Ecosystems sustain all life on Earth. The healthier our ecosystems, the healthier the planet and its people. The United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration aims to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on all continents and in all oceans. It can help end poverty, fight climate change, and prevent mass extinction. It will only succeed if everyone plays a role. Ecosystems are an indispensable ally in meeting these challenges. Protecting them and managing their resources sustainably is essential. Large-scale ecosystem restoration is no small task, and it will take a concerted effort to truly restore the planet. The beauty of restoration is that it conveys a message of action and hope. Forests regulate the climate and duly absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
People and the planet are only as healthy as the ecosystems we all depend on. Bringing degraded ecosystems back to life – for example by planting trees, cleaning up riverbanks or simply giving nature space to recover – increases their benefits for society and biodiversity. In proclaiming the United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, governments recognized the need to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide for the benefit of people and nature. The 2021-2030 calendar highlights the urgency of the task. The world’s ecosystems – from oceans to forests to farmlands – are degrading, in many cases at an accelerating rate. People living in poverty, women, indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups bear the brunt of this damage, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only deepened existing inequalities. We must recreate a balanced relationship with the ecosystems that sustain us. Far from being a ‘nice to have’ thing, restoration is essential for mitigating climate change, ensuring food security for a growing population and halting the loss of biodiversity.
Mindful of the critical need to halt, prevent and reverse ecosystem degradation and effectively restore degraded terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems around the world, by resolution 73/284, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared 2021-2030 the United Nations Decade of Ecosystem Restoration (hereinafter the “UN Decade”). To support the implementation of the UN Decade and help achieve its goals, it is necessary to have a shared vision of ecosystem restoration, defined as “the process of arresting and reversing degradation, resulting in improved ecosystem services and restoration of biodiversity. Ecosystem restoration encompasses a broad continuum of practices, depending on local conditions and societal choices”. Ineffective urban planning and management have contributed to socio-economic inequalities and the deterioration of environmental quality. Currently, 1.6 billion people live in inadequate, overcrowded and unsafe housing (UN Habitat 2020). Air pollution is a major health risk: more than 80% of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to air quality levels above the recommendations of the World Health Organization. Air pollution is a major health risk, leading to around 9 million premature deaths each year.
Ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction (Eco-DRR) can be defined as the sustainable management, conservation and restoration of ecosystems to reduce disaster risk, with the aim of achieving sustainable and resilient development. While primarily aiming to address disaster risk reduction, it is recognized that Eco-DRR can contribute to climate change adaptation (CCA).
The 2000s saw a growing interest in the importance of ecosystems for human well-being. The ecosystem approach is defined as a “strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable manner” and its principles were endorsed at the fifth Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2000.
Freshwater bodies are home to about a third of vertebrate species and 10% of all described species on Earth, and many more in the world’s wetlands. Freshwater ecosystems provide food through inland fisheries, drinking water, agriculture and industry, and transportation of goods. They regulate water quality and the regional climate and provide protection against flooding. Forests and water are interdependent, with around 75% of the world’s accessible fresh water coming from forested watersheds. Restoring mangroves, coastal and marine ecosystems, and freshwater ecosystems can help achieve food security goals. Actions to restore the aquatic system include the transformation of management and production processes that cause damage to the ecosystem. Restoring wetlands and riverine areas can improve water quality by capturing pollutants and sediments from land degradation.
Agricultural land supports human life. They provide us with food, fiber and other essentials and also provide biodiversity habitat, economic opportunity and spiritual and cultural benefits. At least two billion people depend on the agricultural sector for their livelihoods, especially the poor and rural populations.
Interestingly, mountain ecosystems host about half of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. They directly support the livelihoods of people living in mountainous regions and provide essential ecosystem services to lowland dwellers, including fresh water, timber and recreational opportunities. Mountains are also a source of food: of the 20 plant species that provide 80% of the world’s food – corn, potatoes, barley, sorghum, tomatoes and apples – originated and have diversified in the mountains. Restoring inland ecosystems can also reduce climate-related risks, such as flooding, soil erosion and landslides related to extreme rainfall events. Restoration of forests on the slopes reduces erosion resulting from intense rainfall.
Ecosystem health is linked to human physical and mental health. We rely on ecosystems to regulate the climate, prevent disease, and provide natural spaces in which to exercise and reduce stress levels. They are also a source of ingredients for traditional medicine. Healthy, stable and biodiverse ecosystems are the foundation of our health and well-being, and that of our fellow human beings. They help regulate our climate and control extreme events, pests and diseases, as well as providing us with water, food, raw materials and recreational spaces. They absorb our waste, sustain the economic sectors and livelihoods of millions of people, and they nurture our health, our culture, and our spiritual fulfillment. In all ecosystems, biodiversity loss and degradation is caused by direct drivers (land or sea use change, direct exploitation, climate change, pollution and invasive species), which are underpinned by indirect demographic and economic factors that interact in complex ways.
The ocean supports all life on Earth. It provides 90% of the planet’s living space and 50-80% of the oxygen in the atmosphere. It regulates our weather and climate, provides food and medicine, and holds sacred and intrinsic value to many indigenous and local communities. International shipping is essential to the global economy, accounting for 80% of global trade. The Sri Lanka Armed Forces have done a good job in keeping Sri Lanka green. The Sri Lankan army has planted thousands of trees across the country. The Sri Lankan Air Force engages part of its fleet in maritime patrols and acts as an aerial warden against marine pollution. Additionally, they engaged in large-scale reforestation, using their helicopters for aerial seeding (commonly known as seed bombing). The Sri Lankan Navy has also done an excellent job of clearing and planting sensitive mangrove systems. The late King of Pop Michael Jackson reminded us to “Heal the World.” This beautiful reminder is still valid today. We must protect our environment, our lives depend on it.