FSU researcher finds reforestation efforts must start at the roots

Professor of Political Science Eric Coleman.
Professor of Political Science Eric Coleman.

Successful land restoration efforts depend on the people who live in those spaces, a Florida State University researcher has found.  

The findings upend previous research advocating top-down policy approaches to restore land as part of global land-conservation efforts.  

Professor of Political Science Eric Coleman co-authored the study, which was published in the journal Nature. Coleman said restoration activities that don’t consider existing land uses and the rights of local people will fail. 

“Top-down restoration policies risk undermining local livelihoods and food security and displacing people from their lands,” he said. “They may also create human-rights abuses and compromise long-term conservation benefits.” 

While well intended, many land-restoration efforts miss the mark or may even fuel the devastation they aim to reverse or prevent, Coleman said. He cited efforts in the Yucatan Peninsula, where the Mexican government paid landowners to plant new trees. 

“In the last five or 10 years, there’s been a real push on the international stage to plant trees as a major climate-change fighting strategy,” he said. “But in Mexico there is evidence that farmers destroyed healthy forests just to receive financial compensation to plant new trees in the same places.”  

Coleman said similar instances of failed top-down restoration initiatives have played out across the globe, including in India, where his research shows that five decades of tree planting did not improve forest cover and have only reduced the benefits that forests give local communities.  

Sometimes, Coleman added, such efforts to plant fruitless trees also hurt people who depend on the land for crops and food. 

“Forest-restoration policies often provide policy targets to plant a large number of trees but say nothing about planting the right trees in the right locations that are most likely to survive and also support local land uses,” he said.  

Coleman points to one major problem with global policy efforts: lands prioritized for restoration are heavily concentrated in the tropics. Countries in these locations often have weak democracies, where the interests of the poor and the environment face steeper challenges. 

“People who are living in poverty don’t have much control over government, and they don’t have much control over what happens in tropical forest restoration,” Coleman said.  

Citing places such as Costa Rica, where some conservation efforts have proven successful, Coleman said solutions can emerge from large organizations and national governments but that the people who’ll be most affected must be involved at the outset.  

“In some organized communities, the people collaborate with governments,” he said. “Community involvement means that local people need to have a voice in these decisions from the beginning to the end. They help plan restoration activities, select the species they want planted and monitor the land so that people aren’t harvesting before they should.”

He added: “Where communities have autonomy and can willingly participate, the outcomes are going to be much better.”

For more information, visit https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-022-04733-x.