I have been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to plan, install, manage, monitor, and sustain ecological restoration projects. Sure, it takes research, tools, and perseverance. But most of all it takes people—typically lots of people. And what I am discovering is that it takes people that we never even thought had any relevance to the initiative in the first place to make an ecological restoration project a truly long term success.
As biologists, ecologists, landscape architects, and engineers, we are good at conceptualizing webs of connections and relationships between components of natural systems. We develop complex frameworks that describe inter-relationships between nutrient flows and species diversity, or hydraulic models describing the relationship between river flows and sediment transport. But how many times do we develop conceptual models or map out relationship webs describing how people intervene, interact, and relate to an ecological restoration project? After all, aren’t human endeavors systems too? Yet we typically ignore human systems in our restoration endeavors, or at best we give it fleeting attention. After all, it’s more fun to be tinkering with planting compositions, counting soil microbes, or burning prairies than to be forging relationships with adversaries, reaching out to the disenfranchised, or participating in true in-depth dialogue.
People, or more broadly termed, ‘stakeholders’, I am ever more convinced, are the key to the long term success of a restoration project—more so than specifying the right soil, selecting the right plants, or even processing the right knowledge. In fact, the Society for Ecological Restoration International (SERI) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) came to the same conclusion in 2004 with the publication of Ecological Restoration: a means of conserving biodiversity and sustaining livelihoods. This publication is a call to action by the ecological restoration joint working group of SERI and the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management. The document points out that principles of good ecological restoration practice must not only recognize attributes of ecosystems, but should also incorporate elements from human systems, including:
- ensuring that all stakeholders are fully aware of the full range of possible alternatives, opportunities, costs, and benefits offered by restoration;
- empowering all stakeholders, especially disenfranchised resource users;
- engaging all relevant sectors of society and disciplines, including the displaced and powerless, in planning, implementation and monitoring;
- involving relevant stakeholders in the definition of boundaries for restoration;
- considering all forms of historical and current information, including scientific and indigenous and local knowledge, innovations, and practices.
Like modeling ecological processes, stakeholder engagement takes time, effort, and commitment. And it takes dialogue. Most of what we do today is communicate. In fact communication is easier than ever, thanks to cellular phones, the internet, and air travel. How come, then, miscommunication is blamed for many of the problems we face in ecological restoration? Is it because we are communicating but not really engaged in dialogue?
Dialogue requires a commitment to speaking and listening in a more deliberate way than normally takes place in ordinary conversation or in discussion. Dialogue allows deeper understanding to emerge and encourages a sense of shared meaning. Perhaps if we entered into true dialogue with all
stakeholders our ecological restoration research, projects, and initiatives would be resounding successes.
Maybe we should approach ecological restoration from a people perspective. First, identify and map out the myriad of people, relationships, and cultural processes that will influence the ecological restoration process. Then, assess the critical human factors that will facilitate the success of the initiative and plan for these in our research and projects. As we account for both people and ecological concerns, we can witness more sustainable ecological restoration efforts.
In the Fifth Discipline, the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, author Peter Senge makes the case that human systems thinking is a shift of mind— from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world. Perhaps ecological restoration is as much about restoring the human spirit as it is about restoring ecosystems.
SERI & IUCN. 2004. Ecological Restoration: a means of conserving biodiversity and sustaining livelihood. (This publication is a six-page discussion piece that can be downloaded from: http://www.iucn.org/themes/cem/ourwork/ecrestoration/ publications.html).
Keith Bowers is President and Founder of Biohabitats, Inc. and chair of the Society for Ecological Restoration International. He can be reached at kbowers@ biohabitats.com.