Rethinking ecological restoration: Restoration for whom, by whom?

Photo: G.Smith / CIAT

Leading up to the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration, WLE applied a feminist political ecology lens to identify a critical lack of attention to the social and political dimensions of natural resource restoration initiatives.


The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021–2030) is a momentous opportunity to reverse habitat loss, defaunation, carbon emissions and global warming, which have all spiked in recent decades despite the proliferation of environmental agreements, laws, policies and regulations. However, without critical retrospection, we risk moving headstrong into ‘greening agendas’ that do not adequately acknowledge that ecological resilience is associated with social, economic and political mandates and processes. WLE research has focused on the need to strengthen the human dimensions of restoration ambitions which are often overlooked by agendas solely informed by biophysical or economic goals.

A key barrier to systemic change is the continued dominance of biophysical and economic disciplines in defining restoration agendas, interventions and innovations. Human dimensions such as gender equality and social inclusion are known ‘deal breakers’ in restoring landscapes, and yet these mostly tend to be peripheral add-ons to program design. Research by WLE and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) demonstrates that the linkages between gender equality, climate change, biodiversity loss and land degradation remain poorly understood and applied in restoration interventions.


WLE, FTA and the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions and Markets (PIM) co-organized a special issue on social inclusivity in restoration. The special issue brought together academics, practitioners, NGOs and government actors – working across disciplines, geographies, socio-ecological systems and scales – to provide robust evidence of complex, contextual ‘nature–people’ interrelations. The 11 papers in the special issue critically examine how and why restoration agendas and initiatives mostly ignore plural, unequal local voices and experiences and traditional knowledge systems. Collating the evidence, the editorial co-authored by WLE, PIM and FTA researchers applied a feminist political ecology lens to critically examine the social, political and economic dimensions of restoration – a focus on gender-power imbalances, scale integration and historical awareness.


Recognizing the urgency to flag and address the power and politics that shape the values, meanings and science driving restoration, the Society for Ecological Restoration organized a webinar on the special issue and published a follow-up synthesis article: Ten people-centered rules for socially sustainable ecosystem restoration. Arranged roughly in order, from pre-intervention through to design/initiation, implementation, monitoring, evaluation and learning phases, the 10 people-centered rules are: (1) Recognize diversity and interrelations among stakeholders and rightsholders; (2) Actively engage communities as agents of change; (3) Address socio-historical contexts; (4) Unpack and strengthen resource tenure for marginalized groups; (5) Advance equity across its multiple dimensions and scales; (6) Generate multiple benefits; (7) Promote an equitable distribution of costs, risks and benefits; (8) Draw on different types of evidence and knowledge; (9) Question dominant discourses; and (10) Practice inclusive and holistic monitoring, evaluation and learning.


Restoration policies, investments and innovations have hardly made a dent in ecosystem degradation. Wetlands are a classic case in point. Since 1975, the Ramsar Convention has provided a framework for the sustainable management and governance of wetlands. A total of 170 countries are currently signatory to the Convention. The governance of over 2,300 diverse wetlands, covering nearly 250 million hectares, is also guided by the Ramsar guidelines for the ‘wise use’ of wetlands.

And yet WLE research documents evidence from an internal Ramsar Convention review that wetlands are on the decline at a rate three times greater than that of forests. A strategic reformulation bringing the social and ecological together is called for, but this is easier said than done. A WLE organized session in the Cultivating Equality conference (October 2021), supported by the CGIAR GENDER Platform, suggested that a first and necessary step is for bio-physical, gender and social scientists to come together and have frequent and more open conversations.


Restoration for whom, by whom? Exploring the socio-political dimensions of restorationTen people-centered rules for socially sustainable ecosystem restorationRamsar convention and the wise use of wetlands: rethinking inclusionCultivating equality

SDGs supported

Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

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Rethinking ecological restoration: Restoration for whom, by whom?