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THE RESTORATION GENERATION

Wanjira Mathai, Co-Chair, World Resource Institute’s Global Restoration Council

Can you explain the initiative you are involved in to restore a hundred million hectares of forest in Africa?

The African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) is an initiative I am very committed to. It is an African-led effort to bring 100 million hectares of deforested and degraded landscapes across the continent to restoration or productive use. We have approximately 129 million hectares committed by 31 countries,. But now we have to begin to great work of implementation.

Each country has to activate their restoration agenda and that will always be harder than just making a commitment to restore land. We know that forest restoration is closely connected to food security, mitigation against climate change, and building resilience, and I hope and believe it can also be a driver of rural prosperity.

This is Africa’s response to the New York Declaration, a voluntary agreement to end deforestation by 2030 and the Bonn Challenge, to restore 350 million hectares of degraded and deforested landscapes by 2030.

If we're going to do it right, we're also going to need to make sure that AFR100 involves local community and grassroots organizations, like the Green Belt movement, to activate restoration on the ground. In Africa, we have a lot of “boots on the ground”. We have a very young population that is largely unemployed, so this can help activate our restoration generation much like what was done in the US in the 1930s with the civilian conservation corps.

How do you also protect forests that are already standing?

That is crucially important. We have to start by protecting what is standing. The Congo forest ecosystem in Africa, the Amazon forests in South America and South East Asia’s forests are the three lungs of the planet, so we have to make sure that they are healthy.

The latest research shows South East Asian forests are now net emitters of carbon. It’s tragic. The Amazon forest, with the ongoing attacks on that environment, is teetering on the edge of becoming an emitter, leaving the Congo, which is also under pressure, as the healthiest lung of the three.

We know that forest restoration is closely connected to food security, mitigation against climate change, and building resilience, and I hope and believe it can also be a driver of rural prosperity.

How defining will the issue of climate change be for Africa in the coming decade?

It is clearer now than ever that climate change is not only defining for Africa, but for everyone. There is just so much around the science of climate change that is coming to pass and the urgency of the decarbonisation agenda. We are seeing the extremes in weather patterns, from rains and flooding in the Sahel to the recent freezing in Texas. It's just dramatic.

Countries and continents across the world - and especially the climate vulnerable regions of Africa, Indonesia and the Americas - need to develop the ability to mitigate and adapt to what is coming, because the question we must all ask ourselves is: ‘Are we ready?’ and at the moment we cannot answer in the affirmative.

We have a unique opportunity in this decade to invest in a recovery pathway, from Covid-19, that sets us up for a green climate resilient future. We owe it to ourselves and future generations.

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How vital has your mother’s role been in stimulating action on the environment?

In 2004, when my mother Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize, a lot of people questioned the connection was between the environment and peace. Nobody's questioning that now. The environment has everything to do with peace.

We have to take nature into consideration. GDP is not enough of a measure and the intervening years have just confirmed the foresight that my mother had. She got the conversation going and created a new platform. She made the environment central to what we do today.

Are you optimistic about what can be done over the next year?

Of course, I choose optimism. We had to come up with real financial resources for the global economic recovery after the banking crisis of 2007. That was $19 trillion! How can we not mobilize the same amount of money to save humanity? Of course, we can, but are we willing to do what it takes to get it done?

There's no reason why we cannot activate Article Six of the Paris Agreement, which would allow for international carbon markets to be activated and a price for carbon set. One of the big success stories of COP26 ought to be operationalising that. We need a price on carbon to activate and incentivise the protection of standing forests. There is real political movement needed around that!

Reprinted from the Perspective One series with kind permission of ForestLAB and the African Conservation Development Group.