June 21, 2022

Restoring India’s ecosystems: where, what, and how?


One of the greatest challenges for India in the years ahead is how to revive our degraded and damaged ecosystems. This task of ecological restoration has gained global attention with the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–30. Across India, a litany of forces of landscape abuse and destruction has historically destroyed or continue to threaten ecosystems. The challenge arises: how can we not just arrest such trends, but reverse them?

This is especially challenging in India. Geologically, biologically, and culturally, India is one of the richest and most diverse nations in the world. The country’s ecosystems include 4 of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots, contain about 8% of all recorded species (new ones are continuously being discovered), and a magnificent array of ecosystems from mangroves to broad-leaved and conifer forests, hot deserts to alpine meadows, and cold desert steppe to tropical grasslands. The terrestrial ecosystems of India fall within 51 ecoregions: tracts with distinct natural communities and species, approximating their original extent before major land-use change or degradation. But industrialisation, mining, unsustainable farming, monoculture plantations, logging, and overharvest have transformed many natural ecosystems to highly degraded states. This has led to loss of biodiversity and water security, soil erosion, invasion of alien species, and increased the vulnerability of the ecosystems and their human communities to climatic extremes at a time of global climate emergency.

The need for ecological restoration is both selfish and conscientious. Biodiversity makes the world more hospitable for us and we have a duty to safeguard nature. In India, ecological restoration needs careful planning and action, paying heed to the geology, biology, and culture that form the layers of stories in each landscape, and accounting for the unique native biodiversity and ecoregions representative of different parts of the country. The aim is to assist in the recovery of self-reliant ecosystems that can function well with little or no further interventions. The key questions about restoration are: where, what, and how? These questions are important because they help distinguish ecological restoration from other eco-conscious activities, such as agroforestry, food forests, tree plantations, organic farming, and permaculture. While these may support human needs with less impact on the environment, they do not strictly count as ecological restoration.

The where

The natural world transcends political and administrative boundaries, although the specific land uses, laws, and policies within those boundaries do impinge on the natural world. What kind of boundaries would we have if they were delineated based on biogeography, climate, geology, and native plants and animals, such that each contains natural communities different from those in neighboring areas? Paying attention to who lives where, ecologists have divided the land area of the world into over 800 ecoregions, of which 51 are represented in India. Ecoregions provide a useful lens to look at the land where restoration is considered. The question of where helps focus on the condition of the area prior to major land use change or degradation. This does not imply a condition prior to any human presence in the area, as most parts of India have had a very long history of presence and use by humans, such as forest-dwelling indigenous peoples or pastoralists. Instead it aims to understand the physical and biological conditions and beneficial human – nature interactions that can guide ecosystem recovery.

The what

There are many aspects of a degraded site to understand before trying to assist in its recovery. The what questions address the past, present, and future of the restoration site. First, every piece of land does not need an intervention or restoration. Some may require protection or the removal of some force of degradation (such as pollution), and the site may then recover naturally on its own. Second, ecological restoration does not simply mean planting trees or growing forests. Grasslands, wetlands, rocky outcrops, beaches, sand dunes, and deserts are some natural ecosystems that have few or no trees and these Open Natural Ecosystems (ONEs) that have been around for millennia need conservation and restoration in their own right. Therefore, 3 questions to ask when one begins to consider ecological restoration on a piece of land are:

The first question focuses on what biodiversity the land can support and helps identify the right ecoregion and ecosystem. The current state can elucidate the level of degradation or alteration the site has suffered. And knowing what to restore towards will require determining the needs of the stakeholders and identifying suitable benchmarks within the ecoregion.

The how

Learning how to restore a degraded area requires one to understand the principles of ecological restoration (outlined here) and learn from different approaches that can be taken in practice. These approaches form a spectrum from passive to active restoration. Passive restoration means leaving a site as is without direct interventions, and letting the land recover naturally on its own. This may be suitable for areas of high natural regeneration potential and few threats of continued degradation or invasive alien species. Active restoration may involve different methods suitable for different site conditions: efforts to protect or fence sites from degradation, reinitiate processes such as fires or grazing to recover grasslands, removal of invasive alien species, planting native species, or reintroducing wildlife.

In ecological restoration, one also needs to always consider the effort, time, money, and labour required for restoration and monitor sites to ensure native biodiversity is indeed recovering as intended or to course-correct.

The ERA India platform aims to help practitioners to find answers to the where, what, and how of ecological restoration. The platforms holds a growing community knowledge-base of resources, information, and guidelines for restoration. It aims to hold and facilitate events, foster conversations and networking between restoration practitioners across the country, and spur the revival of degraded ecosystems nationwide. With due attention to the where, what, and how, even small groups restoring small areas can make a big difference.

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