Restore ecosystems or suffer a lower standard of living

Andre F Clewell , a US-based botanist and plant taxonomist, has for the past 15 years been working on ecological restoration. This relatively new area of science deals with restoring an ecosystem, that has suffered due to human activity, to its former condition. He spoke to Sopan Joshi during his recent visit to Delhi

Published: Monday 31 January 2000

How did the idea of ecological restoration (ER) originate?
The concept of er has been around for more than a century. The earliest published call for restoration, that one can recall, was made in India by the famous theosophist Helena Blavatsky in 1879. Madame Blavatsky, as she was known, predicted the demise of India as a national power unless steps were taken to "aid lavish Nature to re-clothe the mountain tops with vegetation". Although a few attempts at restoration were made earlier, it was only in the 1970s that er became an important conservation activity, especially in the us , Canada, Australia and the uk . er is an intentional process of returning a functional ecosystem that has been degraded or destroyed to its former condition.

How did you get interested in ER?
Somehow, being merely a botanist and a plant taxonomist did not satisfy me. I realised that er was an idea whose time had come. In 1979, the Society of Ecological Restoration ( ser ), which is based in Tucson, Arizona, usa , was formed. The society has about 40 nations represented among its 2,500 members. In a number of regions around the world, members have organised themselves into chapters of ser . The India chapter was established in 1999 through the efforts of Narayan Desai, an associate of The Ecological Society that was founded by India's well-known restorationist Prakash Gole.

What are the activities of the SER?
ser was founded to provide a common platform for restoration practitioners to compare notes on the feasibilities of restoration techniques. To fulfil that need, ser organises conferences and technical workshops. ser also publishes a newsletter and the peer-reviewed international scientific journal Restoration Ecology . Activities are announced on the Internet at ser 's website .

What are you currently working on?
I am now restoring a vast grassland near the Gulf of Mexico. It is the habitat for an endangered subspecies of the sandhill crane ( Grus canadensis pulla ), whose population today has plummeted to a mere 120. The work involves the removal of pine trees, which were planted for paper pulp but are growing too slowly for that purpose. My colleague, David Borland, and I harvested all the pines and ignited intense fires to kill dense shrubs beneath the pines. Many of the 200 species of grasses and wildflowers in the original wet grassland ecosystem had persisted as seeds and dormant rootstocks. Most of these plants have begun to flourish after we had removed the pines and set them on fire. Soon, we intend to plant seeds of those plant species that did not persist. As a result, the cranes began to show up at my project site one year after we began work.

What has been your experience working with mining companies?
Much of my experience has been in the restoration of swamps and marshes on lands that had been strip-mined for phosphate. Florida produces approximately 20 per cent of the world's supply of phosphate, which is the main constituent of inorganic fertilisers. I design and install wetlands at mine pits that have been back-filled to form new land with the proper elevations, soil and hydrology to support the same kind of wetlands that occurred prior to the mining. In the 20 years that I have worked with mining companies, I realised that the younger professionals in the mining companies were more willing to listen to what I was saying than their seniors were. For example, several mining engineers at the imc- Agrico Company in Florida, usa, do all they can to protect and repair the environment within a mining context.

What are the problems in our understanding of ecological wealth?
I think the economies in trouble have a resource base problem: ecological resources have been exploited so heavily that there is no natural capital left. To support a lot of people, you need healthy ecosystems. The "accountants" never look at the free goods and services that nature provides. My experiences have led me to believe that environmental education in schools is the only way to get the message across to these "professionals".

What is the importance of ecological restoration in developing countries?
India has a wonderful opportunity to restore wetlands like those I restored in Florida. These wetlands provide essential economic services such as removing contaminants from polluted water, retaining water upstream that would otherwise cause flooding downstream during monsoons, and building topsoil. Restored forests could provide fuelwood on a sustained basis. The restoration of attractive natural ecosystems around archaeological sites, such as the Aurangabad caves, could improve tourism.

The goal of ecological restoration in India and other developing nations is to improve the economic well-being of its people. Restoration represents a long-term investment in land. Many of the economic problems in the former Soviet bloc and elsewhere are largely due to the destruction of natural ecosystems that once provided drinking water and other natural goods and services at no cost. Now, people in these regions have to invest in expensive engineering solutions to provide these essential goods and services. The message is clear: either restore ecosystems that provide these services or suffer a lower standard of living.

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