Addressing the unintended consequences of tropical forest restoration for people and biodiversity.

Lead Research Organisation: Bangor University


Earlier this year, the media reported on a major new report (endorsed by most governments) that drew attention to the decline in natural ecosystems on our planet, and why this matters for human wellbeing. There are now growing calls for governments and society to address environmental issues - for example, the support for Greta Thunberg's climate strikes. Some governments are now working towards this: for example, by committing to restore natural ecosystems and reforest degraded lands. This is based on evidence suggesting that dangerous global warming could be stopped if greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation (and fossil fuel use) are halted, and if forest restoration locked up carbon.
The growing interest in restoration sounds like a good thing, but it could have unintended consequences if not carefully planned. Natural ecosystems, agriculture, the world economy, and patterns of consumption and trade are connected in a global system. So, for example, taking pasture land out of production to plant forests might indirectly drive deforestation somewhere else, if the demand for pasture is not addressed. This makes designing successful policies about the environment very difficult. It is now a huge and urgent challenge to incorporate our understanding of how social, economic and ecological systems interact, and to develop tools that integrate our understanding and allow us to make informed decisions.
I am applying for this fellowship to learn from experts in systems analysis at The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), and UK scientists who study how the interactions between people and forests can best be understood and modelled. Systems analysis is a research approach generally defined as: the science of objectively formulating and solving complex problems, typically with many feedbacks. Understanding land use change is a typical example where system analysis is helpful, as there are many drivers of change (agriculture, energy, infrastructure, conservation), many linked policies, and complex feedbacks between them all. During the fellowship I will do three things.
Firstly, I will bring together two approaches for modelling future land use change (e.g. forest conversion to agriculture). This will enable a much better understanding of how different policies could affect future land use change. Thanks to my prior experience and training, and the expertise of experienced scientists at IIASA and in the UK who will help me develop the relevant skills, this is achievable. I will test whether these models are a real improvement over what was available before by comparing model results to observations of real land use change in the past.
Secondly, I will apply my model to the real case study of Colombia, a leader in forest restoration (with a national restoration plan) which has exceptional unique wildlife and ecosystems. I will use the model to predict what might happen by 2040 if forest restoration occurs as planned. I will ask if restoring forests changes other patterns of land use relative to no restoration. In particular, does this actually cause increased deforestation elsewhere? I will then assess the expected effect of future land use on biodiversity (especially endemic species that only live in Colombia) and ecosystem services (carbon draw down and storage, water quality and quantity). I will also ask if different government policies would have different outcomes, and assess the relative importance of global trade. It is my goal that the outputs of this research are used to directly inform policies that result in better outcomes for nature and people.
Finally, I will build collaborations between experts at IIASA and scientists here in the UK, who are all interested in these complex, interconnected questions of great global importance. The aim is for this fellowship to kick start a range of collaborations which will outlast my three years of funding, and help me build my future research career.

Planned Impact

This research is designed to provide stakeholders involved in forest restoration planning with information they need to avoid unintended consequences, and improve net positive outcomes for people, ecosystems, and biodiversity.

To achieve this, we aim to deliver on the following objectives:
- Technical experts advising on policies at national and international scales have access to an improved model;
- International policy makers/NGOs have improved awareness of outcomes and feedbacks from restoration, and the importance of trade vs national policies;
- National policy makers/NGOs in Colombia have improved awareness of outcomes for ecosystem services and biodiversity from specific restoration scenarios - could improve policy and incentive design;
- National-scale maps of likely land use change under scenarios of restoration for Colombia are made available, that could be used to target forest management; and
- Local stakeholders have an improved understanding of how restoration projects fit into wider outcomes.
This research will provide benefits to the following groups:

1) International science-policy initiatives: the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)
IPBES aims to strengthen the science-policy interface around biodiversity and ecosystem services, for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, human well-being and sustainable development. The work program deliverables include "Deliverable 3(c): Policy support tools and methodologies for scenario analysis and modelling of biodiversity and ecosystem services". My work will help fill a gap for national-scale modelling and will be of value to the ongoing IPBES process. It is my expectation that learning from Dr. Rosa's experience I will be able to demonstrate the importance of reliable LULCC projections, and the importance of capturing these dynamics at multiple scales, to members of the Scenarios and Models expert group.
2) National policy initiatives
Forest restoration is an active area of activity and policy change in the case study country, Colombia, a leader in restoration planning for the region, has made within Initiative 20 x 20. This included a National Restoration Plan co-produced by the Humboldt Institute, with whom I will work closely during this project. The institute is in a position to lead change by planning restoration at a landscape scale, and its close engagement with government. Other partners in the 20x20 initiative are likely to be interested in the results of my work, including forest, wildlife and conservation, hydropower companies, agricultural NGOs, sustainable business consultants, and the IUCN. The Natural Capital Project, which has recently developed a new decision-support tool designed to prioritise restoration locations (ROOT) is also actively working in Colombia - the findings of my work are likely to be highly relevant to the application of their models.
3) Local stakeholders
Forest restoration takes place on non-forested land owned or managed by local stakeholders e.g. cattle ranchers or farmers. Involvement of local stakeholders is a key for successful restoration. Local stakeholders would benefit from understanding likely impacts of forest restoration in their area on ecosystem service delivery and biodiversity at wider scales. This may aid their understanding of reasons for widespread restoration efforts beyond their local area.
4) Non-governmental organisations
Forest restoration is high on the global policy agenda, as already outlined. Non-governmental organisations and practitioners involved in conservation (e.g. Wildlife Conservation Society, Birdlife International, with whom I already have connections) and campaign groups involved in land use change and deforestation (e.g. Mighty Earth, Global Witness) will be interested in the high-level messages from my work. I will be able to make recommendations about restoration policies and potential feedbacks.
Description Analyses are still underway, but results from a refined version of the GLOBIOM model are highlighting potential trade-offs and displacement effects on land use from fulfilling large-scale forest restoration targets.
Exploitation Route Research outcomes will be shared in open-access papers, and where possible, with open-access model code to facilitate use by others. A policy brief is also in the process of being written, generating impact beyond the academic sphere.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Description A policy brief (currently confidential and still in final rounds of peer review, to be published this spring) is being written based on initial findings of the refined GLOBIOM model, focussed on scenarios of forest restoration in Colombia. This brief will be circulated within an influential existing policy network focussed on the areas of food, land use, climate change and biodiversity (the FABLE network).
First Year Of Impact 2023
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Title No evidence for trade-offs between bird diversity, yield and water table depth on oil palm smallholdings: implications for tropical peatland landscape restoration 
Description Tropical peat swamp forests retain large carbon stocks and support unique biodiversity, but clearance and drainage for agriculture have resulted in fires, carbon emissions and biodiversity losses. Initiatives to re-wet cultivated peatlands may benefit biodiversity if this protects remaining forests from fire and agricultural encroachment, but there are concerns that re-wetting could reduce yields and damage livelihoods, as relationships between drainage, on-farm biodiversity, and crop yields have not been studied. We examined oil palm fruit yields and bird diversity on 41 smallholder farms in Jambi (Sumatra, Indonesia), which varied in drainage intensity (12-month mean water table per plot from August 2018 to August 2019: -52 to -3 cm below ground). We also compared farm bird diversity with a neighbouring area of protected forest (11,000 ha, 21 plots; mean water table per plot -3 to +15 cm). Bird species richness (3-18 species per plot), species composition, and oil palm yields (4.5-19.2 t fresh fruit bunch ha-1 yr-1) varied among farms, but were not detectably affected by water table depth, although ground-level vegetation was more complex on wetter farms. Bird richness in oil palm (mean = 10.3 species per plot) was 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Description Active collaboration with two research groups at IIASA 
Organisation International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
Country Austria 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I actively collaborate with two research groups at IIASA - Integrated Biosphere Futures (IBF) and Biodiversity, Ecology and Conservation (BEC) to further my fellowship research. I have participated in training on agro-economic modelling in the GAMS language, and specific training on the GLOBIOM integrated assessment model, delivered by IIASA. I actively participate in regular research meetings/seminars from both research groups, and an online collaborative platform for the BEC group. I have also contributed to outreach activities with high-school students in Austria organised by IIASA (interview for student video project).
Collaborator Contribution IIASA have provided me with in-kind support in the following ways: - access to an IIASA desktop computer, currently using remotely, and support to use IT services - theoretical access to desk space when visiting in person (all travel postponed due to the pandemic) - logistical support to arrange accommodation and permits in Austria for placements (all travel plans currently postponed) - time contribution from IIASA staff working in the IBF group in using the GLOBIOM model and training - mentoring support - technical support to interact with the IIASA GitHub repositories - IT services support IIASA also invited me to participate in outreach activities for students in Austria (I was interviewed for a student video project) and to become involved in their Early Career Researcher network.
Impact TBD - active collaborative research is ongoing. Agro-economic modelling Species distribution modelling
Start Year 2020
Description Instituto Humboldt (IaVH), Colombia 
Organisation Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute
Country Colombia 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution In response to my inability to travel to Colombia in Year 1 of the fellowship, due to the covid-19 pandemic, I adapted some of my original activity plans away from holding in-person workshops on forest restoration scenarios, to generating a database of forest restoration projects across Colombia to inform further analysis and scenario development. I contracted and supervised an independent researcher in Colombia to collect this data as part of a service contract, in collaboration with Instituto Humboldt. I devised the data collection plan and database structure.
Collaborator Contribution The work described above has been supervised and facilitated by staff at Instituto Humboldt, namely Jose Manuel Ochoa and Paola Isaacs, who have offered time to translate meetings between the independent researcher and I (Spanish-English), assist with data collection (including writing letters to contacts in Colombia) and provide ongoing intellectual input into the ideas behind the research. Paola and I have also worked together to organise of a research symposium at an international conference to be held in Colombia July 2022 (Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation, Cartagena), where preliminary findings from this research will be presented.
Impact Database of restoration projects in Colombia - still in progress. A finalised version will eventually be made available via Instituto Humboldt's web platform, and the data contained within will be used in at least one scientific paper output TBD.
Start Year 2020
Description Interview for high school student project 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was interviewed by a high school student at a school in Vienna, Austria, for a video project on biodiversity. This was organised by IIASA.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Presentation to the UK Government Systems Thinking Interest Group (STIG) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Together with the two other NERC-IIASA fellows I presented my research project and background of 'systems thinking' to the UK Government cross-service Systems Thinking Interest Group (STIG), which included civil servants from multiple departments including Department for Transport and BEIS (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Public NERC-IIASA webinar on "Biodiversity from a systems perspective" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact 215 people registered to attend this public webinar aimed at researchers, ecologists, and biodiversity scientists and conservation practitioners, to introduce the idea of systems thinking in biodiversity research and to highlight joint research interests between the UK and IIASA. The event tapped in to the IIASA global network. Registered attendees were mostly from Austria and the UK, but participants joined from Asia, Africa and the Americas. I provided a short presentation on my active research with IIASA on understanding the risks of displaced deforestation if forest restoration targets are met.

"The UKRI and IIASA hosted a critical dialogue on the benefits of systems thinking in biodiversity research.

According to the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: "Biodiversity... is declining faster than at any time in human history", as are nature's contributions to people. Around 1 million species are threatened with extinction in the coming decades. Direct and indirect drivers of biodiversity declines are underpinned by societal values and behaviors, and it is widely recognized that systemic changes are needed to bend the curve of ongoing biodiversity loss.

The IIASA Biology Ecology and Conservation (BEC) research group constitutes the institute's hub for applied ecology and conservation research. This webinar brings together UK and IIASA BEC researchers to exchange perspectives on biodiversity research and highlight how biodiversity-related research could benefit from systems thinking."
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022