How I learned to stop thinking about REDD+ and love forest restoration

The kickoff keynote of the ISTF conference on Thursday will be given by forest restoration expert Dr. David Lamb. Since he won’t be able to join in person, I wanted to offer up the story of how he originally got me interested me in forest restoration.

Once upon a time in 2009, I was focusing on REDD, REDD and more REDD at work, when I met Dr. Lamb at a workshop about forest restoration and REDD. He gave a  presentation on the social implications and trade-offs of restoring forests for carbon storage, and it was one of those rare instances where workshops actually do re-direct your course in life and send you flying off in some crazy other direction.

It was – how do I say this? Hopeful. At that time, REDD didn’t have a plus and I (and possibly my other colleagues) were all secretly grappling with the fact that we were building up an instrument to reward actors with the worst track records of deforestation and not those with a history of good behavior. Forest restoration, in contrast, seemed so much more of a positive force because it’s about reclaiming the same things we are always losing. Forest cover. Biodiversity. Water. Soil. Again and again and again.

Dr. Lamb’s talk convinced me that forest restoration offered compelling questions more than worthy of academic inquiry. Ecosystem restoration is still a relatively new science, and there is much to be learned about strategies for balancing the social and ecological trade-offs. Two years later, this actually became the working title of my MESc research here at Yale.

But here’s the really strange part. At the restoration workshop where I met Dr. Lamb, we made a field visit to a reforestation project in northeast Thailand (pictured above), where a national wildlife NGO had worked with the local community to restore a vast swath of Imperata grassland into a verdant hillside. This project became my field site for my thesis research, and I returned last summer to dig deeper into the story behind the success.

I found that the restoration project had successfully rehabilitated a population of gaur, which had in turn catalyzed the development of a wildlife-based tourism industry that has since spiraled out of control to the point where the ecological integrity of the reforested area is threatened by waste, water, lights, and noise from resorts. Many of the local farmers welcome this development because of the employment opportunities, raising the question of social and ecological trade-offs.

Looking back at Dr. Lamb’s presentation, the title “social implications and trade-offs” makes me feel like I was reading my future written in 44pt Calibri on a power point slide without even knowing it.

The moral of the story: check out the ISTF confference this week and see what prophetic wisdom Dr. Lamb and the amazing line-up of presenters might have in store for you.