Report on world forest genetic resources to call for smarter restoration methods

Nut from the Vitellaria paradoxa, known as the shea tree. Credit: Bioversity International/Barbara Vinceti.

Nut from the Vitellaria paradoxa, known as the shea tree. Credit: Bioversity International/Barbara Vinceti.

On the first day of the Forests Asia Summit, the President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, mentioned that 4 billion trees have been planted in Indonesia in the past four years. He suggested that if anyone didn’t believe him, they could go and count the trees themselves. But has anyone counted the diversity, and intra-specific diversity among those billions of tree seedlings?

When it comes to restoration, it is often forgotten that quality trumps quantity; the genetic quality of the planting material is vitally important for restoration success. Ecosystem restoration is considered a global priority to contribute to biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and to combat desertification. One of the Aichi targets is aimed at restoring at least 15 percent of degraded ecosystems globally by 2020, thus requiring the restoration of 300 million hectares.

To ensure the success of restoration initiatives, requirements must focus on the choice and combination of tree species and the genetic quality of the germplasm used. The survival and growth of tree seedlings on restoration sites depends on how well they have adapted to the environmental conditions on the site. To ensure this adaptability, it is crucial to select planting material that originates from an environment with similar conditions to the restoration site.

Forests are expected to play a key role in climate change mitigation, but they will only be able to fulfil that role if the trees themselves are able to survive and adapt to changing climate conditions. Genetic diversity provides the necessary material for natural selection under a changing climate. Genetic diversity in planting material is the foundation for its good growth, reproduction and resilience over generations.

One of the strategic priorities of the Global Plan of Action, based on key findings of the soon-to-be-released report on the State of the World’s Forest Genetic Resources, focuses on ecosystem restoration using genetically appropriate material. The Global Plan of Action for the conservation, sustainable use and development of forest genetic resources provides a framework for countries, regional bodies and international organizations to highlight and respond to the serious challenges as well as the opportunities facing forest genetic resources.

Bioversity International coordinated an extensive thematic study for the State of the World’s Forest Genetic Resources report on genetic consideration in ecosystem restoration. In the study, Bioversity International forestry experts analyzed how genetic principles are taken, and should be taken, into account in restoration efforts and in using different restoration methods.

Existent guidelines for seed collection for tree planting are generally not written for restoration purposes. It is in researchers’ hands to adjust those guidelines to address changing climate conditions ­— to provide decision-making tools for restoration practitioners to improve climate resilience and mitigation potential of the restored forests.

Parallel to this improvement of guidelines, policymakers must create demand for good quality seed of native tree species through political commitment and supportive regulatory frameworks. Finally, restoration projects should consistently be planned in a landscape context, to facilitate landscape connectivity and establishment and maintenance of viable tree populations, considering the needs and priorities of the diverse interest groups that reside or operate in the landscape.

As we think about the internationally agreed targets of restoring millions of hectares of forest landscapes in the next few years, jeopardizing restoration success by planting tree seed of low weight, poor germination and survival rates would be an enormous waste of time and effort. On a similar note, there needs to be a more holistic view in evaluating restoration success. Currently, the performance of restoration projects is still quite commonly evaluated as areas covered or seedlings planted, not taking into account the quality of material planted and the success of establishing diverse, productive and resilient forest ecosystems. Paradoxically, that can mean that the more often we fail, the more seedlings we end up planting, thus replanting in the same areas over and over again.

Marta Millere, from Bioversity International, is based in Rome.

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