It’s October in the Northern Territory and the air sweats in anticipation of the monsoon rains. A warm sea breeze tussles the grasses of the floodplains, and eucalyptus trees explode in bushels of red against a roaring blue sky. This is a landscape that has inspired connection for tens of thousands of years. It is home to one of the oldest living cultures on Earth, whose spirit resides in the dramatic rock formations that embody their Creators and an inheritance of stories that describe a way of being. The land is also abound with food and mineral resources that were overexploited by European colonisers, leading to widespread destruction and degradation. This is Country in healing. This is a perfect place to celebrate and restore connections between nature and people.
Last week, eight team members from the Blue Carbon Lab braved the Darwin heat to join hundreds of delegates from around the world in attending the Society for Ecological Restoration’s 10th World Conference; the theme, “Nature and people as one”. In doing so, we connected with an inspiring community of ecologists, social scientists, anthropologists, engineers, restoration project developers, technicians, regulators, investors, and beneficiaries.
Day 1 saw many of our team take to the waters of Darwin Harbour to visit an artificial reef and mangrove rehabilitation site, which excited discussions at the opening reception. The following morning, we received a warm and expressive Welcome to Country from Lee, a proud Larrakia man and Darwin local.
Lee’s presentation was followed by some powerful keynotes on Indigenous-led restoration, which emphasised the ongoing struggles of Indigenous peoples to secure their rights, defend their knowledge, and protect their ancestral lands. Of note was Kia Dowell’s message of accountability, meaningful community engagement, and female empowerment drawing from her experiences at the Argyle Diamond Mine site. This received a standing ovation and left attendees inspired and ready to dive into the first round of presentations.
Showcasing Achievement and Innovation in Wetland Restoration
The conference provided an excellent opportunity for our team to showcase some of their latest achievements and innovations. Professor Peter Macreadie presented on barriers and opportunities for blue carbon and co-benefits. Dr Stacey Trevathan-Tackett presented results from first trials of a new biodegradable structure supporting mangrove recruitment in restoration as part of the “Regenerating our Coasts” program. Dr Melissa Wartman shared her insights on fencing as a low cost emissions-reduction strategy. Dr Lukas Schuster revealed the timescales required for effective restoration of freshwater or teal carbon ecosystems. Dr Micheli Duarte de Paula Costa showed how spatial modelling can be used to identify opportunities for blue carbon restoration through tidal reinstatement and other methodologies. PhD candidates Rocio Araya and Alexandra Rodriguez also presented on factors influencing decision-making and funding sources for blue carbon restoration.
There were five dedicated symposiums on wetland restoration with many other fascinating talks spread across other sessions. These provided a flavour for the breadth and diversity of research being conducted into wetlands across the global community and exposed several concepts that will guide the future implementation of blue and teal carbon projects.
The Roles of Legislation, Policy and the Private Sector
The first key theme was the different roles of legislation, policy and the private sector in supporting wetland restoration. There was a call for Indigenous worldviews to be embedded in national legislation with encouraging examples from New Zealand case law that acknowledged Tikanga Māori as “part of the law of New Zealand”. There was also discussion around potentially recognising the legal rights of wetlands based on a paradigm shift that considered them as entities rather than commodities.
It became clear that regulators in Federal and State governments had a role to play in enforcing conservation legislation, thus holding developers accountable for the degradation they cause in wetland ecosystems. Governments should elevate policies that incentivise rather than enforce nature positive behaviour, and support the development of crediting schemes that are straightforward, high-confidence and low-cost to facilitate private financing of wetland restoration.
A plenary session on making the business case for ecological restoration revealed the private sector is driven by calculated risk approaches and changes in the consumer landscape. The market value of restoration is increasing, which is creating business opportunities for both investors and restoration project developers.
Transparent and Inclusive Community Engagement
The second key theme was the need for transparent and inclusive community engagement approaches that empower Indigenous people (especially women) through knowledge, ownership, and co-design. Some brilliant case studies were presented such as the Healthy Coorong, Healthy Basin project in South Australia; Taranaki Mounga project in New Zealand; Blue Ventures Mangrove and Blue Carbon project in Madagascar; and Eeelgrass Restoration project in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan.
Plenary speakers Hanie Moghani (Iran) and Lalao Aigrette (Madagascar) offered perspectives on Indigenous-led restoration and highlighted commonalities between successful projects. These allow a timeframe of 3-5 years for effective engagement; depend on diverse knowledge systems including both western and Indigenous sciences; ensure free, prior and informed consent before commencement of activities, thriving in the absence of unilateral coercive measures that violate human rights and affect community wellbeing; and facilitate benefit sharing between communities, project developers, and investors.
The emotional and spiritual connections between Indigenous people and Country cultivate a unique sense of stewardship and are an asset to wetland restoration. It is therefore important that blue and teal carbon project developers take the time to respectively engage with communities potentially affected by proposed restoration works, and ensure positive outcomes for local people.
Holistic Approaches to Restoration
Tying in with the concepts of diverse knowledge systems is a third key theme of holistic approaches to restoration. Restoration project developers and practitioners should adopt a “whole-of-systems” approach that considers synergies between organisms, environments, and communities.
In a practical sense, this means that impacts of restoration activities are measured within and outside of restoration sites to account for potential “leakage” as coined by plenary speaker Fangyuan Hua, who explained that reforestation efforts within Vietnam could not be considered successful when consequential destruction of adjacent forests in Cambodia and Laos was accounted for. It also means that different ecosystems within an area are considered together, thereby promoting connectivity through facilitative interactions between multiple habitats. This idea is not new to the field of marine restoration, in which researchers are restoring entire seascapes especially where shellfish reefs, seagrass, and kelp forests are found conjointly.
Global Collaboration to Overcome Barriers
A fourth key theme that emerged was the exciting potential for global collaboration to resolve barriers in laws and practice. There is a need to upscale ecological restoration but this is being prevented by the static nature of national-scale legislation and policies, and a disconnect between science and practice. These are barriers to adaptive management, and do not facilitate the level of resilience that will be needed to manage systems and communities in step with climate change.
The first step towards nature positive will be streamlining laws to distinguish restoration from coastal development. Australia has a unique opportunity to change our governance structures in this way and set an example for other nations.
The second step will be to enhance knowledge sharing within the global community. Scientific information should be accessible and communicated in ways that capture the interest and enhance understanding of different stakeholder groups. It is also important to recognise that knowledge sharing is reciprocal and that stakeholder groups have access to different knowledge systems/paradigms that can enhance restoration outcomes. These principles were embodied in the conference’s “yarning circles”, which encouraged the sharing of wisdom and experiences between participants from diverse age groups, cultural and educational backgrounds. The experiences were a wonderful allegory for global directions in ecological restoration.
Overall, the Blue Carbon Lab’s experience of the SER World Conference on Ecological Restoration was both invigorating and profound. We were inspired by pioneers in our field that have overcome barriers to successfully restore entire ecosystems and pave the road for subsequent projects. We learned about new and innovative ways of monitoring, conducting and financing wetland restoration through eDNA, drones, social entrepreneurship and more! We also enjoyed catching up with the amazing and expanding group of people that are restoring coastal habitats in Australia and around the world. Our trip to Darwin was a timely reminder that we are all on the same team and working towards a common goal. It was also a reminder to take the time to connect with each other and with the beautiful environments we work with, so we leave you on Mindil Beach, watching the sun glow red and sink into the sea.