Over the weekend, thirty scientists and land managers met in a rainforest clearing on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. We discussed tropical, ecological restoration. Among the attendees were some of the luminaries of tropical biology and conservation. Expertise ranged from forestry to power grid infrastructure to loan financing to mangrove snails. Here are a few thoughts that I took from the gathering.
Tropical forest restoration isn’t just tree planting. Planting trees is a standard restoration practice, but it can become impractical at the enormous spatial scales needed to preserve hundreds of thousands of organisms and their interactions. Moreover, forests are made of more than just trees; fruit-eating animals (like spider monkeys) and meat-eating animals (like jaguars) are vital for maintaining ecologically intact tropical forests. Even flies can do the grunt work of restoration.
Above: Spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) drinking nectar from Ochroma pyramidale flowers. Spider monkeys also disperse tree seeds throughout the forest. One scientist at the workshop quipped that a lowland, Neotropical rainforest without spider monkeys has serious problems.
Restoration doesn’t happen without people. Knowing your neighbors can afford special opportunities. The longer that people have lived in a landscape, the richer their potential as informants and collaborators. Restoration gains ground when it provides things that people want, like clean water, wild nature, and jobs. Working with people in government could be the surest way to achieve restoration permanence.
Watch out for the trap of the ivory tower. Designing restoration experiments is intellectually satisfying, but to make a difference at a regional or global level, these ideas also need to be scaled up and implemented as land management practices. Ideally, restoration research is place-based; that is, it’s designed to meet the unique conservation challenges of its particular landscape using local resources.