Exploring social justice in ecosystem restoration

Elaine Marshall has just started her PhD research with Jane Stout (Botany) and Susan Murphy (Geography), School of Natural Sciences. Here she describes what her research will focus on…

Global biodiversity loss and increasing awareness of the multiple values of biodiversity for people, has resulted in an array of mechanisms, actions, policy, legislative and financial incentives for ecosystem restoration. 2021-2030 is declared the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, to prevent, halt and reverse degradation of ecosystems worldwide. Efforts such as the international “Bonn challenge” – to restore 350 million hectares of degraded land by 2030 – will take place in the context of sustainable development decision-making and COVID-19 pandemic recovery.

Ecosystem restoration is place-based – interventions in landscapes where people live and derive livelihoods can result in trade-offs and conflicts with existing land uses and land users. It imperative to engage the full participation of local communities around restoration decision-making to promote fair and equitable benefit sharing over the longer term. The natural capital approach frames social-well being within the context of provisioning goods and services from nature, but we seek to build a more inclusive approach, drawing from environmental and climate justice theories, to address the historical eco-centric or anthropocentric dichotomy. We will evaluate and synthesise existing International Development and Ecological Restoration approaches to develop a new conceptual framework that balances ecological, social and economic considerations for restoration, recognising different ideological motivations for restoring and maintaining biodiverse landcapes, and the differentiated impacts of interventions upon different stakeholders. Of particular interest is how restoration effectiveness varies according to the demographic and socio-economic status of recipients (power dynamics, well-being, gender, age, access to education, religion, and race inter and intra-generational differences, gender etc.), and allows us to consider which people and whose views are taken on board when decisions are made, and who is impacted by those decisions.


Provisional research questions have been defined in order to enable the social dimensions of ecological restoration to be explored in depth.

  1. What are the most effective incentives underpinning successful ecosystem restoration outcomes?
  2. What are the social justice implications of ecosystem restoration important in ensuring success?
  3. What are the key opportunities to strengthen incentive mechanisms to ensure effective and successful ecosystem restoration?

It is envisaged that a combination of mixed methods approaches inlcuding desk-based analysis and in-field engagement with relevant stakeholders, will be employed. Methods will be refined and developed, taking a global view initially, and then focussing on case-studies for in-depth analysis:

  1. In-depth literature review of incentives for ecosystem restoration and evaluation of their effectiveness where possible; of social justice implications of restoration; the key incentives for ensuring compliance. Peer-reviewed or published (from bi and multilateral funded initiatives, UN, NGO, Academic) and grey literature will be included. Different mechanisms will be recorded and categorised; and social justice, inclusion and participation elements extracted.
  2. Including multiscale policy and regulatory analyses of international conventions around biodiversity and restoration to better understand the place-based specifics of biodiversity conservation and restoration.
  3. Stakeholder identification and consultation with case study communities (to be identified). Questionnaires and semi structured interviews based around key research questions to elicit quantitative and qualitative data on effectiveness, compliance and impacts of established and contrasting restoration initiatives. Robust, felixble methods to allow for field travel / non travel:
    • Expert opinion consultations with key informants, authors and thinkers: donors, conservation and development practitioners, private sector business, to collect their perspectives on what is successful ecosystem restoration.
    • Participatory research in communities or a combination of (in person / remote) focal group conversations and semi structured interviews to explore incentives from historical, gender, intergenerational, ethnic, perspectives; what incentives are in place for costs, benefits, rights, responsibilities, and risk sharing; perceptions of effectiveness of these incentives; barriers to implementation; and other demographic and socio-economic factors perceived as affecting successful restoration.       
  4. Analysis will focus on effectiveness of mechanisms across a range of parameters, enabling recommendations to be made around approaches and incentives for delivering effective, sustainable and ultimately successful restoration outcomes.
  5. Output: Develop a typology of incentives, or new conceptual framework, around environmental rights based and social justice to address different and diverse elements of equity, including distributional (sharing conservation and restoration costs and benefits) and procedural (involvement and participation in decision-making at different levels).

About the author: Elaine has 20+ years of experience managing collaborative relationships for research, impact assessment, communication and policy implementation across the natural resource, rural livelihoods and health sectors. She has an established interest in community based resource management and trade, poverty alleviation, governance and gender empowerment, and has worked more recently on ecosystem restoration and farmer-led interventions for mainstreaming biodiversity on farm. Wider experience includes evaluating climate change mitigation policies on agricultural systems and human health, and opportunities for sustainable energy solutions for health care provision in resource constrained settings. Her first degree was in Agriculture and the Environment, she holds a Masters in Resource Management and she believes that making progress on environmental and sustainable development ambitions relies on the engagement of local communities to ensure that enabling conditions are in place to support effective outcomes at a local scale. She hopes her PhD research will provide an exciting and timely opportunity to bring her experience and interests into a space where components of justice and equity can be more explicitly evaluated.


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