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Ecological Restoration

The Latin American Network of Ecological Restoration (Red Latinoamericana de Restauración Ecológica, REDLAN in Spanish), created in Valdivia, Chile, in 2005, defines ecological restoration as a deliberate activity carried out in order to initiate or accelerate the process of recovery of an ecosystem that is damaged or degraded. This agency affirms that it is a human activity that imitates or accelerates ecological succession, which is the process by which an ecosystem is regenerated naturally after a disturbance or catastrophe that occurs locally. For this reason, ecological restoration can be regarded as the ecological succession assisted by human beings.

The Latin American Network of Ecological Restoration complements, at the regional level, the efforts of the Society for Ecological Restoration International (SER) at the global level. This world agency, founded in 1988, has been playing an increasingly active and influential role on restoration within the international community and now has members in 37 countries and 14 different sections, representing various regions of the world. In addition, the Society holds an observer status in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and is an active member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

According to SER, the ultimate goal of ecological restoration is to imitate the structure, function, diversity, and dynamics of the original ecosystem that was in place before the disturbance or degradation occurred. However, it needs to be recognized that it is often difficult to know what the original state of an ecosystem was because of the limited knowledge we have about that certain area's history. This affects the definition of the condition aimed for through ecological restoration. Locating and studying within the area, any remnant of the ecosystem which retains some of the original components will help significantly in defining the ideal state of the ecosystem once it has been environmentally restored. In addition, the study of fossil pollen accumulated in sediments of lakes and peatlands can contribute significantly to the knowledge of the floristic composition of the vegetation of the ecosystem that is to be restored.

Causes of degradation

There are many factors that have caused degradation in a myriad of ecosystems, which is why actions to promote their ecological restoration are required. Some of the most common human interventions that cause ecological degradation are: forest logging and burning; fragmentation of habitats due to changes in land use; timber exploitation; excessive cattle grazing; the introduction of non-native species; discharges of industrial residues; and oil spills. In addition, there are natural forces that also cause ecosystem destruction, such as earthquakes that cause floods and landslides, and lightening that causes forest fires.

In order to be successful in the ecological restoration of an ecosystem, it is key to first stop the causes which gave rise to its degradation. For example, logging and burning will have to be stopped, the progression of invasive species has to be detained, and actions need to be taken to freeze fragmentation. Once this has occurred, actions for the ecological restoration of the ecosystem of interest can be designed and implemented.

Global Network of Ecological Restoration

At the international level, in 2007 SER established a Global Restoration Network (GRN) in order to fulfill its mission "to promote ecological restoration as a means of sustaining the diversity of life on Earth and re-establishing an ecologically healthy relationship between nature and culture". The mission of this global network is to link restoration projects, research projects and the practitioners working in the field, to promote the creative exchange of experiences, ideas and knowledge. At present, this network is becoming an essential tool for policy makers, professionals, researchers, restoration practitioners, and interested parties in the community. Through an Internet portal, the GRN offers databases, among other resources related to all aspects of ecological restoration. These databases include information ranging from historic ecosystems and the recent cases of degradation, to detailed case studies and tested restoration techniques.

Restoration projects in Latin America

In Latin America, a series of successful efforts aimed toward the restoration of degraded ecosystems of great value to society and to the conservation of biodiversity are already in place. For example, in Colombia, the José Celestino Mutis Botanical Garden is currently developing a project of ecological restoration of degraded areas in the outskirts of Bogotá. In fact, since 1998, the garden's staff, in collaboration with neighboring communities, has been carrying out specific activities related to the restoration, rehabilitation, and recovery of disturbed areas in strategic ecosystems of the area's main environmental structure, in addition to rural areas of the Capital District, through inter-agency agreements with a targeted approach to the areas affected by forest fires, exotic species (both planted and invasive), and those used for agriculture.

Some of the main objectives of this ambitious project are: 1) to determine the state of deterioration and the potential for restoration of intervened areas, in regards to their physical, biotic and social components, with a view toward developing intervention strategies and treatments; 2) to develop and implement intervention models in response to the addressed degradation problems; 3) to raise the level of awareness about the dynamics of alteration, restoration and ecosystem management in the Capital District (Bogotá); 4) to ensure the availability of flora for purposes of ecological restoration, as a main tool for intervention, and 5) to promote community participation in regards to the processes of restoration, rehabilitation or ecological recovery of the areas of intervention.

Likewise, the forest landscape in the Biosphere Reserve of the Mbaracayú Forest in Paraguay is being restored, through a reforestation model of shared responsibility. In this project, supported by private conservation initiatives, the objective is to restore several farms dedicated to agricultural production, seeking to establish connectivity corridors between the main remaining forest areas of the biosphere reserve. One of the activities being implemented since 2003 is the establishment of conservation measures with "big landowners", whose properties are located in the reserve. More recently, a spatial model for the location of restoration plots has been developed, and the planting of 16 native species has taken place in Felicidad, Don Marcelo and Nueva Esperanza, three private farms in the area.

Other examples of much interest in the region include: 1) the restoration of the structure, composition and ecological function of a popal -an herbal ecosystem that contains broad-leaved plants called "platanillos" -, which had been invaded by the German grass (Echinochloa pyramidalis) in Ramsar site number 1336, in La Mancha and in El Llano, Veracruz, México; (2) the restoration of fir "pinabete" forests (Abies guatemalensis var. tacanensis) in the basins associated to the Tacana volcano, and in the area of San Marcos, Guatemala; (3) the evaluation and definition of the secondary plant succession and proposals for the ecological restoration around areas with oak and evergreen oak (Quercus copeyensis and Q. costaricensis), at between 1,500 and 3,000 meters of altitude in the Cordillera de Talamanca, Costa Rica, and (4) the recovery and sustainable use of the ecosystems in the coastal hills of Atiquipa and Taimara, north of Arequipa, Perú. The latter project proposes, through community management, reforestation with native species, delimitation of zones excluding herbivores, optimization in the use of resources offered by this ecosystem to peasant communities settled nearby, and generation of proposals for alternative sources of forage for livestock.

Ecological restoration in the Dominican Republic

As for the Dominican Republic, Dr. Ricardo Grau and other colleagues have analyzed the socio-economic changes in relation to forest regeneration on the island nation. These experts noticed that the country has been affected by an accelerated economic growth that has created a process of widespread forest expansion. Apparently, forest recovery is enhanced by economic growth and a shift toward the intensification of productive land use, as well as the expansion of the services and industry sectors.

According to data by these authors, between 1984 and 2002, Dominican forests expanded by approximately 50% (255,000 hectares). The highest percentage of forest expansion occurred in the northern mountain provinces (Cordillera Septentrional), dominated by a humid broadleaf forest life zone, with little surface of protected areas. The ratio of reforested areas versus non-forested areas was higher at higher altitudes, on land slopes and in provinces with rapid urban growth. The study by Grau and other colleagues concluded that these processes offer opportunities for extensive ecological restoration, without much human intervention, in countries such as the Dominican Republic.

Restoration in areas affected by forest fires

In fact, the island nation requires many ecological restoration actions, especially in forested areas that have suffered sudden large forest fires. For this reason, in 2004, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an international non-governmental organization dedicated to the conservation of nature, in collaboration with local parties, conducted a fire management assessment of the country's highland ecosystems, in order to develop strategies for their integrated management and the restoration of degraded ecosystems. The report, written by Ron Myers and other colleagues, is based on the findings of a team of experts on forest ecology and fire management. Their team visited the Sierra de Bahoruco National Park and the Ebano Verde Scientific Reserve in the Madre de Las Aguas Conservation Area and evaluated fire-related issues affecting the native pine (Pinus occidentalis) ecosystem and the cloud and savanna forests associated with it.

According to the TNC report, pine forests are burned frequently in contrast to pine forests that almost never burn or have not burned in many decades. In fact, because of the prolonged absence of fire, pines are bound to disappear from high altitude forests. Meanwhile, fuel from pine needle residues and shrubs continues to accumulate in forests that have not burned for a long time, making such forests prone to large fires that can destroy the stand completely. For this reason, prescribed burnings may help restore pine forests which have accumulated too much fuel in their forest soils, and ensure that they develop more healthily, so that they may regenerate under more natural fire conditions.

In the case of the Madre de las Aguas and the Sierra de Bahoruco pine forests, there is a proposal to restore their structures with larger trees, ground coverage that entails relatively low-intensity fires, and positive changes in the ratio between the burned area at the treetop level and the burned area at ground level, calculated for each individual fire. In addition, it is proposed, where appropriate, to use methods of ecological forestry in conjunction with the implementation of prescribed fires, to achieve a forest structure that is less prone to damaging fires. Some examples are the selective thinning and planting of native species such as the native pine.

In the specific case of the Juan Bautista Pérez Rancier National Park, the proposal is to formulate a plan for the management, restoration and maintenance of the pine ecosystem. This plan must outline the desired future conditions and include objectives for integrated fire management, conceptual models that show the relationship between fire regimes, ecosystem dynamics and vegetation, an inventory of areas at high risk of fire and of high value for biodiversity and soil conservation, and a plan for monitoring fires and the health of the ecosystem in the long term.