#RestorationStory by Lyla O’ Brien, European Forest Institute
It’s early morning on an abnormally cold October day, yet I hurry past the steaming coffee prepared outside the meeting room. It’s the second day of the workshop Making people part of ecosystem restoration in Europe hosted by the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation and I’m running a little late. I don’t want to miss the chance to pour over and vote for my favourite take-home message from yesterday’s session on public perception of ecosystem restoration and stakeholder engagement. My eyes, like many others, go to one quote in particular among the sea of sticky notes on the online board: “Create space for meaningful engagement as open as possible, as early as possible, as personal as possible”. The workshop, which took place from the 17th-19th of October in Bonn, Germany, was packed full of memorable quotes like this one from European experts from science, policy, and practice that came together to discuss how the inclusion and acceptance of stakeholders can be strengthened in ecosystem restoration. Not only were participants from diverse sectors, but they were experienced in ecosystem restoration of diverse types all over Europe, whether it be beech forests in Italy, grasslands in Germany, steppe plains in Georgia, or wetlands in Finland.
Ecosystem restoration can face many challenges when it comes to stakeholder engagement. For example, when participants were asked to help create an online word map by submitting a few words on what they thought was the greatest challenge for successful grassroots initiatives, it was just a few seconds before “lack of funding”, “lack of commitment”, “no meaningful engagement of local communities” appeared on the screen in large letters. I came to the workshop to present our work in SUPERB’s WP5 T5.2 on identifying conflicts that affect forest restoration in SUPERB’s 12 demonstration cases, so I was already somewhat aware of such stakeholder difficulties. However, I was surprised to learn about some of the more creative ways participants had explored to engage stakeholders more meaningfully.
When you close your eyes and think of ecosystem restoration, an image of planting a tree might come to mind, or the return of a certain species that has been missing from the landscape for a long time. But what about a sculpture made of over 80,000 aromatic plants spread across two hectares in the shape of a local cave painting in Spain? Or a video filmed together with local communities that aims to capture the sounds or “symphony” of a natural landscape? To ecologists or conservationists like myself, these may not be conventional approaches to restoration, but over the course of the workshop I was surprised to learn about the success that art can bring to our efforts. Art can act as a way to reconnect people to a landscape by helping them to express their emotional connection to it. It can make restoration more fun and hope-filled, take a multifaceted range of forms including work with textiles, media, dance, and sculpture, and engage a wide range of people including young people. I found myself thinking about what the “symphony” of the landscape surrounding my hometown would sound like: the sound of a lazy river meandering through meadows, the melody of so many songbirds all at once, the sound of a dairy cow grazing. It was not hard to see how these types of engagement that touch home can encourage people to participate in restoration.
Over the next two days, I heard more inspirational stories of stakeholder engagement, grassroots initiatives, tools and guidelines for ecosystem restoration, as well as conflicts and trade-offs. As to be expected, discussions on conflicts were sometimes difficult to have, but were always centred on finding ways for conflict resolution. Participants stressed the importance to stop trends of working in silos and engage also with stakeholders that may not support their restoration efforts. As one participant summarised, “Disagreements can be opportunities to learn about ourselves, others, and our community. They can help us grow as individuals and build stronger relationships”. Overall, the workshop was a valuable opportunity to talk about SUPERB’s work, but also an opportunity to think outside our usual boxes on how to ensure ecosystem restoration in Europe is not just for the natural environment but for the people, too.