A Holistic Approach to Ecosystem Restoration: Reflections from UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration Advisory Board Members

“Ecosystem restoration is an endeavor in which we all share together with the human and the more-than-human world,” says Tariq Al-Olaimy. “We should be actively partnering with nature in restoration.”

Al-Olaimy, of 3BL Associates, made this statement at “Values, Culture, Spirituality and Ecosystem Restoration: A Dialogue with UN Decade Advisory Board Members,” a forum hosted by Center for Earth Ethics on February 15. The online meeting, which coincided with the release of CEE’s new report “Roots for Change: Using Values, Culture and Spirituality to Restore Ecosystems,” was animated by a central question: How does ecosystem restoration help repair the relationship between people and the land, water and air that are essential for life?

Gopal Patel, co-chair of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, laid the groundwork for the importance of the VCS lens in restoration work. On the most basic level “values, culture and spirituality help us make sense of the mess of the world,” he said. They also deepen our understanding of the natural world by encoding “ancient insights into the nature of nature” with valuable information about “how previous generations understood their relationship with the natural world.” 

This approach is not simply about grasping insights or theory. It has profoundly practical impacts and application. For instance, if cultural aspects are ignored, precious ecological knowledge that communities have accumulated over centuries may be overlooked. “Roots for Change” highlights the Bagobo Tagabawa, an Indigenous community in the Philippines. Their deep historical relationships with the forest and the Philippine Eagle not only have shaped their culture, but also have been a mooring line to guide current restoration projects to save the Eagle and the forest. 

Ayadi Mishra of We Are Tomorrow spotlighted a similar dynamic in reflecting on fishing and farming communities in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. She cautioned us not to “dismiss what generations and generations of farmers have been doing, which was right for their space. They have already figured out how much they need to take from nature, how they can give back to it, and how they can live together in that synergy.”

When we heal ourselves, we also heal our relationships and heal the planet.

Thais Corral of Sinal do Vale brought further substance to the spiritual lens, speaking of the continuity of “inner and outer development.” Regeneration, restoration, interpersonal relationships and healing are not distinct, but rather are deeply interrelated: “When we heal ourselves, we also heal our relationships and heal the planet.” For Corral the starting point is the embodied awareness that “we are this manifestation of life—which is nature, which is in humans, which is in all these forms that are alive,” she said. “And as we transform ourselves, we also transform the outside.” In this sense, ecosystem restoration can be a powerful expression and vehicle for one’s inner transformation. 

Panelists also spoke of VCS as a balm for what CEE’s Andrew Schwartz, who moderated the discussion, described as “the frenetic energy within the climate, environmental space.” With so many advocates overwhelmed by “the scale and the speed” of environmental destruction, “how do we anchor ourselves in a time where so much is changing so fast?” 

Al-Olaimy offered a “deep time” perspective as a way of remaining grounded amidst such extreme and dire circumstances: “The more-than-human world speaks in the language of deep time. It speaks in a language of inwardness, of silence, of the systemic sacred. And I think without a spiritual lens to restoration, it’s very difficult for the scientific world, the policy world, those that are doing restoration work on the ground to really water the seeds of a more liberated approach.”

A theme that wove itself through the entire conversation was the power of community—not only in guiding restoration efforts, but also in furnishing practitioners and advocates with the wherewithal to sustain their efforts. Mishra and Corral both shared lessons learned from participating in organic and spontaneous communities of women fighting for change. For Mishra, it was the creation of a women’s pavilion at the most recent UN climate Conference of Parties (COP); for Corral, it was her long-time participation in the global women’s movement. Both spoke about the sense of peace and belonging generated in these communities. Key for both women was a sense of presence, attention and embodiment. This allowed a “binding factor” (Mishra) and a “common thread” (Corral) to emerge, grounding community members in a sense of common purpose while also circumventing the “divisions” that sometimes beset movement spaces. This embodied presence creates what Corral described as “the possibility of mystery, of magic” that sustains her in her work. 

Nature doesn't just need our protection. Nature requires our active collaboration.

Another theme was how VCS aids us in making the necessary shift from extractive to non-extractive systems. “We have to take some responsibility for the systems that exist,” said Patel. “A lot of our current systems emerged from approaches of extraction, colonialism, oppression.” It is crucial that we now move, said Patel, “from colonialism to collaboration.” Corral affirmed that VCS help us build “relationships that are eco-centric, not ego-centric,” which she framed as a necessary component of sustaining meaningful and transformative movements over time.

This shift in thinking allows us to expand our network of relationality. “Nature doesn’t just need our protection. Nature requires our active collaboration,” said Al-Olaimy. “We should be forging collaborations with other species. We should form trade deals with microbial communities. We should be forming consortiums and our forests and coalitions with our oceans. We do need to think in this lens of how the more-than-human world is the human world’s most important partner and stakeholder in restoration.”

“Restoration, by definition, is a return to something to its former, original, normal or unimpaired condition,” said Schwartz. “It is the restitution of something taken away or lost.” When we cultivate an approach to ecosystem restoration that includes values, culture and spirituality, we repair not only the ecosystems that have been damaged and destroyed by extractive forces—we also bring tremendous healing to ourselves and our communities.

For more on the VCS approach, see the CEE  report: “Roots for Change: Using Values, Culture and Spirituality to Restore Ecosystems.”