Ecosystems restoration, reforestation, afforestation

Ecosystems restoration, reforestation, afforestation

Ecosystem restoration is among the cheapest climate mitigation measures. Beyond a direct impact on emissions, it also helps to strengthen biodiversity, regulates flooding, enhances water quality and reduces soil erosion – all of which are also important for adaptation. Ecosystem restoration can also provide multiple social benefits such as the creation of jobs and income, especially if implemented in a way that considers the needs and access rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities.

Restoring just 30 percent of converted lands in priority areas, especially forests, can simultaneously sequester large amounts of carbon and avoid just over 70 percent of biodiversity loss. However, the vast majority of the world’s forests are not located in legally protected areas, leaving them vulnerable to deforestation through agriculture, mining, logging and urban development. Destruction of the world’s forests also negatively impacts human health, exacerbates food insecurity and undermines the rights of Indigenous and local communities.

Data about the pressures on forest ecosystems are currently incomplete and lack the granularity that differentiate between key drivers of deforestation. Methods like citizen science and remote sensing are being applied to fill data gaps that cover both long-term trends and activities happening in real time. Specifically, online citizen science is helping to create labeled datasets about historical degradation at a granularity, speed and scale beyond the scope of the traditional research process and much more cheaply. At the same time, localized, real-time data about illegal logging are supporting smarter, more targeted intercepting actions by local communities and Indigenous groups.

Also at the local level, collective intelligence platforms are being used to coordinate the activities of communities responsible for forest and other land use restoration efforts, helping to overcome doing gaps. Several initiatives use remote sensing with drones or satellites to track the contributions made by individual smallholders or villages.

The final subgroup of collective intelligence methods is focused on coordinating tree planting activities (microtasks) and restoration efforts by volunteers around the world. Digital platforms, mapping tools and open repositories are facilitating these efforts and standardizing data collection to allow easier aggregation and comparison between locations. This means that collective intelligence initiatives are increasingly responsible for connecting local action to the global level, by filling doing gaps at scale.

Main collective intelligence methods being used

  • Crowdsourcing and remote sensing for forest protection

  • Microtasking and digital tools to scale collective action

  • Combining sensor data and microtasking for intelligent networked actions

Main climate action gaps being addressed

  • Data gaps on real-time threats and long-term trends of forest loss.
  • Distance gap through volunteer-led data analysis to fast track scientific research.
  • Doing gaps around piecemeal,  local actions that fail to connect to global tree-planting targets.
  • Doing gaps around uncoordinated community activities for forest and other land-use restoration.
  • Diversity gap (Indigenous and traditional knowledge) to make more locally-appropriate decisions about interventions.

Crowdsourcing and remote sensing to protect forests

An estimated 12 to 20 percent of emissions are due to deforestation and forest degradation activities, mostly in the tropics of Africa and South America. Some of this activity is illegal and some is sanctioned due to market pressures that lead to agricultural expansion and building of transport infrastructure. But the scale and sources of deforestation are still poorly understood. Collective intelligence initiatives are helping to address both data and doing gaps for forest protection. Methods like citizen science are being used to generate new data about key drivers of forest loss in the tropics, while sensor data is helping to alert local communities to illegal logging activities in real time so they can intervene.

One example is the “Drivers of Tropical Forest Loss” crowdsourcing campaign coordinated by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. They used Geo-Wiki, a digital platform for organizing earth observation studies, to mobilize 58 volunteers from different locations who classified satellite images of forests according to visible impact from human activities. The campaign lasted two weeks and used rewards to maintain engagement and quality of contributions. Over this short period, the volunteers managed to review almost 15 thousand locations in the tropics. The dataset has been made openly available to support scientists and decision makers to take action against forest loss and its causes.

Collective intelligence is also being used to track real-time forest loss in the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve in Peru. Community guards from local Indigenous groups use the Mapeo app and drones to monitor degradation activities that threaten the forest ecosystem, from informal mining to illegal logging. The app supports data collection in the field without the need for an internet connection. When individual guards return to base, they upload their data to the central Mapeo platform where it is aggregated to give an up-to-date overview of the status of the reserve. The technology can send alerts to rangers if timely interventions are needed and the Amarakaeri community have also used the data for legal action against companies who violate the Reserve’s protected status. The Guardian Platform developed by Rainforest Connection is another example that uses low-cost acoustic sensors and machine learning to detect logging activities in South American rainforests to support preventative action by on-the-ground rangers.

Microtasking and digital tools to scale collective action

Trees are one of the most effective nature-based solutions and contribute to mitigation directly through carbon storage. They also provide indirect environmental benefits through flood risk reduction, improved air quality and habitat restoration which impacts biodiversity. But without strategic planning and coordination, tree planting and restoration efforts can fail to deliver on their promise. Collective intelligence initiatives help to localize tree planting through selecting the most appropriate tree varieties and planting sites. Online platforms are being used to develop open repositories of restoration projects, resources and tools to help volunteers to find local-level projects more easily, and fast-track progress through peer exchange. Digital tools are also supporting the coordination of global planting efforts. Volunteers across the world make small individual contributions through microtasks, which are aggregated for collective impact. In combination these methods are mobilizing large groups of people for action – helping to fill important doing gaps.

Plant-for-the-Planet's open source Treemapper platform facilitates mapping, coordination and resource sharing for tree planting projects across the world (see Box 4). Their online digital impact tracker provides daily updates of trees planted globally and the estimated aggregate impact on carbon emissions. A similar initiative that is trying to unify and connect local level projects through a global platform is the open repository of restoration initiatives set up by the Restor foundation. Their platform aims to democratize access to ecological data by ensuring that restoration data is created for, and with restoration practitioners. Members of the Restor community can upload information about their own projects, search for other projects and data, monitor the impact of restoration activity with satellite imagery or exchange insights with others. By 2023, the repository contained information and data about more than 77,000 restoration initiatives around the world.

Another example is KPOP4PLANET, a global climate activist platform launched by K-pop fans, via the Fandom 4 Forest initiative, which maps out the number of trees planted by fans in different countries so far. The data suggests that global fans of BTS, Blackpink and other major K-pop stars, have planted 113,824 trees through at least 212 projects across 21 countries. These “K-pop forests” have reportedly absorbed more than 28,000 tons of carbon dioxide. This initiative shows the benefit of collective intelligence efforts that tap into an existing community with a strong common identity to guarantee engagement and achieve impact at scale. The activism at the heart of K-pop fan culture is drawing the attention of governments and corporations, encouraging them to be more ambitious in tackling the climate crisis.

Combining sensor data and microtasking for intelligent networked actions

Communities living in regions most affected by climate change often hold unique knowledge about effective management strategies for the local context and can identify more appropriate or inclusive solutions. Collective intelligence initiatives in this space rely on multiple hyperlocal communities and individuals taking small actions (microtasks). These small-scale actions can be verified through sensor data or field surveys, and when aggregated, help to achieve impact at the collective level – closing the doing gap.

The Biodiversity Conservation project of the Cacheu Mangroves National Park in Guinea Bissau established a 24-member oversight committee of residents from local villages and national authorities to agree on a local action plan for restoration. Working with a technology provider, they first used GIS and satellite data to map and select the most viable sites for restoration. They focused restoration activities on these sites. Community members and staff from national parks were involved in tracking important environmental indicators such as bird populations, soil quality and sapling height, etc., to monitor impact. Over three years the initiative established 8,000 hectares of community-managed forests and restored 200 hectares of mangroves. By bringing together public sector officials and communities from the outset, they managed to identify more appropriate and acceptable solutions for all parties. For example, they adopted a technique that let tidal flows transport mangrove seeds to reduce the cost of planting. The project also provided input into the national government’s agenda for wetland restoration and conservation, helping to fill a decision-making gap.

Another example where many individuals are involved in taking small manageable actions for collective impact is the Vietnam Forests and Deltas programme from Winrock. Communities are rewarded for the provision of environmental services ranging from soil protection and restoration to forest management. The programme is also piloting forestry-based carbon sequestration services to offset industrial carbon emissions. The actions taken by communities are recorded using a digital app and verified through field surveys and GIS technology. The programme uses smart payments to reinforce the adoption of sustainable practices in the long term, allocating up to $130 million a year to more than 500,000 Vietnamese households for their work protecting forests. In addition to improving natural resource management, it has increased resilience of vulnerable communities through support for local livelihoods.

Boomitra is a digital marketplace that finances ecosystem restoration. It uses AI and remote sensing technology to monitor and verify the impact of restoration activities undertaken by farmers on carbon content, nutrients, and moisture levels of soil. This gives rise to redeemable carbon credits, which are sold to corporations and governments worldwide. Proceeds from the sales are sent directly to the farmers, encouraging them to maintain behaviors and allowing them to reinvest in the source of their livelihood, as well as their community.