Principle 6 Social aspects are critical to successful ecological restoration

Restoration is carried out to satisfy not only conservation values but also socioeconomic values, including cultural ones. In essence, ecological restoration and all other ‘restorative activities (Box 5 and Appendix 1 Figure 6,) have potential to meet a wide range of social and community development aspirations in both developed and developing countries, as is outlined in the International SER Standards (Gann et al. 2019) and the strategy for the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

Box 5 Restorative Continuum

Ecological benefits arise not only from ecological restoration as defined in this document but also from the full range of ‘restorative’ activities carried out across our terrestrial and aquatic environments (Gann et al, 2019, Appendix 1). Restorative activities include ecological restoration as well as rehabilitation activities (i.e. those designed to improve ecosystem functionality without substantially restoring biodiversity) but they also include activities that reduce the causes of degradation arising from society’s consumption and production systems (Gann et al, 2019 pp S21-22).

The main take-home message of the Restorative Continuum concept is that all activities—particularly those designed to protect ecosystems and reduce impacts upon them—are critically important to the overall health and persistence of ecosystems. Success in all these activities across the globe is required lessen local, regional, national and global extinction pressures, including climate change. Lessening such pressures is essential to the long-term success of ecological restoration.

Communities located within or near degraded ecosystems may gain health and other benefits from restoration that improves the quality of air, land, water, and habitats for native species. A ‘social benefits wheel’ has been developed for the international SER Standards and is recommended by SERA for use in Australian projects (2019, pp S9-10). This wheel allows communication of both social and ecological benefits in restoration and enables tracking of outcomes of a project with respect to six attributes: Stakeholder engagement, Benefits distribution, Knowledge enrichment, Natural capital, Sustainable economies and Community wellbeing.

Without considering these social values and benefits, particularly relationships between a site and its stakeholders, a restoration project may not gain the social support needed for success and may fail to deliver important benefits to ecosystems and to society. Few if any ecosystems are without human influence—whether positive or negative.

Some human-induced disturbance regimes are intrinsic to the structure and function of a local native ecosystem (e.g. Indigenous fire management regimes that have exposed sites to fire over the long term, or protected them from fire (Box 6)); while others can progressively erode ecosystems or shift them to cultural ecosystems. This means that values and behaviors of humans (whether positive or negative) will dictate the future of ecosystems. Conserving and restoring ecosystems therefore depends upon appreciation by society of the negative and positive effects of different behaviors; and involvement by all stakeholders in finding solutions to ensure that ecosystems and society mutually prosper.

Box 6 Indigenous peoples and restoration

Indigenous peoples in Australia are the oldest continuous culture on Earth and are well placed to teach other Australians more appropriate ways to live within and manage Australian ecosystems. As a result of this recognition, Indigenous groups can and do play a major role in ecological restoration and rehabilitation practice and research, including that relating to the improved management of social-ecological systems.

About 40% of Australia’s land mass is recognized under Australian law as Indigenousowned, with much land and water still under claim or viewed as never ceded. Caring for Country is a traditional and contemporary practice both within remote Indigenous lands and lands closer to regional and urban centres. Many Indigenous peoples are utilising their land, social capital, and ecological knowledge to better their people and environment, working in collaboration with all other sectors of society.

Ecological restoration and rehabilitation activities are a major source of employment for Indigenous Australians and help to reconnect younger generations with their cultural heritage from which they have been, and continue to be, actively dispossessed. As such, benefits can and must flow from restoration to Indigenous peoples, a process that will benefit the whole of society as the world seeks to rebuild a more restorative relationship between our species and the rest of nature.

Examples of Indigenous-led restoration

The practical implications of social elements of a project for restoration are that restoration planners and project managers need to genuinely and actively engage with those who live or work within or near a site to be restored, as well as with others who have a stake in the area’s goods, services or values. This needs to occur at the outset of and throughout a restoration project. Not only will a restoration project be more secure if genuine dialogue occurs between managers and stakeholders, but also this dialogue—coupled with education about the ecosystem—can increase the level of practical collaboration, facilitating solutions best suited to local ecosystems and cultures.

Education and engagement is often best achieved by actively involving adequately supervised stakeholders in paid or voluntary restoration activities—both having a positive effect in stakeholder communities. Restoration work has demonstrated a potential to generate direct and indirect employment opportunities in many regions. This is particularly beneficial in rural or remote regions where other industries and gainful employment are declining or are marginal—including in remote areas owned and managed by Indigenous groups who are employed to provide ecosystem services (e.g. carbon abatement or habitat restoration) for which society is prepared to pay. Where projects involve community volunteers, restoration activity can serve to educate participants and create improved social outcomes including community cohesion and individual welfare.

Social engagement, interpretation and education regarding the benefits of restoration to stakeholders are therefore essential components of a restoration project and need to be planned and resourced alongside the physical or biological project components. This investment is likely to be rewarded manyfold with increased awareness and understanding of problems and potential solutions by members of society who may have the strongest ‘say’ in the future of an area when funding programs and individual champions have come and gone.