An international gathering of designers and land managers organized by The Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology took stock in large-scale ecological restoration projects underway around the world.
By Jared Brey
The Araguaia Biodiversity Corridor in Brazil is one of the world's largest reforestation projects. (Image courtesy Black Jaguar Foundation)
Ben Valks, the Araguaia Biodiversity Corridor's initiatior. (Photo Michelle Hurtubise)
The Corridor involved mapping 10.4 million hectares of land. (Image courtesy Black Jaguar Foundation)
MEGA-ECO attendees traveled from China, Pakistan, Brazil, Africa, Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Canada as well as the US. (Photo Michelle Hurtubise)
The symposium focused on global projects that attempt some kind of ecosystem restoration that stretches beyond jurisdictional boundaries. In their research, Professor of Landscape Architecture Richard Weller and Rob Levinthal, a PhD candidate in the Department of City & Regional Planning, have identified some 250 Mega-eco projects around the world. They range from the Great Green Wall Initiative to fight desertification in Africa’s Sahel region to the Upper Mississippi River Restoration Project spearheaded by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Calling such initiatives by the name “Mega-eco” is a deliberate effort to place them in a lineage with infrastructure megaprojects of the 20th century, said Weller, in introductory remarks filmed at his home in Perth, Western Australia. The symposium was devoted to exploring what makes large-scale ecological projects successful, he said.
“Despite all the doom and gloom, human beings are also demonstrating an incredible ability to self-organize and undertake these large-scale restorative works,” Weller said. “And that is a historical turning point. That’s a profoundly important and optimistic moment in history, I think.”
The symposium was split into four sessions focused on connectivity, anti-desertification, watersheds, and metropolitan projects, with a panel discussion following each session. Even in the context of other large-scale undertakings, two projects on two different continents stood out for sheer ambition and progress to date.
In the anti-desertification panel, Levinthal introduced Elvis Paul Nfor Tangem, coordinator of the Great Green Wall Initiative, which Levinthal described as “maybe the most important thing that’s happening in the world.” The multi-pronged project aims to improve living conditions for people and the health of ecosystems, along a band across the African continent while advocating for more resources in areas at risk of encroachment from the Sahara Desert, Tangem said. Its name is ultimately “a metaphor,” Tangem said, that involves a string of land-restoration and greening efforts in desert-adjacent areas.
“You can’t try to transform the Sahara. So we are focusing on lands that can be transformed,” he said.
The project is “involved in every aspect of human life,” Tangem said. It’s focused not just on land but on whole ecosystems, centered on human communities. It has provided people with alternate fuels in efforts to keep them from cutting down trees, supported carbon sequestration and job growth, established thousands of kilometers of windbreaks, and produced billions of plants and seeds.
“The people should be at the center of everything we are doing. If you forget about the people, the project dies,” Tangem said. “The people, the culture, their immediate needs, their long-term needs, should never be forgotten.”
Ben Valks, founder of the Araguaia Biodiversity Corridor in Brazil, presented during the panel on watersheds. The project is focused on restoring lands in a corridor 2,600 kilometers long, the distance from Boston to Miami, Valks said. The project grew out of a personal mission to see a black jaguar in the wild, which took him on trips as long as five months in the forests of the Amazon. Over 22 trips, he never spotted a black jaguar, but says he personally witnessed the vast degradation of Brazilian ecosystems.
“Human beings are also demonstrating an incredible ability to self-organize and undertake these large-scale restorative works,” said Weitzman's Richard Weller.
“It’s long, but compared to the Great Green Wall, now I feel a bit more relaxed,” he joked.
It’s not about rewilding every inch of the corridor, but about protecting and promoting biodiversity on degraded lands, particularly agricultural areas. The project involved mapping 10.4 million hectares of land—“homework number one,” Valks said. The second aspect of the research was an economic impact study which identified the costs and benefits of restoring land. The initiative is built on partnerships with soy farmers and small landowners, to support planting and water restoration while supporting agricultural activities. It seeks to restore one million hectares of private land.
“This project sets an example that farming and nature can really go hand in hand,” he said.
Climate change, and the urgency to respond to and plan for its consequences, form the background for the symposium, said Associate Professor of Practice in Landscape Architecture and Architecture Matthijs Bouw in closing remarks. Mega-eco projects are at their most promising when they’re rooted in partnerships with big institutions and local interests, he said. While Mega-eco projects are defined by their vast scale, it’s vital that they produce outcomes that can be championed and carried forward by the smallest units of community.
“These impacts, economic impacts, need to fall locally. That is important; that’s what’s going to sustain this,” Bouw said. “We really need to invest along the entire value chain—how we can make sure that economic benefits and ecosystem services benefit the local population who needs to buy into this. And not only buy into this, but have the agency to shape these projects.”