HomeVolume 7April 2022Think ecosystem

Think ecosystem

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Think ecosystem

YOGITA KARPATE explores ecosystem restoration and ecological resilience, and how an integrated perspective opens up a more enlightened approach to creating policies for humanity coexisting with all the other species that share planet Earth with us.


I have been intrigued by the idea of ecological restoration since I came to know that the United Nations declared 2021-2030 the “Decade for Ecosystem Restoration.” It relates to my research on Ecological Resilience. Therefore, I thought it was a great opportunity to rethink the causes of ecosystem degradation, how they relate to ecological resilience, how it impacts our lives, if restoration is realistic, and what we can do about it?

I’ll start with what we are missing. Many people think that natural landscapes are all forests. Since people are now more conscious about their responsibility toward conservation, communities and governments are investing in the afforestation of degraded lands. As a result, lands that historically never had trees are also being converted to forests. Using non-endemic trees for afforestation has given rise to another ecological threat, “biological invasion,” which has been a hot topic among ecologists for many years. Forests are undoubtedly important, but so are other ecosystems.

This is a good time to remind ourselves of the definition of an ecosystem. I like the definition on the National Geographic Society’s website: “An ecosystem is a geographic area where plants, animals, and other organisms, as well as weather and landscapes, work together to form a bubble of life.”

Ecosystems range from lush dense rainforest to sparsely vegetated savannah, from freshwater streams to vast expanses of ocean, from rocky arid regions to deserts, and from rustic villages to densely populated urban areas.

Ecosystems sometimes naturally exist in combination, for example, a forest-grassland ecosystem where forests and grasslands coexist in a mosaic pattern. Each ecosystem has intrinsic ecological value and is home to a variety of plants, shrubs, trees, grasses, animals, birds, and diverse human communities. 

Ecosystems also impact our lives. Ecosystem Services are the link between nature and humans. The International Union of Conservation of Nature defines them as “the benefits people derive from ecosystems.” The services provided by forests are often described, but less attention is given to the services provided by other ecosystems. For example, grasslands are an “Open Natural Ecosystem (ONE),” having a great potential for carbon storage. Scientists say that grasslands sequester carbon below ground, protecting the carbon from wildfires. 

Terrestrial ecosystems have been victim to changes in land-use practices. Marine and freshwater realms have been subjected to unregulated fishing, oil spills, and chemical pollution. ONEs are threatened by overgrazing, agriculture, plantations, and human settlement. After the announcement of the “Bonn Challenge” in 2020, afforestation of grasslands is being done in the name of climate change mitigation. Unfortunately, policymakers have missed giving ONEs the importance they deserve. Forest-grassland ecosystems are being threatened by the invasion of non-native fast-growing species, and climate change. The same is happening to other ecosystems, where the absence of policies for restoration and conservation is catalyzing their degradation.

All ecosystems have a natural capacity to heal themselves up to a certain threshold. Once this threshold is crossed, the health of the ecosystem is not retrievable. The ability of an ecosystem to bounce back to its original state after being subjected to external disturbance is a measure of its “resilience.” Restoration of ecosystems can only help when the system is resilient.


The ability of an ecosystem
to bounce back to its original state after
being subjected to external disturbance
is a measure of its “resilience.”
Restoration of ecosystems can only help
when the system is resilient.


According to the United Nations, “Ecosystem restoration means assisting the recovery of ecosystems that have been degraded or destroyed, as well as conserving the ecosystems that are still intact.” 

Active restoration on land can be done by planting, and enhancing soil nutrient properties, and in water by regulating fishing, and controlling water pollution. It can also be done passively by removing human-induced pressures and letting ecosystems heal on their own. When done scientifically, restoration won’t just heal our planet but will also help the economy to thrive. The United Nations goes as far as saying that the economic benefits of ecosystem restoration are nine times the cost of investment. 

Although we understand the urgency of ecological restoration, unscientific restoration is not sustainable. It may also lead to larger problems such as disease, biological invasions, and loss of biodiversity. Scientists propose developing a holistic framework based on cost-effectiveness and long-term sustainability of restoration work.

How can we actively participate in restoration? Many of us feel clueless but I believe we can do much more than just offer occasional financial contributions. Contribution to ecosystem restoration shouldn’t be limited to planting trees or cleaning lakes, which again become occasional activities, especially in urban areas.  From increasing mining in ecologically sensitive areas to wildlife hunting, and extraction of non-timber forest products, drivers of ecosystem degradation point toward the rising demands created from urban areas.

The most effective contribution we can make is to become more conscious about our lifestyle. Research says that ecosystem health is closely linked with human health and therefore science-backed restoration is critical to the survival of humans. Being conscious about our well-being will not only reduce the load on our pockets but will also heal the planet.

To conclude, I would like to revisit what we are missing from the lens of conservation science. Wildlife conservation can be approached in two ways: one is the utilitarian approach, which focuses on how nature conservation benefits us, and the other is the coexistence approach, which talks about the simultaneous existence of species. The former approaches restoration to enhance ecosystem services, whereas the latter focuses on minimizing negative interactions between species. Both approaches are effective and scientific. It is we who decide which way to approach ecosystem restoration.

This reminds me of an informal interaction I had with an elephant biologist, who asked me “Why should we conserve elephants in our neighborhood forests?”
My answer back then, as a newbie in the field, was, “Because wide-ranging animals help the conservation of larger patches of natural habitats.”
He disagreeably accepted my analytical opinion with a smile and said, “Because it’s their intrinsic right to live in the forest, which is their home.”
I couldn’t agree with him more. 

References

https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/ecosystem/

https://www.iucn.org/

https://www.iucn.org/commissions/commission-ecosystem-management/our-work/cems-thematic-groups/services

https://news.mongabay.com/2018/07/grasslands-may-trump-forests-at-carbon-storage-in-a-warming-world/

https://www.bonnchallenge.org/

https://researchmatters.in/news/ill-conceived-idea-replacing-natural-grasslands-%E2%80%98forests%E2%80%99%E2%80%94lessons-past-mistakes

https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/what-ecosystem-restoration

Breed, M.F. et al., 2021. Ecosystem Restoration: A Public Health Intervention, EcoHealth ,18: 269-271. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10393-020-01480-1

Perring, M.P. et al., 2015. Advances in restoration ecology: rising to the challenges of the coming decades, Ecospherehttps://doi.org/10.1890/ES15-00121.1

Yogita Karpate

Yogita is an engineer and a wildlife conservation researcher. She has been practicing Heartfulness meditation since 2015.

1 COMMENT

  1. I think this conclusion is going to be vital one day for the whole of humanity, and it seems that day is very very close to us.
    Science-backed restoration is critical to the survival of humans. Thank you Yogita. Nice work.

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