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Restoration of forest landscapes for biodiversity conservation and rural development in the drylands of Latin America

Final Report Summary - REFORLAN (Restoration of forest landscapes for biodiversity conservation and rural development in the drylands of Latin America)

The continuous economic development and population growth resulted in degradation of ecosystems due to increasing pressure on natural resources. These problems were more intense in arid and semi-arid areas, which, in spite of their aridity, are of global importance for biodiversity, being the centres of origin for many agricultural crops and economically important species. Rural communities are often dependent upon such ecosystems for fuels, fodder and other resources; hence, the applied unsustainable practices have negative impacts on biodiversity, soil fertility, water availability as well as on lives of local people.

The REFORLAN project aimed to identify and promote approaches for the sustainable management of arid and semi-arid forest ecosystems in Latin America, in order to protect biodiversity while supporting local populations' livelihood. The project examined ecosystem restoration techniques utilising native species of economic value, so as to mitigate the effects of the previously applied unsustainable practices and contribute to the conservation of biodiversity.

Options to promote the sustainable development of native forests by the local populations and stakeholders were developed as part of REFORLAN, including information systems, decision support tools, criteria and indicators of sustainable forest management and restoration. The ecosystem approach was implemented through management plans, practical guidelines and policy recommendations. The project was successful in achieving all its principal objectives.

The undertaken activities were the following:
1. analysis of satellite remote sensing data to assess the distribution of the target ecosystems in seven selected study areas;
2. application of spatial analysis and geographic information systems (GIS) techniques to estimate the pattern and extent of forests' fragmentation;
3. definition of the floristic biodiversity schemes using the results of field surveys, supported by GIS and multivariate analyses;
4. development and testing of forest restoration and land reclamation techniques in order to reverse forest degradation;
5. determination of the socioeconomic value of the examined ecosystems to the local communities and examination of traditional use patterns;
6. evaluation of the impact of forest loss, fragmentation and degradation on the genetic variability of socioeconomically important tree species;
7. parameterisation of a spatially explicit model of forest dynamics;
8. identification of priority areas for forest rehabilitation, based on socioeconomic criteria.
9. development and application of appropriate tools to support communication and knowledge dissemination.

REFORLAN was the first project to employ satellite remote sensing imagery to analyse the conditions and dynamics of forests so as to develop restoration plans. Multivariate and spatial statistics were utilised to investigate biodiversity schemes. All three levels of biodiversity were subsequently assessed using an integrated approach. The genetic variation of selected tree species was analysed combining conventional and innovative methods.

Hypotheses regarding restoration were tested via the use of experimental and modelling methodologies, while the rates of forest fragmentation and biodiversity loss were estimated using novel GIS techniques. Furthermore, spatially explicit process-based models of ecosystems, closely integrated with GIS, were developed and applied to evaluate the ecological impact of land use change at a landscape scale. The models' results provided feedback for rehabilitation plans and policies development.

Participatory research approaches and multicriteria analysis methodologies, involving engagement with various stakeholders, helped in identifying priorities and practices which could be applied by local communities. Moreover, a range of decision support tools was developed to define the potential impact of various land use policy options on forest recovery and sustainable development.

Consistencies in biophysical and social variables explanatory of forest cover changes were detected while assessing the current extent and recent loss of forest ecosystems. In addition, trends in the landscape indices revealed specific stages in the processes of forests' fragmentation and degradation.

Environmental variables, with the exception of elevation, were not indicative of the biodiversity in ecosystems. On the contrary, variables such as historical impacts of fire, grazing and cutting often determined biodiversity, thus highlighting the importance of developing multidiscipline rehabilitation approaches. Nevertheless, the ecological and socioeconomic differences between study areas rendered impossible the proposal of a single policy. Some similarities were defined, such as the need for studies on commercially important species and intensification of education and management training; however, specific proposals and recommendations had to be individually targeted.

Ecosystem services ought to be incentives for forest recovery in addition to those related to economic benefits, and the involvement of governments and international organisations was critical for applying this suggestion. Research and progress monitoring were additionally defined as key issues of applied rehabilitation plans, since they accounted for the long-term consequences of the process.

The genetic effects of fragmentation varied significantly among species, with some even benefiting within moderate size fragments. In medium and large patches most species maintained a healthy genetic diversity. Nevertheless, additional studies were necessary to increase understanding of the fragmentation consequences on species of interest.

The potential of natural, or else passive, recovery was investigated under a variety of disturbance regimes. It was proved that dry forests were surprisingly resilient and that the potential for passive restoration existed in all cases if grazing was excluded and fires carefully managed.

Regarding rehabilitation priorities, it was defined that sites close to existing forests, located in less degraded areas, less exposed to on-going pressures, and characterised by increased diversity should be highly ranked. Degradation and disturbance were the main factors guiding the prioritisation process, along with connectivity and species' presence.

Furthermore, suggestions towards applying the proposals in cooperation with the local populations were developed. The selected policy consisted of three steps, namely the formulation of the ecosystem model, the definition of management goals and the highlighting of options for benefiting from the forest while protecting it.

The project outcomes were communicated through the construction of a specific website, the production of scientific publications, presentations and booklets, the participation in conferences and the organisation of workshops. It should be overall noted that the integration of different approaches in multiple study areas resulted in a high degree of novelty, with significant impact at the highest scientific and policy level.

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