Bernadette Arakwiye (top photo) and Salima Mahamoudou (bottom photo) discussed deforestation, renaturation and the possibilities of artificial intelligence.

Can we win the race against deforestation?

Deforestation is leading to a shortage of water and food. What are the options for counteracting? A conversation with Bernadette Arakwiye and Salima Mahamoudou from the World Resources Institute (WRI) about deforestation, renaturation and the possibilities of artificial intelligence.

Forests are getting under more and more stress. Why does that lead to less water and food?

Bernadette Arakwiye: We know that forest ecosystems play a great role in regulating the climate. Forests can help attract rain. They stabilize soil, and this contributes to better health for the soils and better food yields. So, the lack of forests and their services is going to impact food production in a particular area. This is an oversimplification, but there are millions of publications that clarify the exact linkages between forests, water and food.

Salima Mahamoudou: To effectively assess the linkages between forest loss, degradation, water availability and food security, we must differentiate between tropical forests and dryer forests. Let’s look into the latter: They are in arid or semi-arid areas where water is less available than in tropical areas. When you increase deforestation and degradation by cutting down trees and reducing vegetation cover, that makes it harder for the soil to retain water and moisture. But consequently, the need to grow more food encourages communities to cut down trees to clear more farmland – it is a vicious cycle. In tropical areas, you might say that water availability is not the most important challenge, but forest communities still need food. And their food, housing and other basic livelihood needs are reliant on forest resources. Cutting down their key resource, trees, to provide food will reduce their ability to use this system in the future. Overall, in arid and tropical areas, food is related to the land. And water is related to food! In order to increase food security, you need to retain water and protect ecosystems. 

Some farmers object: Where there is forest, I can't grow crops....

Salima Mahamoudou: Sorry, I am going to be blunt, but we are seeing some deforestation and growing land degradation. Surrounding communities is a growing mix of forests, small farms and now industrial agriculture or plantations. Our data shows that there is clear linkage between the expansion of roads and where trees are being cut down. Where communities are, they try to save as much of the forest as they can, but they are often constrained to cut down some trees to create space for their fields. 

Bernadette Arakwiye: One technique that many people use is agroforestry, where trees and crops are interspersed. With the right combination, it is possible to increase tree cover and crop yields at the same time…

Salima Mahamoudou: That is why we are not talking about a type of conservation where people can’t use forest resources. Instead, we are talking about a sustainable way of managing those forests and landscapes. If a community lives in a place, its members will always look for an opportunity to farm. We need to find a way with sustainable management strategies to restore damaged land and protect the remaining forests. We need communities, governments and other stakeholders to work together to help nature regenerate while protecting intact forests and landscapes.

Bernadette Arakwiye: We need an integrated planning approach in order to avoid instilling a limited perception of how land can be used. If you cut all the forest, you can grow food for up to five years… but then your land is degraded! The question is: What are the optimal uses of the land that can allow forests to continue to provide the ecosystem services that farmers need?

More and more land is under restoration, but is it a race that can be won against deforestation?

Salima Mahamoudou: Absolutely. Let us differentiate between forests and other landscapes. For the longest time, restoration has been focused on forested land. But now, we are seeing that a lot of the damage that is being done is not necessarily on forested land; it is also on different types of landscapes. Restoration movements are most powerful when they aim to restore both. We are seeing successes in Africa and across different ecosystems, where savannas have been restored. In Kenya, for instance, people are bringing back wild biodiversity and unique tree species. We are seeing incredible regeneration in Ethiopia, with 1 million hectares restored in Tigray, and in Niger, with 5 million hectares restored. Many other countries are doing restoration at a large scale to reduce pressure on intact forests, while allowing communities to access the resources they need. So that means: We have the techniques, we understand what needs to be done to scale it up. Now, we need to put different systems in place and consolidate our efforts into an African restoration movement.

What are these systems?

Salima Mahamoudou: The first system is the political push. We need all these countries to really acknowledge that there is a need for restoration and that this needs to be a global and African movement. There are different international institutions, like GIZ in Germany, which work together to create this momentum on the continental level through the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100). And the same momentum is currently being transferred to the national level by sharing knowledge and understanding. Now, we need to translate that momentum to the local level and encourage farmers that are eager to lead grassroots movements that are restoring their land and adding value. 

Let us redirect our energy towards the local communities that are restoring the land, and let us make sure that we are giving them all the tools that we currently have to build their capacity and replicate this process. It is possible to win that race. We just need to accelerate what we are already doing. 

What is behind the idea of tracking restoration process? Why do we need to know how much land is being restored?

Bernadette Arakwiye: There are many reasons. We need to show evidence that restoration is happening. For that, we need the data to prove it. That brings more transparency and accountability around restoration. It also helps evaluate if different stakeholders, national institutions, governments, the private sector – and everyone who has committed to restoring land – are achieving their goals. 

Salima Mahamoudou: Monitoring data can also help private sector investors see what works and what doesn't, and it can then spur further investment.

Bernadette Arakwiye: High-quality monitoring data helps plan restoration better, too. When you know where progress is happening, then you know where to target your resources. There is not as much funding or technical capacity as we would like. Whatever amount is available, it should be used where it is most needed. 

Salima Mahamoudou: Collecting and organizing that data isn’t easy for governments. We know that restoration provides value to different sectors of African economies. It’s not only a country’s ministry of environment that is concerned, but also the ministry of agriculture, the ministry of rural development, the ministry of planning. All of these actors need this progress-tracking data. Right now, the majority of countries in Africa do not have a system where they can centralize all of this key information. That’s a problem: How can governments achieve their commitments to restore millions of hectares if they don’t have access to the data that shows what has already been done? This is why monitoring is important. 

Once we gather all this information, we then need to centralize it into one system in order to see where trees are growing and where success is happening. This information can guide us for future activities. Until now, governments have often struggled to plan strategically for restoration, simply because they can’t make sense of the data. Making this easy and comprehensive for governments is necessary. 

This is a major challenge for international initiatives like the Great Green Wall, a pan-African movement to restore 100 million hectares of land across the Sahel by 2030. Recently, donors committed $14 billion USD to it, but they don’t even know where the trees are growing! They need to gather strong baseline data that highlights the current state of the landscape and then track progress against that baseline over time. And this must be done everywhere at the national and local level, too. Countries need to build their own locally relevant monitoring systems that reflect the unique characteristics of their ecosystems.

Okay, and what are you two doing in your daily work?

Bernadette Arakwiye: We are working to help people improve how they are monitoring restoration. We use a collaborative or participatory approach, working with the people implementing restoration and building their capacity to use user-friendly monitoring tools. Our goal is to help them to more efficiently do their everyday work. With a tool called Collect Earth, people can learn how to use satellite images to monitor restoration by comparing current images with images of how the landscape looked ten years ago. It is eye-opening for them. So far, it is a successful approach because the people we are training are the owners of the data we are putting together, and it is therefore highly likely that they continue using these tools.

Salima Mahamoudou: We are also engaging with governments. They really understand what they need. We don’t come with the perfect solution and say: “Here is the tool, use it and have fun.” Governments are solicited by so many organizations, and everybody wants them to use their tools. So, we need to be honest with ourselves: That is not what we want to do. We work with governments in order to understand the gap between what they need and what they currently have, how they want to go forward, and what they even want to monitor. I think of monitoring as something like an umbrella – it is so many things. Are we monitoring biodiversity, or the quantity of trees, their quality or how many survive? Because of these many aspects, we need to take time. That’s why we developed a methodology to help people design their own systems to measure progress, which is called the Road to Restoration. After we set up a monitoring framework, we build capacity on the ground, and then the local people begin to collect and to interpret the data. We are not giving them fish, but we are teaching them how to fish.

How advanced are you at WRI with the use of artificial intelligence?

Bernadette Arakwiye: That is something we have recently begun to explore. With it, we are trying to see if we can address the challenges that current remote sensing approaches present for monitoring restoration. We have noticed that most of the maps and most of the products derived from satellite imaginary tend to be really strong on mapping dense forests but not the trees outside forests, such as on farms and pasture. So, we are trying an artificial intelligence and machine learning method that can pick up those trees across entire landscapes. The tool we are experimenting with is on a platform that we call Restoration Mapper. This tool can be trained from the data that we collect during the collaborative Collect Earth “mapathons”. In these mapping events, we rely on the knowledge of local people to determine whether a landscape is restored or not. We take that data and then feed it into our models, which apply the lessons from the mapathons to the wider landscape. That way, we can map more trees more quickly. 

What do you think of the plans for a Great Green Wall - is that also sustainable?

Salima Mahamoudou: As a Sahelian, I would say it is sustainable and needed. If the current trend of degradation and deforestation is continued, we will no longer have the Sahel that we know today. Recently, the Great Green Wall has shifted its approach, and that gives me hope. It was once exclusively a tree-planting effort, but it is now aiming at taking local ownership of the projects seriously and is embracing other restoration techniques, like farmer-managed natural regeneration. They are also calling for private sector participation. Those are actors that weren’t present in the past. It is important and strategic because this transformative change can’t be complete only by governments. We need to move away from the political discussions and focus all of our effort into implementation on the ground.  This needs to be a Pan-African movement. The Great Green Wall in its beginning was a project for Africans, not led by Africans. Now, we are manning the wheel and taking control.

Author: Jan Rübel, journalist, Germany. He is author at Zeitenspiegel Reportagen, a columnist at Yahoo and writes for national newspapers and magazines. 

This article first appeared at and is part of a media cooperation between and Rural 21 and One World - No Hunger.

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