Audience Questions for Dr. David Lamb

Maliau Basin, northeast Borneo 2012

This past summer, researchers with the Sabah Forestry Department allowed me to attend a conference on restoration in the gorgeous Maliau Basin Conservation Area in Sabah, Malaysia (northeast Borneo).  There I had the great opportunity to hear a presentation by Dr. David Lamb, who recently retired after having taught ecology in the School of Biology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.  Dr. Lamb is especially interested in the ways in which degraded tropical forests and landscapes can be rehabilitated. His fieldwork has been undertaken in northern Australia and across the Asia-Pacific region. This work has explored ways of overcoming bio-physical impediments to rehabilitation as well as understanding the socio-economic factors that are involved. He has an ongoing interest in finding ways of increasing the resilience of newly restored vegetation communities and in restoring forests at a landscape scale. He is a member of the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management and Society for Ecological Restoration.

Tonight, Dr. Lamb was gracious enough to video-conference in to speak to us about Large-scale tropical forest restoration  – some necessary policies and important research questions.  His presentation generated a number of questions from our audience, which he has kindly answered below.

QUESTION 1: You mentioned past failures in top-down government projects.  The

Philippines has provided many of these examples.  However, today the National Greening Program, as another top-down government program, has the opportunity to learn from mistakes of the past.  Is it? What kinds of comments do you have on learning from mistakes and getting past the ‘old model’?  – Erica

ANSWER: A pessimistic answer is that we never learn from history and that we are doomed to keep repeating mistakes. But besides the previous mistakes there are always some positive outcomes as well (or only ‘semi’ mistakes where some positive things happened even though it was not entirely successful). What we need to do is locate and publicize these sites, run field trips to them, show them to other farmers and foresters and make them into learning experiences. What went right? What went wrong? Most people agree it is the field trips they make and the discussions they have in the field are the more memorable occasions. I think that is how we should treat previous efforts whether good or bad. But there has to be an active and organized program of actually doing this. But this takes somebody to initiate the process and facilitate the discussions and publicize the outcome of the discussions.

QUESTION 2: What are the prospects for returning to more traditional forms of land use in line with reforestation objectives?

ANSWER:  My initial response is to say probably not great. Times and peoples circumstances both change and few people wish to live in a museum. But there are probably several ways of answering this. In many (most?) tropical countries traditional landholders will want roads, ways of joining the cash economy and linking to the wider society. Of course there need to be places where something like the original ecosystems or land use practices remain or are restored but the task is to do this in a way that traditional landholders benefit from this. If this is not done then it may be difficult to protect these sites.

The other situation the questioner may have had in mind is where ‘cultural’ landscapes have evolved over a long time and then get abandoned (e.g. parts of western Europe, areas in northern Australia once subject to aboriginal fire regimes that were taken over by grazers who used fire in a different way). In such cases the task is to identify which land use is the target and develop ways of re-creating that. In this case there may be scope for some degree of restoration (although it has proven to be tricky – so far – in the tropical savannas of northern Australia to simulate traditional aboriginal fire regimes).

QUESTION 3: Do you have any knowledge of projects using bamboo restoration?

ANSWER: No. I have seen some managed bamboo forests in sub-tropical China and was hugely impressed. But I got the impression they were not difficult to maintain (in the sense of retaining bamboos at the site). In disturbed tropical forests elsewhere, some have viewed bamboos as a problem that help prevent the original native tree species from recovering. That is, the issue is how to exclude the bamboo? I suspect there is an emerging consensus that they are too hard to exclude – at least in the short term – and managers should learn to live with them.

QUESTION 4: Slide 8 [Urbanisation in SE Asia] assumes that population shifts from rural to urban may leave abandoned land for reforestation.  However those urban populations still require the goods produced on that rural land, and may even increase demand as they gain more wealth. How can we leverage urbanization trends to encourage reforestation?

ANSWER: A good question. Urban people tend to be wealthier than rural people and to want more than just goods from forests. But, of course, they also want cheap locally produced food as well. Maybe we could identify certain categories of abandoned farmland as being critical for reforestation (because the land is too steep to be satisfactorily farmed? or because it is the watershed from which the urban area gets it water or because it could be valuable for urban recreation). This is an area where some degree of top-down planning is important???

QUESTION 5: How can we insure that the appropriate funding and resources will be allocated to monitoring – especially with NGOs that require relatively quick
results to appease funders?

ANSWER: Another good question. One way (perhaps the only way) is to ensure appropriate institutional structures are in place (eg. a regional restoration management committee?) and that this/these is maintained over the longer term. This committee (landholders+ government agencies+ other stakeholders??) would be the body to employ the monitors, inspect their reports and to decide what the appropriate triggers for action are. This committee would be the best ones to supply a budget. There are not many government agencies who can guarantee budgets for monitoring unless there is someone they can’t ignore who demands one.

A second thing to be said is that the monitoring must be very simple and cheap. Systems that are scientifically satisfying may be hard to sustain in many tropical situations outside experimental stations. I suspect that simple systems like regularly sampled photo points may be all that can be maintained in many places.

NGOs are good at providing ideas and initiating change but are often unable to be present for the 10+ years that monitoring might require. There are always exceptions of course.