The latest IPCC report underscores the importance of ecosystem-based strategies such as land restoration to improve the quality of declining ecosystem services and rehabilitate degraded lands. Towards this, at least 115 nations have globally committed to restoring over 1 billion hectares of cropland, forest area, pastures and degraded land. Few like China and Ghana are already reaping socio-economic and climate benefits by investing in land restoration.
Ecosystem restorations can also help us adapt to adverse climate events such as floods and heatwaves. Increased frequency of cyclones, floods and heatwaves over the last few years offer a much-needed wake-up call to ramp up our efforts and uncover the benefits of land restoration in India. According to data from Forest Survey of India forest cover in India has risen by 2 per cent from 19.49 per cent in 1987 to 21.67 per cent in 2019.
With already 30 per cent of the land and 40 per cent of forest degraded, scaling up land restoration should be a top priority for our policymakers. Restoring the targeted 26 million hectares of forest land by 2030 could act as a bulwark against environmental lapses and help us achieve twin benefits: improving farm incomes and sequester carbon.
One can see why restoration could be a potential solution to raise farm incomes from success stories globally. China’s Grassland Ecological Compensation Policy increased herders' incomes by 90 per cent. In Ghana, the participation rate of farmers tripled after being incentivised with USD34 each to restore degraded land.
CEEW estimates have found that the average carbon sequestration potential of trees is around 12.4 tonnes of CO2/ha/yr. With this assumption, restoring 26 million hectares of land with tree plantations by 2030, could sequester 321 million tonnes of CO2/ha/yr, adding to the carbon sink. Now the question that arises is – how to make this actionable?
First, we must start acknowledging the role of nature-based solutions like restoration in achieving India’s climate commitments, especially when it is lagging behind on its third pledge of sequestering carbon. Simultaneously, re-mandate restoration to jointly tackle the climate crisis and land degradation.
Second, systematically mainstream restoration into key schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY). Our policymakers could incentivise farmers for ecosystem restoration related work through the MGNREGS. This in turn could also boost their incomes and the restored forest lands could act as carbon sinks.
Third, the high cost involved in restoration requires accelerated private sector participation which is less than 2 per cent of the total investments made in this regard. Ecosystem restoration should be an integral part of their Corporate and Social Responsibility obligations. Besides, the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) platform could be channelised for spending on a host of restoration activities.
Fourth, restoration gives us the opportunity to upscale performance-based payments, which are yet to take off in Indian agriculture. Incentivise farmers for the land restored as a cost of foregoing other activities, like grazing, logging, etc.
Fifth, sustained community action in managing natural resources through local community organisations is key to successfully operationalizing restoration programmes, since locals become active caretakers rather than passive recipients of intervention programs. This has been evident in East African countries where participatory approaches to manage and restore local ecosystems have yielded desired results.
Finally, deploy technologies to measure progress achieved in ecosystem restoration related activities. This should be complemented by a national level restoration database for transferable learnings. Leveraging digital approaches, like remote sensing and drone-based monitoring, will help to claim farmers’ incentives and measure the ecosystem services provisioned.
Accelerated restoration efforts can resolve the two biggest predicaments of Indian agriculture: ensuring steady incomes for farmers and helping India achieve its climate goals.