Welcoming the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration 2021 – 2030 – #GenerationRestoration
By: Farahnaz N. Solomon PhD., Institute of Marine Affairs
Today, Trinidad and Tobago joins the world in celebrating World Environment Day (WED). Celebrated annually on June 5th, WED is the United Nations’ flagship day for encouraging awareness and action for the protection of the environment. In keeping with this year’s theme of Ecosystem Restoration, today is also the official launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, which aims to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean. Yes, you read correctly, a whole decade focusing on ecosystem restoration. Why, what does this mean, especially for the oceans, and how can we get involved?
What is an ecosystem?
An ecosystem includes all the living things (plants, animals and organisms) in a given area, interacting with each other, and with their non-living environments (soil, water, temperature, rainfall, sunlight). They are remarkably diverse and come in all sizes, some examples are- a rain forest, a beach, a mangrove forest, a mudflat, a bay, a coral reef, a marine park, a home garden, a backyard pond, a river or stream.
What does ecosystem restoration mean?
Ecosystem restoration means assisting in the recovery of ecosystems that have been degraded or destroyed, and conserving the ones that are still intact. A mangrove forest that has been cleared for development, a city park that has been abandoned, an abandoned quarry or farmland, a deforested area, an overfished coral reef or fishing ground, a heavily polluted river, are all examples of degraded ecosystems.
Why are ecosystems important?
Ecosystems provide us with many benefits referred to as ecosystem services. Wetlands such as mangrove forests provide coastal protection, filters the water before it enters the ocean and contribute to livelihoods through fisheries and tourism. Some services are not always obvious – mangrove forests provide climate regulation through carbon capture and storage in their roots and soil, and function as nursery habitats for many commercially important fish. Work done on the nursery function of the Caroni Swamp have found juveniles and larvae of many commercially important fish exploited in the Gulf of Paria such as sardines and herrings, mullet, jacks, croakers, drums and groupers 1,2.
Coral reefs are not only important for fisheries and tourism but also provide coastal protection as their physical structure buffer the shoreline against waves and storms, helping to prevent loss of life, property damage, and erosion. About 50% of Tobago’s shoreline is protected by coral reefs3. With forecasted climate change impacts such as an increase in the frequency and intensity of hurricanes and storm surges, and sea level rise, this service of shoreline protection becomes even more important, especially to small islands like ours. Many ecosystem benefits are also difficult to value, like the sense of happiness we feel when visiting Maracas or Pigeon Point beach, the family togetherness generated from a walk in the community park or a mountain hike, the practice of performing religious customs at rivers. These are called cultural values. All these values ultimately contribute to our well-being.
Healthy vs degraded ecosystems
Healthy ecosystems are better able to provide us with benefits over a long period of time; benefits are of better quality and greater quantity i.e more and bigger fish, richer biodiversity, greater efficiency at water filtration and greater carbon storage. When ecosystems become degraded, their ability to provide these goods and services is compromised. Less fish is caught, biodiversity is reduced, less visitors go to the wetland for bird watching, less tourists want to dive on the reef, and carbon capture and storage is reduced. This reduction in benefits impacts negatively on our economies and well-being.
The dedication of an entire decade to ecosystem restoration reflects the degraded state of many ecosystems and the urgency with which changes are required to replace lost ecosystem functioning and services. While both land and marine ecosystems are being degraded, coastal and marine ecosystems are among those facing the most rapid environmental degradation. Coral reefs are under threat from climate change, invasive species and land-based sources of pollution; mangroves are being cleared for built development; seagrasses are being smothered by sediments, fishing grounds are overfished, beaches, rivers and seas are heavily polluted4.
The Benefits of Restoration
Restoring ecosystems can bring stunning benefits and is a major weapon in the fight against the global challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss – restored ecosystems sequester more carbon and house greater biodiversity. Restoring 30% of priority ecosystems could prevent 70% of projected species extinctions and remove 13 to 26 gigatons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere5 – that’s nearly half of the carbon built up in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. For those that require dollars and cents – it is estimated that the restoration of 350 million hectares of degraded terrestrial and aquatic ecosytems could generate US$9 trillion in ecosystem services by 20306.
Who can get involved in ecosystem restoration?
Anyone can get involved in restoration initiatives, from governments and institutions, to businesses, communities and individuals. Restoration can occur at many different scales depending on the actors and the ecosystem. A government can declare a marine protected area or introduce polices to alleviate stressors to degraded ecosystems, a community can clean up and green an empty lot in their area, a business can invest in water treatment or support mangrove and coral rehabilitation initiatives by an NGO, universities can green their campus space, an individual can green his yard, a farmer can reduce his pesticide use and practice more sustainable agriculture, while a fisherman can use less destructive fishing methods.
What can you do as individuals to support this decade long initiative?
- Get familiar with your local ecosystems and what you can do to protect and heal them.
- Talk about ecosystem restoration with your family, kids, teachers – spread the word.
- Get involve in existing initiatives or start your own – share on social media with the official hashtag #GenerationRestoration
- Engage in restoration friendly consumption and habits – reduce, reuse, recycle
While a decade might sound as a long time, restoration takes time, so start now! Kenyan Nobel Prize laureate Wangari Maathai once said “It is the little things that citizens do that will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees ” What “little thing” will you be doing?