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Land Restoration Can Profoundly Benefit People and the Environment

Two young men on a motorcycle carry a goat between them as they drive through a giant sandstorm, called a haboob
Two young men drive a motorcycle through a haboob — an intense sandstorm — in South Sudan  Photo: Dale Willman

In these days, with environmental collapse seemingly lurking around every corner, there is a story of hope to be told by journalists across the world.

The science is clear: Many of the planet’s systems are in decline. The Earth is warming at unprecedented rates. Our aquifers are drying up. The world’s biodiversity is being lost at an alarming pace. And yet, scientists are finding that restoration of large tracts of land can perhaps help with many of these issues, because restoration can have multiple effects for the regional environment, and can even improve the lives of those living in the once-degraded land markedly better. Journalist and ecologist John D. Liu discussed some of these transformative effects during a recent webinar hosted by the Resilience Media Project at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Liu was a journalist in China back in 1994 when he first visited the Loess Plateau. This was the birthplace of agriculture in China, where centuries of deforestation and unsustainable animal management led to erosion, silt overwhelming the Yellow River, and widespread degradation. By the time Liu arrived, he found the region had become a moonscape — hillsides denuded of vegetation, dust clouds blowing across the landscape, and a people hungry and desperate for change.

In the mid-1990s, the Chinese government launched a major restoration project in the Loess Plateau, hoping to return the land to its once-productive state. Lui documented the project for the World Bank, a major funder of the work. “It took them about four and a half years to design the project,” says Liu, because the scale of what they hoped to do was so large. And then the actual on the groundwork began. “After ten years, the results were transformational.” Those results included a return of vegetation. Once-barren hillsides were now green and lush. Dust clouds no longer plagued the region’s residents. Native plants and wildlife were once again in abundance. The soil health was being restored, with a healthy mix of soil microbes. And carbon was once again being taken out of the air and stored underground.

One of the most important changes, says Liu, was to the region’s hydrology. Before restoration, many of the region’s waterways had disappeared. The denuded landscape did not easily allow rainwater to percolate into the ground. Without plants to hold moisture, much of the rain that did fall on the ground quickly evaporated. But after restoration, that changed. “The rivers are running again, along with streams and springs.” The trees found in the area now take up some of that water, and through the process of transpiration, the plants help to cool the land. That has made the area more habitable for mammals, including humans.

Liu says all those changes then helped to transform the lives of the region’s residents. “They created functional agriculture. They created small businesses.” And this, he says, began to create community wealth. “It’s empowering for people. It raises them from desperate poverty and it gives them agency. Because they were involved in the restoration, it allowed them to see they are the method which changed their situation.”

With the success of the Loess Plateau project, scientists have begun similar work across the world — from Egypt to Portugal and Chile, and even in the United States, where a number of projects are now underway. In Burkina Faso, workers are planting trees as part of the Great Green Wall project, a massive effort to green the entire middle of the African continent. So far, more than 50,000 hectares have been planted across 10 countries on that continent.

When done properly, ecosystem restoration can offer many benefits that in turn address several urgent environmental issues at the same time. For instance, reconstructing mangrove forests along ocean shorelines can fight erosion by stabilizing the land. And the roots of the trees also provide habitat for many ocean species. But mangroves can also slow a tsunami, protecting people living near the coast. Their growth also captures carbon from the air, which in enough quantity could help reduce continued global warming.

Restoring and protecting natural systems, in other words, can offer a wide range of positive effects, and can help to repair the systems upon which we rely for our survival.

Clear cutting a hillside like this one in Oregon can lead to soil runoff, erosion and the collapse of the hillside. Photo: Dale Willman

Restoration projects are powerful stories for journalists to tell, says Judith D. Schwartz. Schwartz is the author of the book, The Reindeer Chronicles. “Journalists can really offer a service in telling stories of how people are able to heal the landscapes of their communities.” And those stories are broad-based, she says. “They are economic and business stories. For instance, how a farm or winery committed to regenerative principles brings investment and energy into the community. They are science stories. You can do a story about why happy cattle means happy birds. They are local community stories — how farmers, gardeners and activists band together to support native pollinators.”

Restoration can also lead to stories about community and personal health. “Improved soil means less flooding and erosion and healthier food and people.”
The scale of such projects can be daunting, so it’s important to remember that not every restoration project needs to be similar in scope to what happened on the Loess Plateau. Restoration can and does happen on much smaller scales. In urban areas, the use of permeable sidewalks can help to control runoff and flooding. Green roofs can help to retain water that otherwise would wash quickly down storm drains, and they also help to reduce the heat island effect that keeps cities as much as 10 degrees warmer in the summer than neighboring suburbs. And former brown fields in cities can be reclaimed and turned into sustainable housing, or in some cases urban gardens that feed people in the surrounding area. In smaller areas, degraded farmland can be turned into a nature preserve that restores the land while offering outdoor recreation for residents. In other words, ideas for restoration projects can be found everywhere – you just have to know how to look for them.

While restoration cannot by itself solve all the problems the natural world faces right now, it is quickly becoming a major tool for ecologists, farmers, ranchers, investors, and citizen activists. But before these stories of redemption can be told, communities need to understand what restoration projects might be able to accomplish for marginal lands in their area. And that, says Schwartz, is an important first step for journalists — to tell their communities about what might happen if a project is undertaken. “If people don’t know what’s possible, how can we begin to envision it?”

For journalists, be sure to watch our video, and check out the resources below. We also include potential story ideas you can use to jump-start your own restoration coverage.

One of the priorities of the Earth Institute’s new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability is improving the interface between journalists, scientific expertise and vulnerable communities. This is the latest webinar in a series I’m developing on covering factors that either boost or impede community and ecological resilience in the face of the landscape of hazards in this era of rapid change. More videos can be found on the Resilience Media Project page.


The United Nations will launch the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration next year. Their site is a great resource for information on restoration

Lots of resources are also available from IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management

Looking for additional experts to speak with? Try the Society for Ecological Restoration 

The Ecological Landscape Alliance has a speaker’s bureau

Chelsea Green Publishing (publisher of Judith’s book) has a number of books about restoration, among them Rewilding: Restoration by Letting Go

Ecological Restoration is a publication of the University of Wisconsin press

Restoring the Pacific Northwest: The Art and Science of Ecological restoration in Cascadia

Indigenous communities and local people and their role in restoration

Importance of Indigenous Peoples’ lands for the conservation of intact forest landscapes

Collective property rights reduce deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon

Phosphorus is essential for agriculture, yet this important plant nutrient is increasingly being lost from soils around the world. The primary cause is soil erosion, reports an international research team led by the University of Basel. The study in the journal Nature Communications shows which continents and regions are most strongly affected.

Restoring the Pacific Northwest: The Art and Science of Ecological restoration in Cascadia

Indigenous communities and local people and their role in restoration

Importance of Indigenous Peoples’ lands for the conservation of intact forest landscapes

Collective property rights reduce deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon

Kiss the Ground, a documentary now streaming on Netflix. A great source for information, as well as potential story ideas involving your community

From the Public Broadcasting System:  The Age of Nature

CommonLand works to revitalize communities and regenerate landscapes.

Much of John D. Liu’s work can be found on this site. He is also on Twitter and Instagram. Also, a Recent presentation to the Trillion Trees Coalition.

Film: Green Gold – Regreening the Desert

Film: Lessons of the Loess Plateau

Film: Hope in a Changing Climate 

Restoration titles from publisher Chelsea Green:

Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth

Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture

Bringing Back the Beaver: The Story of One Man’s Quest to Rewild Britain’s Waterways

Story Ideas

One way to find a great story on restoration is to begin right where you are. For example, you can check with your town/city planning board to see if they have any projects that could be reported through the frame restoration.

You could also begin with national/international resources, and then zero in on local implications. For instance, you can use EPA databases to find any Superfund locations nearby, and find out what plans are in place to reclaim those lands. If there are none, ask experts for ideas on how the property might be reclaimed. Find those knowledgeable who can estimate the ecological benefits of such restoration

Now, some notes on how to find and pursue stories on ecosystem restoration, compiled with our gratitude by Judith D. Schwartz:

Conservation organizations can lead you to local stories. Example: A quick search on the website of Trout Unlimited leads me to a project happening right in my back yard.

Audubon is another resource, since the number and diversity of birds is a key indicator of land health. I could pursue a local story: encouraging native plants around solar arrays to support bird life. Use the National Audubon Society’s Plants for Birds database to see some of the birds native in your area. Talk to a local Audubon representative about what species have disappeared over the years, and why. Ask them about degraded landscapes in the area, and what projects are being considered or are underway to repair them.

The Nature Conservancy has state/regional chapters. They are a good source for story ideas.

The same approach goes for a respected company that focuses on ecological repair.

Their list of projects brings me to a story in my region.

Look for local environmental organizations and see what they are doing. Here is one focused on my watershed.

If you’re doing a global, thematic article piece, or seek to connect local and global, there are numerous campaigns you might looks at. The UN has declared 2021-2030 the UN Decade On Ecosystem Restoration.

EverGreening the Earth is another project for restoration.

A great site for background on a broad array of science issues is The Conversation. They regularly do articles on restoration.

Podcasts, such as Earth Repair Radio, can be good sources of knowledge and inspiration. Investing in Regenerative Agriculture takes a business perspective.

Using the calendar is a great way to find ‘news pegs’ for a story. The international calendar is full of days devoted to aspects of ecological health. For example: World Habitat Day 10/5; World Migratory Bird Day 5/8; World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought (6/17).

Ecosystem Restoration Camps is a non-profit with more than 20 projects underway around the world. Their site is a good place to start if they have work underway in your area. They also have an active Facebook page. And here is a Media Fact Sheet from the group

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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3 years ago

This was the first I’ve heard of the Great Green Wall project. I recently learned about how the efficacy of projects funded by international aid becomes less predictable as the size of aid increases. Dr. Alain de Janvry suggests de-aggregation of aid might help us learn what is determinant of effective applications of aid, and then scale up. However, projects like the Great Green Wall seem a great target for large amounts of aid because their metrics are easily trackable and their interference in human life minimal if planned carefully. In comparison to food aid, poverty alleviation, and crisis response and recovery, such a homogeneous project might be the easiest way to avoid the hazards attached to a lot of international aid.