Ecosystem Restoration in India

January 05, 2022

Healthy ecosystems support livelihood security, combat climate change and prevent species’ mass extinction. Unfortunately, in the last century, the world has lost no less than 30% of its forests and 35% of its wetlands. As this loss continues, one-fifth of the world’s countries are at the risk of ecosystem collapse, severely compromising our biosphere integrity,  a key planetary boundary. With increasing threats of climate change further impacting the health of ecosystems, the window for halting and reversing the trends of ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss is becoming so critical that the United Nations has announced 2021-2030 as the ‘Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.’ The aim of this periodization is to inspire and challenge global development agencies to maximize and expedite restoration programs.

To highlight the various ecosystem challenges in India and to inspire local stakeholders, Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai — in collaboration with IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management — organized a virtual panel discussion entitled ‘The Decade of Restoration: What Lies Ahead for India’s Ecosystems’ on December 7, 2021.

Ecosystem restoration has become extremely critical around the world; and India lies in an especially vulnerable position, noted Professor Ruth DeFries, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University and Co-Dean of Columbia’s Climate School. Opening the discussion for three eminent speakers from India, Professor DeFries said that there are three acute crises that the world is facing today — the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, and the loss of local livelihoods that are dependent on ecosystems. With a huge percentage of India’s population incrementally moving towards material well-being, conservation and restoration are not just needed for supporting livelihoods but for also neutralizing emissions as committed under Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.

To understand some of the key ecosystems of India and the challenges and opportunities to restore them, the panel discussion saw presentations from Dr. Shalini Dhyani, South Asia Chair for IUCN Commission on Ecosystems Management, Senior Scientist CSIR-NEERI; Dr. Ritesh Kumar, Director, Wetlands International South Asia; and Dr. Nitin Pandit, CEO and Director, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE).

Highlighting the various challenges around terrestrial ecosystems, especially forest ecosystems, in India, Dr. Dhyani threw a spotlight on how ignorant land-use change policies, climate change, forest fires, overexploitation of species, pollution and invasive species are leading to the degradation of forests and other ecosystems. While India joined the Bonn Challenge in 2015 with a pledge to restore 13 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020 and 26 million hectares by 2030 to be able to create a committed carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, there are ecologists also who suggest that whatever has been committed is just 1.5% of the total degraded land in India. Having said that, Dr. Dhyani noted that if the right policies and programs are put in place, India can achieve the target or at least a milestone close to the target. She also addressed the dilemma and debate regarding whether green cover enhancement efforts in India should be exclusively focused on natural forests or should equally promote trees outside forests (ToF). She suggested that despite of ToFs being less efficient than natural forests in sequestering atmospheric carbon, they fulfill important ecosystem needs in urban areas – dust trapping, air purification, water recharging, micro-climate regulation, and have aesthetic value, as well as support the creation of longer-term carbon sinks both above and below ground.

Dr. Kumar highlighted the plight of several wetlands in India, which are valuable resources that provide multiple ecosystem services and resilience support and are yet being encroached for residential and commercial purposes as citizens are ignorant about them and their services and government agencies often consider them as wastelands and use them to dump concrete rubble or to establish urban plantations. He also advocated for required attention from the government to study the distribution of Peatlands — high carbon value wetlands — at the moment found embedded below Ramsar sites in the Himalayas, which are much longer term carbon sinks locked below ground and which can significantly address the carbon mitigation ambitions of the government versus focusing exclusively on tree plantation.

Seconding Dr. Kumar’s arguments, Dr. Nitin Pandit noted that such ignorance should not cause the loss of a particular ecosystem. He advocated for an integrated restoration approach and shared ATREE’s approach to identifying large-scale landscapes and waterscapes to restore and conserve appropriate diverse ecosystems within that area, without one replacing the other. He also shared examples of innovative community engagement-based initiatives that matched local aspirations with demand-side management for innovations in funding restoration programs.

The discussion touched upon several other dimensions questioning the rationale for adopting restoration policies, approaches to engaging multiple stakeholders, and programs for improving integrated restoration programs or wholescapes. Since the program was able to delve deep into restoration science and policy, it was well-received by an interactive and engaged audience.