In our very early rewilding project, there has been one big challenge so far: We have very different ideas about how to do things than the locals.
CLEARING A PATH VS A WHOLE AREA
Last year, we asked workers to clear a walking path through an area of the land just big enough for one person to walk through.
Without our knowing, they spent two days clearing a whole hectare of everything except the largest trees. They cut down all of the valuable pioneer species that bring nutrients into the soil, improve the soil structure, provide shade, give protection for other species to come in, and prevented the grass from taking over. Most of these plants were thorny bushes and trees that can grow relatively large and are very beautiful. They cut down trees with 10-20 cm diameter just because they had thorns.
When we complained, the response was: “These are just weeds, it’s good to get rid of them, they have no value, and they’ll grow back”. In reality, what has happened is just what I expected. The area is now completely overgrown with invasive grass. It went from an area with lots of shade and no grass to being covered in tall invasive grass that it’s very difficult to get rid of.
Why did this happen? We were naive and thought that our instructions were clear and understood: Make a path through here that one person can walk through, nothing more. What they heard was: Clear the whole area. Why? Because that’s what people here do. They clear huge areas of land of everything but the largest trees. Why? Because that’s what has made sense of them traditionally since they use the land for grazing. They remove the thorny bushes and trees so cows and goats can more easily graze, and they plant invasive grass that takes over whole areas to provide food for their animals.
What is the lesson? Make sure the instructions are well understood. Show them physically what to do and how to do it. Be there while they do the work, unless you know from experience that they understand.
EDUCATION IN ECOLOGICAL THINKING
We will work with locals helping us with the rewilding project, and it’s essential to educate them.
For instance, what they think of as “weeds” are often pioneer plants. They come into an area after it has been degraded by grazing, food growing, or erosion. They put nutrients into the soil, improve the structure of the soil, create the condition for other plants to come into the area, and many of them here have thorns that also help protect the land. They are pioneers and protectors of the land. They have immense value from an ecological perspective, and in the context of supporting the land having a thriving and diverse ecosystem.
Also, if we need to create a path or open up a view, it’s often more than sufficient to do a little pruning. There is no need to go nuclear.
PLANTING TREES VS ECOSYSTEM APPROACH
I have also noticed a peculiar mindset among many here interested in helping the land.
Some seem to think it’s mainly about reforesting and planting trees, and that planting trees is sufficient.
For me, that doesn’t make sense for a couple of reasons.
Just planting trees can easily become a monoculture just like any other monoculture. It can create a kind of desert. It doesn’t necessarily create an ecosystem full of life.
A vibrant and healthy ecosystem needs diversity. It needs a variety of plants and animals of all kinds. It needs layers.
And each degraded land needs specific help. For instance, we have areas with erosion. Trees won’t help much there. It’s far more effective to plant smaller native plants that keep the soil in place. When the soil is stabilized, we can start thinking about the next step which could include trees. But to start with trees don’t necessarily make much sense.