After this first module of the Ecosystem Restoration Design Course (Gaia Education & Ecosystem Restoration Camps), I feel more skilled and hopeful than ever that we, as humans, can recreate on Earth the kind of abundance that will benefit the forests, plants & animals, and also human communities.
Here’s a report on the first 4-week module that covered natural ecosystem restoration.
Before sharing more about what this course has taught me I want to express my gratitude to Gaia Education and Ecosystem Restoration Camps that are co-organizing this online course, and to the speakers that have granted us their time, experience, and insights: Alan Watson Featherstone and the Caledonian Forest project in Scotland, John Button and the Mt. Arunachala project in India, Neil Spackman and the Al Baydha project in the desert of Saudi Arabia, and Celia Gregory & Delphine Robbe and their ocean restoration projects. I strongly recommend this course to anyone who is serious about understanding how we can all help regenerate the Earth.
Module 1 was about natural ecosystem restoration: this post is a report, to sum up what I have learned so far.
Part 1 – a new world…
This introduction module on natural landscape restoration has been for me like setting foot in a new world. While I have been invested in land restoration for years, both as a volunteer and an organization leader, I have just been introduced to the global village of the regeneration movement, and it feels good to be part of such a big family! It is a very comforting realization that so many of us are engaged in this type of work, and that there is also an effort to connect, share knowledge and resources, and witness each others’ efforts. I live in a small valley where a handful of us practice regenerative agriculture, but we are all so busy and passionate about our work that we barely take any time to meet, help each other, share our experiences… And I feel this has been the case globally. ‘Global problems, local solutions!’. Yes, and now I also feel that there is a global support network growing thanks to platforms like Gaia Education and Ecosystem Restoration Camps.
Similar causes of degradation worldwide
One of the shocking realizations of this module is that the causes of degradation are the same everywhere: temperate & tropical forests, deserts, and oceans are all being spoiled and destroyed by ignorance and greed… in service of the global industrial economy. While there may also be local specificities here are some of the main human activities responsible for natural ecosystems abuse that I have learned:
- Industrial Economy: the use of wood as a construction material or source of fuel has been a major reason for cutting the forests down. This relates to a poor appreciation of the value of a forest and a lack of smart management practices; A far as oceans are concerned, it is also the complete depletion of the resource due to overfishing that is causing the degradation of the ecosystems at large.
- Agriculture: cutting down forest to grow grain for livestock, overgrazing, inefficient and short sighted irrigation models have all led to a depletion of natural resources. This is sometimes a leading cause of deforestation, and sometimes a hindrance to restoration efforts, especially in the case of unmanaged grazing by cattle.
- Cultural practices: worldwide natural sites being burned to honor gods, trees are being cut to burn dead bodies and used as fuel, dynamite is being used to catch fish, cattle is being raised for game, etc… All these practices may not individually have been so detrimental in a healthy ecosystem: but in degraded situations like we have today, their cumulative negative effect are major hindrances to restoration efforts.
While we could list many more, I feel that the main causes of degradation of ecosystems are everywhere the same, and they are all related to the extracting/industrial mindset being applied to the management of the natural resources… with terrible consequences everywhere! I hope we realize someday that it is the extraction model on which our economies are based that is causing all of this destruction and that we can soon revert to local economies based on natural resources management. I believe that once we stop the man-made destruction mechanisms, natural processes will be able to kick in and we will see fantastic changes in a short period of time.
The double edge sword snowball effect
The reason for my relative optimism is that there are also snowball effects in restoration. Of course, the mainstream narrative only tells us of the negative feedback loops that we should be expecting from nature in the years ahead.
- Methane coming out of the ice pack accelerating the green house effect and global warming…
- Bigger storms to regulate temperature peaks, creating destruction and poverty, etc…
- Top soil disappearing which affects food productions, which fuels poverty, which fuels degradation, etc…
What I have learned in these 4 classes is that we can also be positively surprised at how fast ecosystems can recover, providing we, as humans, start working with nature, and not against her. While progress may seem slow and strenuous in the first years of implementing the land restoration projects, a lot of the speakers mentioned reaching a state where, while the ecosystems start manifesting self-regenerating processes. With succession (the step-by-step process by which we can bring something back to life) in mind, time can become an ally. I was particularly inspired by Neil Spackman’s explanation of how he first had to recreate conditions for the physical cycle of minerals to happen, to then allow biology to survive. Here are some other natural phenomenons that appear in a successful restoration project and that come in support :
- Wild animals come back, including endangered species;
- The biology of the place comes back to life;
- Birds and little roddents start spreadings seeds naturally;
- Water springs come back to life.
- Local human communities develop new income models based on a sustainable management of the resources available thanks to the restoration effort.
These stories of ecosystems coming back to life and being able to once again maintain themselves and thrive again are what we most need to hear and learn about, so that we may collectively step out of the doom/collapse scenario and engage in a socio-economic transition based on active hope.
Nothing is impossible
On the bright side of things, I have also learned that no ecosystem, however, degraded they are by human and/or natural causes, can not be restored. The work being done on desert restoration by Neil Spackman, Sebastiao Salgado, and Ernst Gotsch (and many many more that I keep discovering every week through this course) is living proof that we, as humans, have a unique capacity to care for the Earth and that our footprint on the planet can be as regenerative in the future as it has been destructive in the past. This feels personally very uplifting.
All the speakers have been incredibly inspiring, living embodiments of Terrence McKenna’s invitation to remember our place in the planetary ecosystem:
‘The highest form of intelligence on the planet is that of a gardener’.
… of complexe interrelationships…
OK. That was context. Now the most valuable lesson from this module for me is that land restoration is a complex, integrative and holistic practice. As Aldous Huxley would have said:
“Nothing short of everything will suffice”.
The web of interrelations within a natural ecosystem is so complex and dense, that it seems necessary to consider as many dimensions as possible in the design process, and to carefully consider all their potential interactions:
- Ecologic dimension:
- Weather patterns: temperatures, rainfalls, seasons …
- Local fauna and flora: what used to grow here, what grows in similar ecosystems elsewhere (climate analogues)? What do local animals eat, how does that affect the restoration effort? How can local animals support the restoration (seeds transmission, fertility, etc) or affect it (overgrazing)?
- How is the microbiology of the soil? How can we upport its growth?
- Socio-Cultural dimension:
- What is the history of the region, its culture, its peoples’ relationship to nature?
- Who are the main actors and what power structures are to be considered to be able to engage the local population?
- How can we gain support and participation from the local culture and what can we do to develop a sense of appropriation of the effort and results?
- Economic dimension:
- Because land is often degraded through poor management of the resources, recreating a local economy around the restoration effort is crucial. In the Indian project for exemple, we can plants trees, but if we dont provide an alternative fuel to them, they’ll be cut down again and the project will be bound to failure.
Ultimately, this is a collective effort in which all members of society must be engaged. The political and communication dimensions can not be underestimated as they have the potential to reveal some powerful allies… or an insurmountable obstacle.
What I have learned in this module makes me feel that there is a strong potential for a cultural renaissance as we engage in ambitious land restoration projects: if the socio-economic dimension is valued in the design of the project, we can recreate local economies based on the smart management of the natural resources being regenerated, thus making our lives more resilient and less dependant on the global economy. Nature’s abundance, once restored, will sustain human communities, providing they have evolved enough to give up the old-school extraction patterns to engage in sustainable local practices.
… that invite the growth of an ecological self.
There is a final element to which I am very sensitive, and that this course is confirming. There is a spiritual dimension to land regeneration: it is the people’s relationship to the earth and their local environment that has to shift for holistic restorative projects to be successful. Without changing the way we relate to nature and the rest of the living, I am afraid all other efforts will be bound to failure. I like to call this the ecological self: remembering that we are part of a great living organism, the Earth and that it is our interactions with the other members of that ecosystem that bring abundance… or collapse.
How do I plan to use this material in my life and at Pai Seedlings Foundation?
My arena of work is the restoration of agricultural landscapes and my dream is to be able to start a local and circular economy based on food networks in my valley. For this reason, I am very excited to move on to the second module that will address this type of ecosystem directly.
That being said there are elements in this first module that will definitely inspire my way of working now.
- I have become much more aware of the complexity of effective land restoration, especially the multi dimensional elements I discussed earlier. It takes many people to gather all the necessary skills. So far my wife and I have been the sole visionnaries and workers for the change we want to bring forth, and the lack of cooperation with locals has hindered our progress. Now we will make an effort to:
- Share our vision and call out to people who share some values to bring forth their visions so as to draw a more appropriate tapestry of what positive change looks like from their perspective;
- Call out to more specialized skilled workers in their fields so as to take more dimensions into consideration and be more efficient;
- Create incentive for volunteers to join: I was touched by Bill Mollison’s call that “if you have no volunteers you have no project.”
- Fitting so many elements into the picture (plants, animals, natural elements, local population, economics…) requires proper design work. I feel that I have been working from instinct and intuition, which has been a very delicate way to learn (observe and interact) but I will now spend more time designing the project and making sure I can clearly explain the relationships between the different elements before starting work. I believe this will save a lot of time, effort, and will also set the stage for unexepected solutions to emerge.
- At a very personal level these lessons bring a lot of maturity in my process: stepping out of the ‘hero’ or ‘savior’ archetype to a more collaborative and ‘being in service’ approach. This is inviting me to question what particular quality and gift I can bring to the project, and what skills others around have that need to be valued and highlighted.
If you have read until here, thank you!
If there is one core thing for me to share at this stage, is that we need everyone to engage in ecosystem restoration and that all skills and knowledge are useful: you don’t have to be a farmer or a specialist. If you are a human being living and breathing on this planet, you qualify!
I say that from my experience as the founder and manager of a non-profit organization for ecology in northern Thailand: Restoration projects would benefit from the support of not only volunteers but also people with skills in communication, fundraising, management, administration. As I have mentioned earlier this is a collective journey!
May this global transition happen.