Revitalising degraded land in Africa is a frontline strategy for mitigating climate change both at the local and the global level. Restoration efforts are not only crucial for local communities but pivotal for the global stage due to specific characteristics inherent to African ecosystems. The African Monsoon system is one example: this intricate system impacts not only the continent but can influence climate patterns globally.

These influences have made climate mitigation in Africa an important conversation internationally, and have positioned Africa as a hotspot for internationally-funded restoration projects. At the heart of these conversations is the topic of how to facilitate community-led research and ensure local knowledge is at the forefront of this work.

To explore this question further, Commonland brought together researchers and community representatives in November 2023 as part of a webinar on the impacts of restoration efforts on local communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Speakers Jessica Ruijsch, Ishani Sonak, and Ogeli Makui shared their perspectives, shedding light on the intricacies of satellite observations for measuring the impact of restoration work, the Maasai people’s perspectives, and community-driven data in the realm of landscape restoration.

Restoration from above: Is visible greening really a marker of success?

Ruijsch’s work draws upon satellite observation to explore the impact of land restoration projects in arid and semi-arid areas of Africa. Her goal? To develop guidelines for land restoration projects that maximise positive local climate effects. Casting an eye from above, Ruijsch’s work has unveiled that greening was visible beyond the boundaries of areas with land restoration projects, suggesting widespread success.

However, Ruijsch also took into consideration how the land restoration projects impacted the local climate. Where restoration projects took place, cooling appeared to occur, except in the driest regions. Warming prevailed in the dryer regions, despite restoration efforts, demonstrating the importance of assessing what makes a restoration project ‘successful’ or not. If the local community does not benefit from effects such as cooling, how else could they benefit from the project?

Integrating the Maasai wisdom with satellite data reveals gaps in land restoration impact

Zooming in on South Kenya, Ishani Sonak’s work integrates the Maasai peoples’ perspectives with satellite data. Sonak examined the extent to which the Maasai felt the impact of land restoration projects, by collecting statements and comparing the perceived impact of the Maasai with the visible impact shown through satellite data. Certain perspectives from the Maasai were closely in line with satellite data, such as rainfall levels spanning the past 5 years.

However, some perceived impacts were contradictory, such as how temperature is affecting land pastures. This discrepancy highlighted that land restoration efforts were not doing enough to mitigate the impacts of drought, underlining the importance of better aligning restoration efforts with climate cycles. Sonak’s work showcases the importance of considering both the biophysical and social impacts of restoration activities.

Moving beyond data-points: a lesson for NGO’s in how to calibrate impact

Ogeli Makui’s perspective shifted the focus to the broader impact of restoration projects on local communities. For him, data collection was not just a statistical exercise but a means to understand the changing microclimates and their effects on people. Makui also sees opportunities for better collaboration between NGO’s and local communities. He recognizes the challenges of NGO work in local communities but also takes an interest in the opportunities for NGO’s to add value to the communities they work in by bringing the derived knowledge back into the community. Makui’s insights highlighted the importance of NGO’s in fostering collaboration but also in documenting and sharing successes and failures in a cycle of continuous reflection.

Restoration as a holistic approach to climate mitigation

A greener Africa that mitigates climate change effects for both local and global communities is a must in a world heading rapidly towards 1.5 degrees warming. African leaders are taking up the baton and asking the world to support them in this endeavour, recently taking centre stage at COP28 to advocate for climate mitigation resources, which led to outcomes such as the Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action and the Alliance for Green Infrastructure in Africa.

While research suggests that restoration initiatives lead to greening in Africa, NGOs need to reflect on the role that these initiatives have in benefiting local communities. Achieving a greener Africa necessitates a holistic approach that not only focuses on restoration initiatives but also places emphasis on the prosperity and wellbeing of local communities.

Do you want to watch the webinar? Click here to learn more.