Degraded Land Restoration
Approximately 25 percent of all land on earth exists in a degraded condition. Restoring it to health will sequester large amounts of atmospheric carbon in the soil, feed millions of people, improve wildlife habitat, and make water more abundant.
The United Nations has declared 2021–2030 the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. The UN notes that between now and 2030 the restoration of 350 million hectares of degraded ecosystems could remove 13 to 26 gigatons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. A variety of land restoration methods can be implemented by individuals, groups, agencies, and communities, and many of the practices originate in the knowledge of Indigenous peoples. Restoring degraded land is pivotal to ending the climate crisis. Here is a summary of opportunities.
Learn how land becomes degraded and which practices restore it. Sources of land degradation, particularly soil erosion, include deforestation and clear-cutting, application of agricultural chemicals, monocropped industrial agriculture, land clearing, mining, overgrazing by livestock, damage from recreation, invasive and noxious species, extended drought, and extreme weather events. Degraded land can damage ecosystem services, which are the essential services that nature provides to humans, such as nutritious food, clean water, pollination of crops, pollution removal, carbon sequestration, and recreational, cultural, and spiritual benefits. Practices that restore degraded land include:
- Planting trees as part of agroforestry enterprises can stabilize eroding fields and streambanks. So can encouraging native vegetation to regrow, as farmers are doing in Niger.
- Regenerative agriculture builds soil carbon stocks and can stop erosion. Gabe Brown restored his farm in North Dakota by switching to regenerative agriculture. A summary of the benefits of regenerative agriculture is here.
- Riparian and stream restoration strategies can restore damaged water cycles on land. Here is a presentation by New Mexico–based riparian restoration specialist Bill Zeedyk on “letting the water do the work.” Here is the first in a series of videos on stream restoration, produced by Oklahoma State University.
- Reforestation and forest protection heal damaged land and slow erosion. South Korea has successfully implemented a multidecade strategy of reforestation across the peninsula to reverse erosion. Here is a list of reforestation projects around the world. Forest protection has many benefits, including its role in drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide.
- Wetland restoration provides multiple ecological benefits, including improved water quality and wildlife habitat. Here is a list of principles that can guide wetland restoration projects.
- Rehabilitation of degraded patches of land, such as former mines, can reduce sources of soil erosion and sediment transport downstream.
Find a volunteer opportunity on a local restoration project. Many conservation groups in the U.S. have ongoing restoration projects, such as the Katy Prairie Conservancy in Texas;, the Borderlands Restoration Network in southern Arizona, which has a focus on wild pollinator habitat; and the Clark Fork Coalition in Montana. Native plant societies have volunteer projects, such as the Point Lobos Patrol crew in California and the Native Plant Trust in New England. Here is a sample of international projects:
- Planting mangrove trees to restore Lake Nokoue in West Africa.
- Restoring a section of the Amazon in Peru in cooperation with local and indigenous communities to reestablish forest connectivity.
- Planting one million trees to prevent fires in peatlands in Borneo and restore a portion of a national park.
- Woodland restoration in Blacka Moor, near Sheffield, UK.
- Rainforest protection in Brazil in cooperation with the Yawanawan people and other Indigenous communities.
- Reestablishing native plants in areas burned by the bush fires of 2019–2020 in New South Wales, Australia.
- Mexico’s National Forestry Commission–led effort to restore degraded land across the nation with the help of landowners.
- A coffee agroforestry system in El Salvador supporting farmers while they restore wildlife corridors.
- Caledonian forest restoration in Scotland, focusing on planting a range of native broadleaf species.
- The Great Green Wall, a reforestation initiative spanning the width of Africa, aiming to grow a belt of trees and vegetation across the Sahel to slow and reverse desertification.
- Bog restoration in Poland’s Slowinski National Park, one of ten bog projects across eastern Europe.
- A former mine near New Delhi restored to a nature reserve.
- Grassland restoration on the Tibetan Plateau uses livestock herders to reverse soil degradation, improving habitat for snow leopards.
- Over one hundred thousand farmers in Tanzania regenerating six million trees on their farms using Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration, which has helped the ecosystem retain four billion liters of water annually.
- Restoring abandoned pasture and farmland to native vegetation in the Sintra region of Portugal.
- Invasive species removal on South Georgia Island.
- Wetland restoration along the Havel River region in northeast Germany, which suffered degradation due to streamside development.
Join an Ecosystem Restoration Camp. This international organization was cofounded by John Liu and Ashleigh Brown. It has forty camps in twenty-eight countries, where individuals and local residents work together on innovative restoration projects, including rehabilitating degraded forest, restoring wetlands, and participating in regenerative agriculture.
Get trained and/or earn an education certificate in restoration. There are opportunities to deepen your knowledge about restoration. Programs include:
- The certification program at the University of Minnesota, which offers training in practical skills and knowledge necessary to undertake the most common kinds of midwestern restoration projects including revegetation of prairies, wetlands, lakeshores, forests, and savannas.
- The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) offers a certification program for Practitioners-in-Training and experienced professionals. SER also has a Restoration Resource Center that has publications, recorded presentations, and a Directory where you can find local experts and companies that specialize in restoration.
- If you live in Australia, here are courses in regenerative agriculture.
Support restoration projects on public lands. Federal agencies, such as the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in the U.S., need to hear from citizens about the necessity of restoration activity. You can contact the agency directly or work through a conservation organization such as the Nature Conservancy or the Sierra Club.
Purchase onsets that support restoration projects. Onsets are carbon credits that create a net reduction in greenhouse gases. Organizations, such as Gold Standard and the Carbon Fund, provide verified onsets via their financial support of projects that improve carbon levels in the soil through regenerative agriculture and reforestation. Examples include:
- The Yarra Yarra Biodiversity Corridor in Australia, in which 30 million native trees have been planted across almost 14,000 hectares.
- A community reforestation project in Timor Lest, near Indonesia.
- Reforesting 25,000 acres of abandoned pastureland in Panama.
- The Purus project and the Russas-Valparaiso project reforest portions of the Amazon in Brazil, restoring habitat for native wildlife species.
- The Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley Reforestation Initiative aims to reforest at least one million acres throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Illinois.
Speak up. Write an op-ed to a newspaper or social media site advocating restoration work as a climate change solution. Consider writing longer pieces for online sites such as Medium, like this one about ecological restoration. Join a protest or campaigns, such as these focused on the destruction of the Amazon:
- Amnesty International’s protest to stop illegal cattle grazing
- The Rainforest Action Network runs a variety of campaigns, including corporate accountability, environmental justice, and palm oil protests.
- Rainforest Rescue runs petition campaigns.
- A petition to stop the burning of the Amazon.
- Greenpeace’s campaign to support Indigenous peoples.
- Here is a list of rainforest protection petitions in various languages.
Join a social media site run by an advocate for land protection and restoration. A sampling of social media sites:
- Rainforest Action Network on Facebook and Twitter
- Rainforest Trust on Facebook and Twitter
- World Wildlife Fund and Facebook and Twitter
- Conservation International on Facebook and Twitter.
- Kiss the Ground on Facebook.
- Regeneration International on Facebook and Twitter.
- American Farmland Trust on Facebook and Twitter.
Join a restoration network. Scientists, activists, landowners, and others can join networks such as Restor, which serve as hubs for efforts around the world, connecting practitioners with research data, funding, and contacts. There are Facebook group sites, such as this one for Texas Society for Ecological Restoration. There are Twitter sites for students and professionals and amateur restorationists.
Farmers, Ranchers, and Other Landowners
Adopt regenerative agriculture practices that restore depleted stocks of soil carbon, a key to reversing land degradation. Primers on regenerative agriculture include Gabe Brown’s book Dirt to Soil and his workshop Treating the Farm as an Ecosystem; Mark Shepard’s book Restoration Agriculture about growing perennial food crops, and its companion Water for Any Farm. The USDA provides a list of publications and resources on soil health. There are also scientific papers (such as this one) and research journals that can help farmers and ranchers decide on appropriate practices. Here is resource library managed by the U.S. Forest Service for forest projects. Components of regenerative agriculture include:
- Organic no-till
- Conservation tillage
- Cover crops
- Polycultures and food forests
- Integration of livestock into cropping
- Managing vegetation with livestock, such as goats.
Join a collaborative restoration effort or a watershed group that is doing restoration work. There are regional, multistakeholder groups in the U.S. that include or feature agricultural producers in restoration activities, such as the Western Landowners Alliance, Sustainable Northwest, the Quivira Coalition, the Sage Grouse Initiative, and Rural Voice for Conservation Coalition. There are localized groups, including the Salmon Falls watershed collaborative in New Hampshire and the Blackfoot Challenge in Montana.
Implement creek and riparian area restoration, which are critical to healthy lands. Let the Water Do the Work by riparian specialist Bill Zeedyk is a manual on how to harness the regenerative power of moving water to reshape stream banks and rebuild floodplains. A multiyear wet-meadow restoration project in the Gunnison Valley of western Colorado featuring Zeedyk’s work has successfully “rewetted” many acres of wildlife habitat. Here’s an online guide to riparian restoration planning.
Consult with land restoration experts. The Rodale Institute, a leader in organic and regenerative farming in the U.S., has a consulting guide for landowners. The Savory Network links progressive ranchers around the world. There are many individual consultants that work with landowners to improve their land and/or teach workshops and seminars, such as the Soil Health Academy, the Land Stewardship Project, and Rhizoterra. The Society for Ecological Restoration has a Directory where you can find local experts and companies that specialize in restoration.
Work with marketing, research, and entrepreneurial businesses that promote regenerative practices. Companies like Indigo Ag are establishing business models for farmers and ranchers that decommodify agriculture with smart technology. The Rodale Institute has developed a certification for an organic regenerative standard that is used by companies. Commonland works with landowners in South Africa, Australia, Spain, and the Netherlands employing social, natural, and financial capital. Here is a research article that estimates the size and impact of the restoration economy.
Remove exotic and invasive trees and vegetation and replace them with native species. Invasive species are a global problem and contribute to land degradation as well as insect and bird species decline. Solutions include fitting the correct native species to the soil type and vegetation class appropriate to local conditions. In arid lands, consider planting willows and cottonwoods or other drought-tolerant species.
Use onsets to achieve carbon emission reduction goals focused on credible land restoration projects that improve soil carbon. There are many land restoration projects worthy of support, such as community forestry work in Timor and reforestation in Nicaragua (see list under Individuals action)
Support regenerative agricultural practices that reverse land degradation as part of the supply chain. Some food corporations such as General Mills and Danone are beginning to embrace regenerative agriculture. Stay in touch to be sure the companies are implementing complete and authentic regenerative practices. A coalition of companies, including Mars and Nestlé, have formed the One Planet Business for Biodiversity (OP2B) coalition to improve global biodiversity with agriculture. Other businesses that focus on soil carbon and regenerative agriculture include:
- Zero Foodprint (which supports farmers directly)
- Epic Provisions (100 percent grassfed meat snack bars)
- Alter Eco Foods (organic chocolate)
- Maple Hill Dairy (100 percent grass-fed dairy)
- Dr. Bronner’s (health care)
- Patagonia Provisions (organic regenerative food)
- Annie’s (organic and regenerative food)
- Lundberg Family Farms (organic grain)
- Nature’s Path (certified regenerative organic instant oatmeal)
Assist in the development of carbon markets that support regenerative agricultural practices. Trading carbon credits to reduce greenhouse emissions was embedded in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Companies are either becoming directly involved in fostering markets for carbon credits or considering how to get involved. Here are examples of international efforts:
- European Union (ETS)
- China (debuted on July 16, 2021)
Include natural capital and ecosystems services in business plans. An economic case for land restoration can be made based on the value of nature and the ecosystems service it provide, such as clean water. For example, a study in the Thukela basin of South Africa concluded that the benefits of land restoration outweighed the costs. Researchers found that restoring large areas of grassland by removing invasive plants, addressing soil erosion by replanting trees, and other practices would improve the basin’s ability to store carbon, lead to higher stocks of wild foods and medicines, and create more productive rangelands.
Support conservation projects through private capital. Financial partnerships between investors, nonprofits, private companies, and the public sector can help meet climate challenges faced by vulnerable communities. Blue Forest’s Forest Resilience Bond supports the Yuba reforestation project in Northern California. Another example is Terraformation, which provides private capital for restoration projects.
Partner with conservation organizations to implement natural climate solutions. Apple is partnering with Conservation International to protect and restore the 27,000-acre mangrove forest in Cispatá Bay, Colombia, which is expected to sequester one million metric tons of CO2 over its lifetime. Unilever is creating a $1 billion Climate and Nature Fund to support landscape restoration, reforestation, and carbon sequestration.
Pass healthy soil initiatives and other legislation that supports restoration and regeneration. State legislatures that have passed initiatives to improve soil health include California, Vermont, Illinois, Nebraska, and New Mexico. These bills can be the foundation for restoring degraded land. At the federal level, ask members of Congress to support bills such as H.R. 8057, the Healthy Soil and Resilient Farmer Act of 2020 and S. 1356, the Healthy Soil and Healthy Climate Act of 2021.
- In the UK, the government has introduced a law to sanction companies that are linked to rainforest destruction and degradation.
Finance restoration projects. Governments can directly finance or other otherwise financially support land restoration projects, such as China’s large-scale work on the Loess Plateau and the multination Regreening Africa. In nations with public lands, government agencies can take the lead on restoration projects, such as the implementation of prescribed fires in U.S. national forests, and wetlands restoration in national parks.
Adopt land restoration policies and objectives. Government agencies usually require policies to be enacted before they undertake projects. For example, the U.S. Forest Service conducts restoration work on its land under an Ecosystem Restoration Policy issued in 2016. Write to your representative and ask them to support restoration policies.
Protect land from further degradation. Nations have administrative tools or legislative processes that can permanently protect land from degradation, including the creation of national parks and monuments, wilderness designation, and conservation reserves. In the U.S., threatened land can be purchased by the government through a fund that received a boost with the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, signed into law in 2020. Citizens can apply pressure for further action.
Enter into partnerships with universities, NGOs, landowners, and private businesses, to facilitate restoration work. Multistakeholder alliances are often enhanced with governmental partnerships, such as has happened in Canada. These partnerships often are the result of public pressure campaigns.
Respect traditional knowledge and implement traditional practices on public lands. Indigenous experience with fire management has influenced policy and practices on U.S. Forest Service lands. It can influence private conservation efforts as well, such as native plant restoration projects. Pressure from citizens and tribal members will encourage more policy changes.
Land degradation involves the actions of many types of players, from individuals to governments to multinational corporations. Some of the largest players are companies that profit from widescale destruction and conversion of natural habitats, such as the ongoing deforestation of the Amazon, abetted by the Brazilian government. A partial list of companies that directly or indirectly profit from the Amazon’s deforestation include:
JBS S.A., a Brazilian meatpacking corporation that is the world’s largest supplier of beef, much of it raised on pastureland converted from tropical forests. It has been accused of abetting deforestation and violating forest protection laws. Pressure against JBS is working. In 2021, it made a commitment to produce ‘deforestation-free’ beef, though they have repeatedly broken their promises. The CEO is Gilberto Tomazoni. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org. His phone: 55 11 3144-7801
Cargill, a family-owned agribusiness behemoth at the center of the global industrial production of soy, corn and other commodities and implicated in a wide variety land degrading, health-damaging, and climate altering activities. The CEO of Cargill is David MacLennan. His email: email@example.com. Phone: (952) 742-4507
Marfrig, a Brazilian company, is the second largest beef producer in the world (after JBS) and directly linked to deforestation and land degradation in South America. The CEO of Marfrig is Marcos Molina. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org. His phone: +55 11 3792-8600
ADM and Bunge, two major food commodities traders and suppliers, are failing to protect land from degradation in their supply chains. The ADM CEO is Juan Luciano. His email: email@example.com His Phone: (312) 634-8100 (HQ). The CEO of Bunge is Greg Heckman. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org. His phone: (314) 292-2000 (HQ).
BlackRock, one of the largest financial firms in the world, has supported many companies that are actively involved in forest destruction and land degradation. BlackRock’s CEO is Larry Fink. His email: email@example.com. His phone: 212-810-5300.
Organizations that Support Land Restoration and Regeneration
Society for Ecological Restoration (an international organization working on the science, practice, and policy of ecological restoration)
Restore Our Planet (supports projects in the U.K. and other locations around the world)
Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (one of the oldest environment groups in Germany, with 820,000 members dedicated to the conservation of threatened habitats, flora, and fauna, and to climate protection and energy policy.
Forest Carbon Partnership (a global partnership of governments, businesses, civil society, and Indigenous people’s organizations focused on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation)
Soil Association (UK), and advocacy organization for regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, soil, health, and climate action.
Conservation International, a global conservation organization that combines fieldwork with policy, science, and finance.
EU Organic, news about the European Union’s organic food markets, including rules and regulations.
Fair for Life, a certification program for fair trade in agriculture, trade, and manufacturing.
World Wildlife Fund, a international conservation organization dedicated to protection of endangered species and other wildlife.
Landcare Australia, an organization of volunteers who work to protect, restore, and maintain natural landscapes on behalf of local communities.
Rainforest Alliance, builds alliances of people in over 60 countries to conserve forests and support sustainable livelihoods.
African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, is a country-led effort to restore 100 million hectares of land in Africa by 2030.
International Center for Tropical Agriculture, employing scientific research at the intersection of nutrition, agriculture, and the environment.
Save Our Soils, an international campaign to raise awareness about soil health for human health, food security, and climate change.
Kiss the Ground, an educational nonprofit focused carbon sequestration in soils, regenerative agriculture, and healthy food.
Regeneration International, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating the implementation of regenerative agriculture around the world.
American Farmland Trust, an organization focused on conservation agriculture, protecting farmland, and keeping farmers on the land.
Food Tank, a “think tank” for food, spotlighting sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty through food system change.
One Percent for the Planet, a global philanthropic network of businesses, individuals, and organizations.
Ecological Restoration Institute/Northern Arizona University, scientific research and adaptation strategies for land restoration.
Trout Unlimited, a conservation organization dedicated to care and recovery of streams for native trout and salmon.
Ducks Unlimited, a conservation organization that protects, restores, and manages wetlands for waterfowl.
The Wetlands Initiative, restores wetlands, employing collaboration and science to improve water quality, habitat for plants and wildlife.
Rodale Institute, a founder of the modern organic movement and a leader in regenerative agriculture for over seventy years.
Commonland, their mission is to transform large-scale degraded landscapes into thriving ecosystems.
Xerces Society, a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting and restoring pollinators and their habitat.
United Nations Environment Programme (promotes implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development goals within the United Nations system, including restoration)
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), leads the UN’s effort to defeat hunger, achieve food security, and ensure people have access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives.
International Union for the Conservation of Nature (a global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it)
USDA/Natural Resource Conservation Service (the NRCS provides assistance to farmers and ranchers in order to put conservation on the ground in the U.S.)
CGIAR (delivering critical science and innovation to transform the world’s food, land, and water systems in a climate crisis)
REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, a UN agency)
Convention on Biological Diversity (signed by 150 government leaders at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the CBD promotes sustainable development)
Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES was established to strengthen the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services for conservation and sustainable use)
Gabe Brown and Ray Archuleta (regenerative agriculture specialists)
Elaine Ingrahm (soil scientist and consultant)
Jill Clapperton (soil scientist and consultant)
John Liu (filmmaker and restoration advocate)
Dave Rosgen (stream restoration specialist)
Data Providers and Online Tools
NatureMap.Earth: shows maps of natural resources, including a global map of potential natural vegetation and habitat types
AgEvidence: a database of nearly three hundred peer-reviewed research papers with more than twenty-two thousand data points showing all positive cases of regenerative agriculture
Landpotential.org: provides data portals and mobile phone apps for crowdsourcing the ground data collection and serving estimates of land potential
FAO’s Soil carbon sequestration map: shows estimates of potential increase in soil carbon associated with changes in conservation agriculture
Global Forest Watch, has data, technology, and tools to help people around the planet protect forests.
WRI’s ResourceWatch, has hundreds of data sets available on people and natural resources.
Google Earth Timelapse, is a global, scalable video web site of how the earth has changed over the past four decades.
Soil Erosion 101 (NRDC)
Land Degradation Neutrality (UNCCD)
Healing the Earth (documentary by John Liu)
The Great Work of Our Time (John Liu)
Green Gold (John Liu)
John Liu’s YouTube channel
Land Degradation and Restoration (IPBES)
Habitat Restoration Fundamental/pollinators (Xerces Society)
Restoring Drylands (Link TV)
Dirt: the Erosion of Civilization by David Montgomery
Growing a Revolution by David Montgomery
Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown
The Soil Will Save Us by Kirstin Ohlson
The Farm as Ecosystem by Jerry Brunetti
The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry
Holistic Management by Allan Savory
Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles Massy
Cows Save the Planet by Judith Schwartz
For the Love of Soil by Nicole Masters
Restoration Ecology (journal)
Reversing Land Degradation with Dwayne Beck (no-till specialist)
Building Back Better: Land Degradation and Gender (World Agroforestry)
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