PARTNERS: Bridging the natural and social sciences to understand drivers and outcomes of reforestation in the tropics

In 2014 a group of the world’s top researchers began a 6-year journey to generate ideas, knowledge and collaborations to understand the socioecological drivers of tropical reforestation.  Nearly 200 people participated in 12 workshops generating 60+ publications linking across disciplines and continents; from seeds and soils to global forums. Here is what they found.
Livelihoods and Well-being

Tropical reforestation should complement and enhance local livelihoods, needs, and cultures

Local Decision-making

Local decision-making is essential for effective and long-lasting tropical reforestation

Planting Trees

Attention to local context and propagule sources when choosing tree species is essential to produce effective ecological and social outcomes

Natural Regeneration

Natural regeneration is a cost-effective approach to recover biodiversity, ecosystem services, and biocultural values in many contexts

Tree Cover Change

New forms of tree cover are arising in diverse socio-ecological contexts, which matters for people, biodiversity, and ecosystem services

Climate Change

Beyond carbon: Interactions between tropical reforestation and climate change encompass multiple socio-ecological dimensions

Holistic Vision

Effective and long-lasting tropical reforestation requires holistic vision and innovations that incorporate social and ecological systems

Guiding Principles

Guiding principles are needed to avoid negative consequences and reach the scale and potential of forest and landscape restoration


Participatory planning with smallholders and communities is key for enhancing local livelihoods, lasting ecological outcomes, and support (buy-in) for restoration. Restoration should enhance the ability of local people to make a meaningful living. There is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach to enhancing livelihoods. As such, engaging and working with local people to understand their livelihood strategies and the potential role for restoration is essential for ensuring locally relevant outcomes. More research is needed to identify effective restoration strategies that enhance livelihoods in different contexts, and to understand the long-term impacts and outcomes of restoring forests on livelihoods.

We also need to think broadly about how restoration and livelihoods intersect. Benefits to livelihoods can be direct (e.g., payment for work), indirect/delayed through the sale of products, or indirect through the services that restoration provides to agriculture. The benefits that are most impactful will be those that meet the needs of local peoples. Tree and forest-based strategies that are already being used to enhance livelihoods can also make significant contributions to landscape level restoration, and can provide a good starting point for additional restoration efforts.
Engaging with and empowering local decision-making processes is key to creating restoration interventions that will be integrated into local lives and communities, and thereby persist into the future. Effective local governance can be achieved through a variety of different models and strategies. Restoration can tap into existing governance structures (for example, farming associations) or can galvanize communities around new structures, institutions, partnerships and/or tenure arrangements.

Case studies from the PARTNERS network show that, in the right context, creating public-private partnerships worked well to engage local communities; in others, creating restoration projects on communal land gave people the space and opportunity to collectively restore and reforest land. However, in all cases understanding local decision making processes (or lack thereof) and empowering local stakeholders to engage in restoration governance and implementation are essential for effective and long-lasting restoration.
Successful active restoration — restoration that involves active interventions by people—requires more than just planting trees or increasing tree cover. At best, active restoration can establish functional, climate-change resistant forests that improve local stakeholder’s livelihoods by providing relevant ecosystem goods and services. The difference between ‘just planting trees’ and successful restoration require attention to local context, since the connections and dependencies between each forest ecosystem and human community are unique.

Choosing species for active restoration requires thoughtful, context-specific attention to sources of seedlings and knowledge of local cultures and ecosystems to produce robust ecological and social outcomes. For example, using carefully selected tree exotic species can, in some contexts, promote native species recovery; in others, the use of  a selection of locally useful species that can make tree planting more attractive while also contributing to local livelihoods and traditions. Species choice should also challenge the status quo; for example, exploring the potential of selected non-invasive exotics to stimulate native species recovery, expanding the availability of locally available seedlings in nurseries, and asking local people about the species they use, know, and/or like.
Naturally regenerating tropical forests can contribute to biodiversity conservation and provide economic benefits for smallholders. But this natural process is often ignored and/or misunderstood in restoration and development policy. Landscape conditions, prior land use, and socio-economic factors determine if natural regeneration will occur and what its qualities and conservation value will be. Diverse natural regeneration often occurs in areas of low land-use intensity and where forest remnants are present, conditions that often occur on steep slopes and in former shifting cultivation landscapes.

Intentionally using natural regeneration as a restoration strategy can significantly increase the cost-effectiveness of large-scale forest restoration. In many contexts, natural regeneration is a cost-effective approach to recover biodiversity, ecosystem services, and biocultural values. These forests can support ecotourism and be managed for sustainable harvests of fruit, medicine, firewood, and other non-timber products. But many naturally regenerating forests are cleared long before they are able to provide benefits for people and nature. New policy frameworks are needed to scale-up assisted and farmer-managed natural regeneration in ways that benefit local communities and farmers.
The world’s tropical forests are continually in flux, and are much more dynamic than global estimates of tree cover would suggest. Tree plantations and natural forests are reappearing in previously deforested areas across the tropics. Tree plantations are also directly replacing natural forests in some contexts. Many drivers influence the extent, rate, and nature of tree cover change, including agricultural abandonment, migration from urban to rural areas, demand for timber products or other commodities, and government-led initiatives to mitigate climate change.

The type of tree cover that regrows has direct implications on biodiversity, local livelihoods, and ecosystem services, and depends on the nature of the drivers of the transition. Even in regions where overall tree cover remains relatively constant, transformations in the quality of tree cover have social and ecological impacts. Monoculture plantations for timber or pulp offer high economic returns but support low biodiversity. Agroforests can increase food security and provide local sources of timber, but provide low levels of cash income. Naturally regenerating forests produce the widest range of ecosystem services and habitats for biodiversity, but strict regulations often prohibit sustainable harvesting of trees to support smallholder incomes.
Forest restoration sequesters carbon and contributes greatly to mitigate climate change. But climate change will also impact the conditions under which restoration will occur. Climate change will increase climate variability and cause extreme seasonal heat in tropical areas and shifts in precipitation patterns, ultimately increasing the frequency of disturbances.

Not all tree cover will be able to cope with climate change impacts to the same degree, nor will they assist with adaptation strategies to the same extent. For example, diverse secondary forest will be both more resilient to the impacts of drought and also better at combating drought conditions than monoculture plantations. The species pool that will result from the climate change disturbance will also affect forest recovery trajectories and resulting forest communities. Therefore, promoting forest recovery and restoration that is resilient to climate change and disturbance, incorporates socio-ecological aspects that promote longevity and ultimately sequesters carbon in the long is key for planning and practicing “climate-smart reforestation.”
Holistic vision that incorporates social and ecological components of the landscape and the connections between them is essential for effective and long-lasting restoration. There is a clear need for interdisciplinary, systems thinking in restoration. But the field of restoration has yet to adopt this approach broadly in theory or practice.

Holistic vision is especially important for developing innovative approaches and new frameworks that incorporate social and environmental dimensions, including integrating restoration into markets, policies, and regulation structures; using new technologies in a constructive manner; and prioritizing when and where restoration should occur. Holistic vision also means creating a meaningful, constructive and sustained dialog among those working in different spheres of restoration - practitioners, researchers, and policy makers - to understand the constraints and opportunities of each sector and situation.
Forest and landscape restoration (FLR) is a long-term, multidimensional process that incorporates biophysical, socioeconomic and governance dimensions. Guidelines for planning and implementing restoration and monitoring outcomes should integrate the ecological and the social dimensions, and clearly reflect the underlying principles that define the FLR approach. But to date, developing guiding principles is impeded by a lack of clarity in the terms used and the widely recognized gap between research, policy, and practice.

Frameworks based on guiding principles, criteria, and indicators are urgently needed to help decision makers and practitioners create strategies to engage local communities in the process, define no-go zones for reforestation, select appropriate reforestation approaches, and establish baselines needed to adequately quantify restoration outcomes. Guiding principles can increase transparency and accountability in program management and decrease risk for private and public investors. Guiding principles focused on social and ecological considerations, and clarity of definitions and vocabulary are urgently needed to reach the scale and the full benefits of forest and landscape restoration.