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What's the return for investing in ecosystem restoration?

June 23, 2021

What happens when you invest in ecosystem restoration?

You may have heard a lot about ecosystem restoration lately. On World Environment Day (June 5, 2021), the United Nations launched the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a global effort to help ecosystems from forests to oceans to farmlands recover their health and abundance. As a Christian organization, Plant With Purpose is aligned with the vision to restore creation to the flourishing, sustaining state that our Creator intended.

Talking about restoration may stand out in comparison to other environmental efforts, like climate change mitigation or reversing deforestation. Ecosystem restoration is not just about the catastrophes it seeks to avert, but also the state of abundance that becomes possible when nature works according to God’s design.

A lot of the environmental benefits of ecosystem restoration may seem obvious. More lush rainforests, fertile soils, and richer biodiversity all result from ecosystem restoration. But we don’t often hear about the economic benefits of healing ecosystems. Trees, soil, and biodiversity are not only good for the planet, they’re essential for our economy, health, and livelihoods. 

Money spent toward ecosystem restoration yields an incredible return on the investment. 

Every dollar invested in the restoration of land and ecosystems generates at least $7 in economic benefits … and this is a conservative estimate.

Often, conversations about the environment create a false sense that we need to choose  between the environment and the economy. Many environmental solutions are met with the question, “How are you going to pay for it?” One common retort to this question is “How will you pay for the damages if we do nothing?” Each year land degradation results in around $6.3 trillion dollars in lost income from deforestation, reduced agricultural productivity, and health impacts.

While the risks of doing nothing are important to talk about, so are the immense benefits of investing in ecosystems. We have the opportunity to dream of how life can be significantly better for future generations, and ecosystem restoration provides a pathway toward those outcomes.

While the environment and economy are often pitted against each other in political discourse, as though you can only have one be healthy at the expense of another, our international partners teach us that the opposite is true. 

Environmental health and economic health support each other. 

As we make decisions by thinking globally and thinking long term, we see these benefits increase. Partners like Ester and Tarimo in Tanzania have seen ecological improvements in the form of healthier crops and increased incomes, which motivates further environmental efforts.

Ester and Tarimo both joined Purpose Groups, where they received financial and agricultural training. As they, alongside other farmers in their community, learned and applied regenerative farming skills, their watershed began to heal and grow more abundant. Their incomes grew, allowing Ester to invest even more into her farm and allowing Tarimo to start teaching other farmers regenerative agriculture techniques through WhatsApp.

“Seeing other people’s creativity and innovation gives me motivation for improving my life,” expressed Tarimo. “I see how they are able to take different products to market, and to give gifts, so I’ve gained motivation for using techniques in my gardens and organic vegetable production.”

Tarimo and Ester’s experiences are not isolated success stories. They reflect the incredible ROI that comes from restoring ecosystems. Recent research gives us a better sense of what that payoff looks like. A global effort to restore 350 million hectares of forests called the Bonn Challenge was launched in 2011, and a 2017 study by Michael Verdone and Andrew Seidi  estimates the benefits of this goal based on early returns, long term projections, and local contexts. They found that this initiative generated a net benefit of $0.7 and $9 trillion dollars.

If anything, the $7 to $1 return figure represents the low end of that range. 

$1 invested in land restoration may generate as much of $30 in economic benefits.

These findings are important. Often, opponents of land restoration efforts argue that they are not cost effective. The lack of obvious marketable benefits leads to scenarios where the benefits of deforestation and land degradation seemingly outweigh the benefits of restoration. This perception is inaccurate, yet it is prevalent and can dissuade those who might invest in this work.

With available data to quantify the benefits of restoration, it is easier to bring visibility and enthusiasm toward programs like the ones benefiting Ester and Tarimo’s community in Tanzania. Trying to quantify these benefits can be challenging because ecosystem restoration produces such a wide range of improvements in different sectors. Yet, tracking these benefits helps investors in restoration—from governments, to companies, to supporters of organizations like Plant With Purpose—to monitor their impact. It encourages these stakeholders to replicate the projects that have shown the best results and to make adjustments where they are needed. These results inspire more investors, continuing to improve the financial and environmental ROI. 

The benefits of restoration can be difficult to quantify because they are so multifaceted. 

Land restoration has material benefits, providing more resources for human use. It also promotes human health, which reduces lost productivity due to illness. On the other hand, land restoration creates opportunities for the people who are most connected to the land.

Healthy forests and ecosystems provide sustainable sources of timber, fiber, food, and other forest products. Many marginalized communities rely on farming, forestry, or fishing for food and income. In degraded environments, they are forced to work harder for fewer and fewer resources. On the other hand, healing ecosystems results in more fertile soil and greater crop yields.

While towering trees and expansive forests might be the most visible symbols of ecological health, some of the most important healing processes take place in the soil. Healthy soil is rich in cyanobacteria, fungus, and other microorganisms that nourish plant life and allow for abundant farms. One of the most common effects of ecosystem degradation is soil erosion and infertility, but the opposite is also true. Generous, rich, productive soil can be found more easily when ecosystems are revitalized.

This is a common experience among Plant With Purpose participants around the world. Mr. Poi in Thailand noted that the restoration of his watershed allows him to grow more food and  generate an increased income from the marketplace. “Our community planted more trees in the common space. We don’t have a lot of land when it comes to private space, but we have a lot of trees across our village. I understand much better about what it takes to heal nature, and how planting trees can protect our village’s clean air and water. These projects help me save money on food, as I’m able to sell vegetables from my garden.” 

Others in his community report on better health outcomes, as they are breathing cleaner air and are less dependent on chemical fertilizers to grow food that often makes family members sick.

When incomes in these rural communities increase, it is often used to create other work opportunities. Farmers can also open small businesses, or can specialize in certain tasks like animal husbandry. Plant With Purpose’s community-based Purpose Groups support this growth by pairing regenerative agriculture education with entrepreneur development activities and a platform for saving money and taking out community-based loans. Land restoration creates opportunities across agriculture, small business, and even recreation. In short, healthy land creates rural jobs.

So how can one invest in restoring ecosystems to accomplish all these benefits? 

The good news is that we each have the means to engage in ecosystem restoration at some level. From rural farmers like Mr. Poi, to institutions as large as the United Nations. Restoration can look like removing the causes of land degradation and reversing its effects; conserving and protecting the ecosystems that are still intact; and activities like tree planting or soil composting which fortify and expand the benefits of ecological processes.

Plant With Purpose’s program targets ecosystem restoration through community-based watershed restoration. Our program works exclusively with local populations as partners, not projects, as we seek to restore forest and farmland ecosystems. This results in widespread community buy-in and local leadership that allow our efforts to go much further and last longer than more prescriptive approaches.

We also restore ecosystems by focusing on their natural boundaries. By concentrating our work on watersheds, we are able to more efficiently reach a point where both nature and people  can continue the healing. Remarkably, our programs need to only achieve a saturation of about 50% participation in order for the environmental and economic benefits to be experienced throughout the entire watershed. 

Tree planting and regenerative agriculture continue to be the hallmarks of Plant With Purpose’s ecological restoration activities, and these go hand in hand with our efforts to empower marginalized communities and to foster spiritual renewal. Click here to make an investment in ecosystem restoration through our program.

About the Author

Philippe shares the stories of people living at the forefront of the climate crisis, who are working to transform their ecosystems and communities. He loves emphasizing the human experience, and keeping conversations about the environment centered on the communities most affected by it. Philippe has led storytelling trips to Mexico, Thailand, Colombia, Tanzania, South Africa, Haiti, and a number of other countries. He has previously served in similar roles at Liberty in North Korea and Mobility International.

Philippe obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Communications, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Global Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He furthered his studies by earning a Master of Arts in International Studies as well as a Master of Arts in Nonprofit Management at University of Oregon. Philippe is also an illustrator, podcaster, and digital artist. Outside of work, Philippe loves spending time with his wife and their three kids.

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