FOR5501: A social-ecological systems approach to inform ecosystem restoration in rural Africa

Project: Research

Project participants


Motivated by widespread and accelerating land degradation, biodiversity loss and human-induced climate change, ecosystem restoration has become a global priority. Yet, despite a surge in international attention, the ecological, social, and interlinked social-ecological consequences of major restoration initiatives remain poorly understood. The proposed research unit will approach ecosystem restoration from a social-ecological systems perspective to better understand the mechanisms involved in generating different restoration outcomes. We will follow a place-based approach to social-ecological systems research that allows for an in-depth understanding of a particular landscape by integrating different disciplines while also generating valuable transferable knowledge for restoration of degraded ecosystems worldwide. Our work will focus on western Rwanda because of Rwanda’s role as a global restoration leader.

The overarching goal of the proposed research unit is to develop a social-ecological systems approach to ecosystem restoration. To this end, the research unit is structured in eight interconnected sub-projects that are organised in an ecological, a social, a social-ecological, and an integration cluster consisting of two sub-projects each. The ecological cluster will quantify the ecological consequences of ecosystem restoration in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem structure and function at both the site and landscape level. The social cluster aims to understand the social context, mechanisms and outcomes of ecosystem restoration for individual people and communities with a particular focus on governance, environmental justice and social cohesion. In the social-ecological cluster, we will analyse how ecosystem restoration changes people’s interactions with the natural environment by examining livelihoods, food security and nature’s contributions to people.

Finally, the integration cluster will establish a living lab where we will conduct ecological and socioeconomic experiments with local stakeholders to identify new ways to improve ecosystem restoration. Additionally, we will integrate all findings of the research unit on an ongoing basis as part of the integration cluster using social-ecological system approaches and scenario planning. Together, the interdisciplinary post-hoc assessment of mechanisms and outcomes of restoration, in combination with participatory real-world experiments and future-oriented scenario planning, provide a comprehensive understanding of the past, present and future of ecosystem restoration in the study area. In addition, we expect to gain general insights into ecological, social and social-ecological mechanisms underpinning restoration that can also be applied to other restoration settings. This way, the proposed research unit contributes to restoration science and social-ecological systems research, directly benefits restoration activities in Rwanda and offers insights to advance restoration practice globally.