By Joyce Ojanji

Ahead of the 6th session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have announced seven initiatives from Africa, Latin America, the Mediterranean, and Southeast Asia as UN World Restoration Flagships.

These initiatives, expected to restore nearly 40 million hectares − an area almost 600 times the size of Nairobi − and create around 500,000 jobs, include ecosystems at the tipping point of outright degradation resulting from wildfires, drought, deforestation, and pollution. They are now eligible for technical and financial UN support.

The World Restoration Flagship awards are part of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration – led by UNEP and FAO – which aims to prevent, halt, and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean. The awards track notable initiatives that support global commitments to restore one billion hectares – an area larger than China.

“For too long, economic development came at the expense of the environment. Yet today we see global efforts to usher in a comeback for nature,” Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, said. “These initiatives show how we can make peace with nature, put local communities at the heart of restoration efforts and still create new jobs. As we continue to face a triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste, now is the time we must double down and accelerate restoration initiatives.”

One of the initiatives is the Restoring Mediterranean Forests Initiative involving Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and Türkiye consists of a novel approach to protecting and restoring these natural habitats and vulnerable ecosystems and has led to around two million hectares of forests restored across the region since 2017, with over eight million hectares planned for restoration by 2030.

The other is the Living Indus which aims to restore 25 million hectares of river basin by 2030, encompassing 30 per cent of Pakistan’s surface area through the implementation of 25 high-impact interventions for policymakers, practitioners and civil society. It designates the Indus River as a living entity with rights – a measure taken to protect rivers elsewhere, including in Australia, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, India, New Zealand, Peru, and Sri Lanka.

The Accion Andina is another initiative which ultimately aims to protect and restore a forest area of one million hectares. 25,000 people from remote Andean communities are already engaged in restoring 5,000 hectares and protecting over 11,000 hectares of Andean forests.

They are expected to benefit from the initiative by 2030 in various ways, from access to medicine, solar panels, and clean-burning clay stoves, to improved grazing management, sustainable agriculture, microbusiness, and ecotourism management of Indigenous cultures. It also works to secure land titles for local communities, protecting the forest from future mining, timber exploitation and other drivers of degradation.

Sri Lanka’s initiative of growing mangroves instead of planting them is the fourth initiative. This is science-driven, co-led by local communities, and focused on restoring the natural balance in the ecosystem.

Since the initiative was launched in 2015, efforts have already resulted in 500 hectares of restored mangroves, benefiting 150 households. Some 10,000 hectares are slated for restoration by 2030, with 5,000 households to benefit and more than 4,000 new jobs to be created.

The other initiative is the Terai Arc Landscape: Reviving Asia’s mega-fauna which has focused on restoring the forests of critical corridors of the Terai Arc Landscape and collaborates with local communities working as citizen scientists, community-based anti-poaching units, forest guards and social mobilizers.

The restoration of 66,800 hectares of Nepal’s forests, as well as other measures, has improved the livelihoods of about 500,000 households in Nepal. It also supported the tiger population in the landscape shared by India and Nepal, increased today to 1,174– more than doubling what had been its lowest number when the programme launched in 2001. Development is expected to continue as almost 350,000 hectares will be restored by 2030.

Additionally, the Regreening Africa initiative has been using proven agroforestry techniques, adapted to suit the needs of farmers under varying socio-ecological contexts in the past two decades, to restore over 350,000 hectares in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, and Somalia. By 2030, a further five million hectares are planned to be restored.

The initiative is expected to benefit more than 600,000 households. It is also increasing carbon storage, boosting crop and grass yields, making soil more resilient (preventing floods) and treating it with fixed nitrogen that acts as a natural fertilizer.

The other initiative is the Forest Garden Program, launched in 2015, which comprises multiple forest garden projects in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, The Gambia, Kenya, Mali, Senegal, Uganda, and Tanzania.

Through researched agroforestry techniques, unsustainable farming practices are replaced and nature regenerates, as farmers receive essential training, supplies and equipment for their success. By planting tens of millions of trees every year, it aims at expanding from 41,000 restored hectares today to 229,000 hectares by 2030, supporting many more through 230,000 jobs created

“FAO is pleased to recognize these seven worthy champions, proving that we can offer the leading examples to reverse ecosystem degradation at scale, while also addressing the impacts of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss,” FAO Director-General QU Dongyu said.

“Restoring terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems is a crucial step in the transformation of global agrifood systems to be more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable. Ecosystem restoration is a long-term solution in the fight to eradicate poverty, hunger and malnutrition, as we face population growth and increased need for foods and ecosystem goods and services.”