practices, installing clean energy, empowering women and young people, or providing training in business and finance are just as important as tree planting in WWF’s forest landscape restoration projects.
While running projects on the ground is an integral part of WWF’s work, the initiative also focuses on putting in place the conditions to enable landscape restoration on a scale never seen before. Key to this are working with government and mobilizing investment.
“Restoration is a government-led initiative, so we need to support governments where we have a physical presence to enable them to accelerate the restoration agenda,” explains Severin Kalonga, who leads WWF’s FLR in Africa Initiative. “We need to be relevant in addressing national policies, and finding the right balance between those priorities and WWF’s objectives.”
Three documents that provide opportunities to advance these objectives are the national FLR strategies required under AFR100, the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans (NBSAPs) under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). More than half the countries involved in WWF’s initiative now have FLR strategies in place, and their NDCs clearly state forest landscape restoration will be one of the approaches in mitigating the effect of climate change. But there’s a lot of work to do in translating policies into action and monitoring progress to ensure governments deliver. Strong partnerships at all levels could lift up this challenge.
Financial resources are another major challenge. “National governments have inadequate budgets to cover their commitments, so the initiative, in collaboration with other actors, is taking the lead in unlocking forest landscape restoration funding for these countries,” says Mbwambo.
As well as mobilizing the upfront investment, the initiative is developing market mechanisms and incentives that can make projects financially sustainable over the long term.
“I call this: making restoration a business,” says Dr Kalonga. “Restoration is a continuous ecological process, so it is a long-term process – you don’t just press a button and get a result. We can identify landscapes for restoration and set up projects for implementation, but the restoration work will not be concluded in a short period of time, it will continue over years and decades. And engagement of financial private actions will ensure the sustainability of our interventions because these actors will find this an opportunity to conduct business and ensure a lucrative return on their investment.”
Many of WWF’s projects involve working with communities to develop commercially viable nature-friendly business models. But small businesses alone can’t restore landscapes on the scale required. The emphasis now is on connecting these community enterprises with investors and commercial partners so they can grow and prosper.
The scale of the task ahead is daunting – but the rewards will be huge. “This initiative is so big and ambitious,” says Kalonga. “I’m excited to be part of it. If we realize these outcomes, we’re all going to have so much to celebrate.
“Restoration is a regional and global agenda – it’s not WWF alone. Everyone has a role to play – governments, businesses, NGOs, civil society organizations, individuals. We all need to put our hands together to co-create solutions, support each other and deliver results at scale together. Let’s be part of this journey, whatever the ups and downs, because the impact will be remarkable.”