2015 Global Landscapes Forum: Robin Chazdon – Keynote

Executive Director of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, Robin Chazdon, speaks at the high-level plenary session from the second day of the Global Landscapes Forum 2015, in Paris, France alongside COP21.

The session builds a bridge between the research and policy communities, focusing on the role landscapes play in achieving SDGs and new climate goals. The session explores how useful the landscape approach is for achieving the new climate and development goals, provides concrete suggestions for policy and practice, asks how climate action in landscapes work, how we analyze changes over time, and how policymakers and their institutions acquire “environmental intelligence”.

Robin Chazdon explores the challenges and opportunities for the restoration of forest landscapes.

Sunday, 6 December 2015
Global Landscapes Forum, Paris, France
#GLFCOP21 #ThinkLandscape


It’s really a tremendous honor for me to be here today, and to talk to my colleagues both here and elsewhere.

I’m going to shift gears a little bit. There’s been a lot of discussions of partnerships during the meeting and a lot of discussions of leveraging. And I’m going to be using those terms but in a slightly different way. As many of you know, in the first part of this century, most of the deforestation that we’ve documented in the world has occurred in the tropics.

And this is creating a very urgent crisis for biodiversity, for forest-dependent peoples, and for all the ecosystem services that those forests were producing. But we also know – and we’re learning more every day – that after forests are destroyed they have a very high potential to regrow. They have a very high intrinsic resilience in many situations.

This is going to be the focus of my talk today, because I feel that this aspect of what nature can provide for us has really been neglected in the whole restoration agenda. Many of us in the room have been feeling that we can no longer just rely on protecting existing forests and stopping deforestation and reducing forest degradation. That this is not enough. And that we need to go further and take a lot more steps.

And what are those steps? Well, I’d like to suggest that those steps can really depend very much on re-growing forests and rebuilding landscapes, but in a way that we are working together with nature in a partnership. So this is the new partnership.

And what you see in this picture is an area of North-Eastern Costa Rica, on a very large farm that has three different stages of second growth – all on former pastures. And it is an amazing place to walk through and to witness what has happened with spontaneous, natural regeneration. You can also see, if you look carefully, a few pine trees and Cypress trees that were in former plantations on the property. Forests know how to regrow.

They have evolved to do this and the species that make up the early successional stages of forest are the best experts in the world at colonizing open areas; colonizing even degraded land. And in many cases we don’t really need to even put anything there. We just need to let those species come in and do what they’ve been doing for billions of years. But in many cases forests need our help to be able to do this. To even be able to undergo natural regeneration, without our own planting, but they still need our help in many ways. And that’s what I want to focus on.

There are examples out there where forests have regrown at very large scales without any planting. This example, many of you know, it’s from North-Western Costa Rica. And this area had been undergoing gradual deforestation for over a century and reached a fairly low level of about 23 percent forest cover in the 1960s, and in the 1970s got even lower than that.

And then, due to a variety of events external to Costa Rica, largely – a drop in beef prices, primarily – marginal farmers abandoned their pastures and those pastures began growing back on their own. And by 2005 the forest cover in this region doubled. Again, without any tree-planting. In fact, nobody really planned this at all.

Another example of slightly smaller scale, but still a fairly impressive documentation of natural regeneration that was recently published, [is] in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in this one municipality. Over a 36-year period, forest cover increased on its own 15 percent. And an estimate of what that would have cost if active restoration had been applied came to US $15 million.

So this is what I mean, that we can really partner with nature to take care of this job in many situations without having to spend the kind of money to plant trees and do other kinds of active restoration measures.

So I want to look back a little bit at how the science policy questions have changed, largely in my own professional career. Even just since the last 10 years. The first one has been a big concern with a science-policy interface. How much do we need to conserve in terms of primary forest in order to sustain biodiversity? Sort of, what’s the threshold for that?

Conservation biologists have wrestled with this for a long time. But now we’re asking somewhat different questions. Now we’re asking: how many little bits of biodiversity do we need to keep in a landscape? How much native vegetation, little bits and pieces of it, do we need to regenerate forests in that region?

The second question that’s changed a lot is sort of the big REDD+ issue: how can we prevent forest degradation and deforestation due to mostly logging and shifting cultivation? And this question has sort of changed to focus more on how can we improve the livelihoods of forest-based communities and promote local governance, while at the same time allowing forests to regenerate and be restored?

And third, for many years there’s been this land-sparing question of how can we minimize the conversion of forest in order to accommodate agriculture? And what kinds of agriculture can we fit with a minimum amount of deforestation? And now we’re asking this question, how can we spare agricultural land to regrow forests?

So there’s a lot of questions that have sort of become flipped around in our focus on restoration and it really begs a whole new research agenda. Now, when you drive around many areas of Brazil, you can see these billboards. This billboard actually was advertising a phone number for who to call to post your ad on the billboard. But with a little Photoshopping now we’ve announced that this pasture is available for restoration.

So what does it take to regrow a landscape? What does this partnership mean? Well, it really means understanding and utilizing and valuing all the little bits and pieces of native biodiversity that are still out there. And in some cases they’re quite apparent. In this landscape, there’s a lot of remnant vegetation, a lot of shrubs that are already starting to regrow, and you can tell what would happen here if you just removed the cattle. Within a few years, you’d have a sea of trees, without any tree planting.

So you could say that this landscape has a very high degree of ecological memory. There are many elements in the landscape that connect the regenerating forests with the former forests. So it’s a way of linking the native biodiversity that has been living in the landscape with how that can be shaped in the future.

And we need the animals to help us to do this, and this is why fauna and conservation of fauna is extremely important. It’s been little mentioned at this conference but, really, without the animals that disperse seeds and that regulate populations of seedlings, we won’t be able to get forests regrowing in the landscape. And large, mobile birds are really important for moving seeds around the landscape and for creating new patches of vegetation when there is any kind of abandoned land or open land.

This is a Keel-billed Toucan from Costa Rica. After a couple of hours of observation on this Miconia tree, 18 different species of frugivores were observed. This is a Collared Aracari, a smaller-bodied toucan. The toucans are amazing because they eat both small fruits and large, seeded fruits as well. And they are very important dispersers of canopy palms and other species such as this Virola tree, wild nutmeg.

And without these species present in the landscape, these trees are really not going to be able to move around and colonize new areas. But, fortunately, we are seeing these species cropping up in all of the forest areas that we’re studying in this region of Costa Rica. So the birds are really doing a phenomenal job of planting trees. Not only that, the trees that the toucans plant are the same species that the spider monkey eats and this is an endangered primate throughout Central America. So we can now rely on the services of these dispersal agents to also support populations of endangered species of mammals, bats – many, many different frugivores rely on these palms for their food supply.

Another part of the ecological memory is the human component of it. It’s not just the memory of the species of plants and non-human animals. But it’s also the cultural memory and the cultural knowledge, indigenous knowledge that has developed over many generations about how to manage forests. Because these civilizations relied upon the regenerative capacity of the forest in order to make their living. It was their life.

And they know that if there are different amounts of fertility of the soil that you have to wait longer after you clear to re-clear that area for your cropping cycle. So this whole indigenous shifting cultivation cycle, which has developed independently in all tropical regions of the world, is a source of cultural memory. And one that we need to, I think, resurrect in many of our landscapes to be able to have all kinds of different stages of succession and to be able to still have some productive land.

These components that we call ecological memory, and the knowledge of the cultural memory, are both legacies and drivers of the change. So it’s a dynamic system where, as forests change, those changes are being driven by the remnants that were present initially. But then those remnants are legacies of the prior land use. So, by managing landscapes now or in the past, we are affecting the way those landscapes are going to be resilient in the future.

And this is where the memory comes in. Really, what we do now, what we did 20 years ago, what people did 200 years ago, still has an imprint on the landscape. And thinking about how we can modify our actions now, thinking in an anticipatory way about how this is going to affect the resilience of the landscape.

There’s a wide gradient in terms of the extent of human modification in landscapes. There are some landscapes that are still relatively pristine, still have expanses of forests with relatively little human disturbance of forest loss. Those would be here on the lower left part of this diagram. And then the spectrum goes all the way to the right, to a very highly modified, almost completely humanized landscape. Both the rate of succession, the rate of spontaneous forest regrowth that would happen in this landscape, are very much affected by that level of human modification. So that level goes down with increasing human disturbance.

At the same time, the predictability doesn’t quite behave that way. And I think this is important to understand how we can harness natural regeneration. Because it’s much more predictable when you have either very little disturbance or you have a lot of disturbance. And the in-between situation is where you can get many different multiple pathways, because of the heterogeneity of the system. So we’ve seen the high potential for large scale natural regeneration.

This has been demonstrated in many different parts of the world. But how do we make this happen and where do we make this happen? One tool that we can use is to try to understand how much regenerating forest there is out there. This is an attempt to do that using wall to wall imagery that’s estimating biomass.

And what you see in this map, all of the red and yellow shades are forest areas that had a biomass equivalent to a 20-year-old secondary forest or less, in the year 2008 when this imagery was available. And when you mask out the other sorts of forests and non-forest ecosystems, this is what you can see. There’s a huge, huge amount – at least in 2008, there was a huge amount – of re-growing forest within the lowland American tropics. And this forest carries a huge potential for carbon mitigation, if it’s allowed to continue growing.

We also see incredible complexity – spatial complexity –- within landscapes. And this is important to incorporate in conservation, in terms of how can we target reforestation in order to provide continuity, connectivity. I use connectivity in a slightly different way: ways in which the landscape can allow the movement of animals in a type of corridor. And you can see this is a landscape where I work in North-Eastern Costa Rica. We have all kinds of different land uses. We have tree plantations, banana and encroaching pineapple plantations.

And what you can do with a knowledge of how birds move through the landscape, you can actually look at where the bottlenecks for the movement are and where the priority areas would be for re-establishing natural forest cover. So that we can make this landscape much more hospitable, and we’re more likely to avoid extinction debt in this landscape if the animals can move around and find habitats. There’s still a lot of forest in this landscape, but we need to plan where the new connections are made in a much more scientific way.

And finally, there are ways of rewarding land owners for protecting natural regeneration through payments for environmental services. And on this beautiful farm that I showed earlier, they have 90 hectares that are now enrolled in the environmental service payments program in Costa Rica, just to let it grow back. And this was very encouraging for me to see.

So, when I mentioned leverage before, I mean this in the sense of using the power of nature and harnessing the power of nature to really move forward large-scale restoration in a way that we have not done before. And really using nature to help us to bring nature back.

Thank you.