Bringing nature back: new report showcases five powerful European restoration initiatives

Actions to revive ecosystems – from degraded forests and grasslands, to peatlands and farmlands – broadly termed “ecosystem restoration”, have the power to reverse biodiversity loss, boost climate change mitigation and adaptation and increase human livelihoods and well-being.  
A new report, launched today by UNEP with UNEP-WCMC as part of a major push on restoration at the COP15 UN nature summit, details the wide-ranging benefits of five inspiration European projects, with the aim of accelerating similar action across the continent and worldwide.  

The need for restoration 

The ecosystems of Europe have been exposed to people for more than 40,000 years. The land once provided vital resources to those who settled it. Food, water and raw materials that could be harnessed by human ingenuity were all plentiful. Then, human populations started to expand. Villages became towns and towns became cities. Borders were drawn, walls were erected and dams were built. Many sources of fresh water on the continent have become overused and their water polluted. Forest fires, once suppressed by the grazing activities of native species, have started becoming more common. Supplies of fresh fish, once so plentiful, have become depleted.  

The Benefits of Ecosystem Restoration: An Analysis of Five European Restoration Initiatives report, released today, reveals how negative circumstances like these are being countered in five European locations by the coordinated efforts of governments, organisations and local communities. Each location faces its own challenges, but the tactics being employed in the five restoration projects are similar. More importantly, they are working.   

The key philosophy guiding the projects is that repairing ecosystems can restore them to a point where they can provide many of the vital resources to humanity that they did long ago, while simultaneously improving biodiversity and mitigating climate change. Crucially, the projects work on the assumption that, once functioning ecosystems begin providing benefits again, this will create an incentive for people in the region to nurture and protect these ecosystems from becoming damaged in the future.   

Why showcase the benefits of ecosystem restoration? 

Through the efforts of over 200 funders and a thousand organisations, more than 1.2 billion euros have been allocated to restoring over 11 million hectares of land and seascape in Europe since 2010. However, there are only a few studies that assess and quantify the benefits of this restoration work. The analysis in today’s report aims to fill this data gap, highlighting how these particular initiatives are enhancing biodiversity and combatting climate change, while also heralding socio-economic benefits. The aim is for these successful projects to inspire more restoration work and demonstrate to communities and local and national decision makers that supporting ecosystems is a win-win for people and nature together.  

Five powerful projects in focus  

The Altyn Dala Initiative spans a vast area of Kazakhstan. A key focus is the re-establishment of a fully functional ecosystem of the steppe, semi-desert, and desert across the historical range of the saiga antelope. The saiga was counted in the millions in the recent past, but by 2006 numbers had plummeted to just 50,000. The disappearance of this species has endangered the whole ecosystem as the saiga provided food for predators, fertilised the soil with its faeces, reduced the risk of fires by keeping the vegetation at bay and was a valuable source of meat for local populations. In just a few years, the initiative’s multifaceted approach – which has included creating protected areas, establishing anti-poaching protocols and working with local populations, has brought the saiga population back up to more than 1.3 million. 

Spanning the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine, the Carpathian Mountains represent one of the last great wilderness areas in Europe. The Carpathian Mountains Initiative, under the Carpathian Convention, works with communities and local and national authorities to provide a regional approach to protect this wilderness, and maintaining the connectivity of crucial habitats for some of Europe’s largest mammals, including the brown bear, the bison, the wolf and lynx. It also acts to protect old growth forest, of which the region hosts some of the last remaining examples, and to support the economic activities of the mountain ecosystems so that they can develop in a sustainable way. The project has so far seen important reductions in bear and wolf road deaths, saved 6,500 hectares of old growth forests in the Slovak Carpathians and seen tourism grow in rewilding areas.  

Off the coast of Europe, the ecosystems of the Baltic, Black, Caspian, Mediterranean and the North-East Atlantic Seas also need restorative action. Over-fishing, invasive species, rising sea levels and other forces are threatening many of these ecosystems. The forthcoming Five European Seas Initiative will work at addressing these issues. It will work at improving the management of Marine Protected areas (MPAs) and establishing new MPAs, while promoting the best and most innovative restoration techniques. The programme will engage across coastal countries to ensure a holistic approach on behalf of marine species, who know no borders and often migrate over long distances. One technique the initiative is considering is the restoration of oyster reefs, which protect vulnerable developed shorelines from large waves that cause erosion and – unlike artificial barriers – grow upwards as sea levels rise, providing long-term coastal protection. 

Turkey’s south-west coast from Gökova Bay to Cape Gelydonia has also been facing threats to marine life, where destructive fishing and invasive species have wreaked havoc. But now, the Gökova Bay Initiative has prompted the recovery of many valuable fish populations, thanks to the establishment of targeted no fishing zones, created in careful consultation with local fishers. This has resulted in higher catches and higher income for local fishers. The no finishing zones have also worked to exclude boats that have been damaging delicate sea grass communities with their anchors. Boat disturbance and anchoring has proved to be a serious problem since sea grass communities store vast quantities of carbon dioxide, which gets released when the plants are damaged and destroyed. The initiative has put in place a strict enforcement of the no-fishing zones, with regular patrols which have made the areas truly protected. These zones, and others in Gökova Bay, are helping many species to recover, including the critically endangered and charismatic Mediterranean monk seal. The initiative has also worked with fishers, restauranteurs and connoisseurs to tackle invasive species by inspiring consumer demand for pest species, which have proved tasty and popular menu alternatives (Red Sea lionfish, helpfully, taste like snapper)! 

At 700,000 hectares, the Danube delta is Europe’s largest remaining wetland, stretching across Ukraine, Romania and Moldova. Eurasian otters, beavers, golden jackals and many endangered birds call it home. Unfortunately, attempts to tame the Danube River with dams have resulted in serious floods, and poaching of native grazers has led to a critical build-up of combustible plant material that fuels devastating wildfires. By reintroducing native grazers, like bison, and reconnecting the floodplains of the area, the Danube Delta Initiative has both reduced the risk of wildfires and diminished the threat presented by floods. Water availability for farmers has improved and created a powerful incentive for people living in the region to safeguard the wetlands. The returned presence of the bison and other herbivores is also supporting the recovery of wolves and other predators that are beginning to draw tourism. 

The cornerstone of restoration success 

These five initiatives each represent encouraging stories of ecological success, but the methodology that underpins them is key. They are all different and yet share a set of principles that enabled them to be successful, rooted in the fundamental principles of restoration of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. They all clearly demonstrate how working with local communities and ensuring that these communities reap the benefits of ecosystem restoration is essential. The symbiotic power and purpose of restoration is crucial for initiatives to succeed, as we have seen via the five showcased projects. To accelerate restoration the involvement of policymakers is also key as they can support restoration with legislation, government funding and enforcement of policies and regulations.

A policy brief that details how policymakers can support restoration accompanies this work and summarises how the lessons learned from the five initiatives can be transformed into concrete actions to accelerate the much needed restoration. 

Today's analysis report and policy brief coincide with and strongly support the global announcement of the chosen World Restoration Flagships initiatives, from the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration Flagships Programme. The Altyn Dala initiative - one of the five highlighted in our lessons learned report - has also been selected as a UN global flagship for restoration, in recognition of their achievements.

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