About 1 million animal and plant species worldwide are at risk of extinction, many within the next few decades, according to a report the UN released last May. Around three-quarters of land-based environments and two-thirds of marine environments have been "significantly altered" and degraded by human activity, the report found. To make matters worse, the world consumes more than 100 billion metric tons of materials through resource extraction every year, a rate that vastly exceeds the planet’s ability to regenerate.
Some organizations have stepped up to address this destruction and reverse the loss of natural habitats. The Bonn Challenge has called on countries throughout the world to restore 350 million hectares of forests by 2030, and environmental groups — including the World Resources Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Fund, and 350.org — are calling on countries to change their approaches to the environment, prioritizing the sustainable management of ecosystems.
But a recovered ecosystem is not guaranteed to stay that way. Half the forests that have regrown in Costa Rica have vanished within two decades, and in Brazil and Peru, regenerated forests are often re-cleared after just a few years, according to the Conversation.
Ultimately, facilitating the recovery of a natural ecosystem is just one step in an ongoing process. Recovered and intact ecosystems alike must also be conserved and managed properly for the planet’s biodiversity to recover.
Here are eight examples of ecological projects that are beginning to heal the planet.
1. The Great Green Wall
The Great Green Wall is an African-led project that aims to create the largest living structure on the planet, a new natural wonder that will span the width of the Sahel region, which has become increasingly dry and barren. The initiative aims to restore 100 million hectares of currently degraded land, sequester 250 million tons of carbon, and create 10 million green jobs, according to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. It will, in turn, provide fertile land, food security, and strengthen the region’s resilience to climate change.
Since the initiative launched in 2007, Ethiopia and Nigeria have each restored millions of hectares of land, and Senegal has planted more than 10 million trees.
2. Pakistan’s Tree Tsunami
Launched in 2014, Pakistan’s “Billion Tree Tsunami” saw the government of the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa successfully plant a billion trees by 2017, months ahead of schedule, according to the World Economic Forum. The project added 350,000 hectares of trees through planting and natural regeneration, and was so successful that in 2018, the federal government launched a plan to plant 10 billion trees over five years.
Forest restoration projects like this can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and provide jobs and drinking water for nearby communities.
3. Peruvian Amazon
The Peruvian Amazon has been devastated by land degradation and deforestation over the past century. Land in the Ucayali region of Peru had been largely abandoned in the 1990s, according to Initiative 20x20, until 2008, when the Peruvian company Bosques Amazonicos SAC began training farmers in the area on how to sustainably grow food. In the process, it created a model for sustainable restoration that led to hundreds of new jobs and hundreds of hectares of regenerated forest.
In the region of Madre de Dios, near the Tambopata National Reserve, the local non-governmental organization AIDER has worked with farmers to get rid of industrial papaya plantations and cultivate a variety of crops such as cacao or bananas that are better for the soil, a process that falls under the umbrella of agroforestry, according to the World Resources Institute.
4. Belize Barrier Reef System
Consisting of seven marine protected areas, the Belize Barrier Reef System was once described by Charles Darwin as “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies,” according to UNESCO, and it “is unique in the world for its array of reef types contained in a relatively small area.”
In 2009 it was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in Danger, but has since been removed, according to National Geographic. Its recovery is due in large part to the actions of the Belize government, which has instituted a moratorium on offshore oil drilling and exploration, banned single-use plastic and styrofoam products, and established “no-take” fishing zones, according to National Geographic.
5. Maiden Island Reef
The reefs around Maiden Island in the Caribbean were the subject of what the Society for Ecological Restoration refers to as the “the world’s largest total marine ecosystem restoration, which included both coral reef and mangrove habitats.” Part of the reef had been destroyed by Hurricane Luis in 1995, and the reef had also been degraded by urbanization and industrialization. The restoration used thousands of Reef Balls, an “artificial reef module which mimics the structure and function of a natural reef.” Corals were attached to the reef balls, ultimately resulting in 5,000 new coral colonies consisting of more than 30 species.
6. Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge
This wetlands restoration project in Delaware aims to restore 4,000 acres, in what YaleEnvironment360 calls “one of the largest and most complex wetlands restoration projects ever mounted.” Coastal wetlands are valuable because they sequester carbon, and, according to YaleEnvironment360, “[they] reduce flooding and erosion better than hard infrastructure like seawalls and levees.” Workers have built new dunes that now stand nearly 10 feet high, and planted new grasses that are now thriving. Bird and sea life such as bass, flounder, and other fish have reportedly started to return to the area.
7. Mexico’s National Forestry Commission
Mexico’s National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR) successfully restored 1 million hectares of forest land throughout the country, between 2014 and 2018, according to Initiative20x20. CONAFOR worked with local landowners and communities to help them implement restoration projects, and the plant survival rate in the region has nearly doubled. The World Resources Institute has praised CONAFOR’s work, calling it “exactly the right way to show leadership on restoration in Latin America.” The program remains active, and is continuing to work with residents on planting trees that will provide economic benefits as well as improving the country’s resilience to climate change.
8. Aberdares Rehabilitation Project
The Aberdares National Park holds one of Kenya’s last remaining primary forests, and is a crucial source of water for Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, according to the Agence Française de Développement (AFD). But over the years it has been degraded by human activity such as logging, charcoal production, and housing construction.
In 2006, the Green Belt Movement, a Kenya-based nonprofit that plants trees to restore watersheds and empower local communities, with support from the AFD, started the Aberdares Rehabilitation Project. The project has worked “to restore the degraded areas of the Aberdares forest ecosystem that provides essential services like water, rainfall, and biodiversity,” the Green Belt Movement said. “This would in turn improve the livelihoods of communities adjacent to the area.” Thanks to the project, 4.1 million trees have been planted on 2,000 hectares of forest and 1,900 hectares of public sites or community areas, according to the AFD.