Image: Maegan Martin, Unsplash

Stories as enablers for ‘deepscaling’ forest restoration 

By Rina Tsubaki

Originally published on the Resilience Blog.

Science is the key to the future of our forests. Without it, we cannot restore and make forests resilient to climate change. But is science really all we need? What about the role stories play in forest restoration and, thinking even bigger, in systems change?

If we want to change a system and foster lasting improvements in our society, we need to tackle the root cause of societal issues. Through SUPERB, we are ultimately aiming at systems change by collectively restoring forests and biodiversity in twelve locations in Europe. Part of this work involves exploring how people see, feel and value these places in their s so that the work can continue beyond the project.

So, why am I bringing up “stories” here? What’s that got to do with forest restoration and systems change?

When you start looking into the literature about systems change, you won’t miss the work by Donella Meadows, an American environmental scientist who authored Thinking in Systems. According to Meadows, there are different leverage points to intervene and impact how a system operates. Whether it is a new project or a policy, most interventions we make are unlikely to persist for a long time. Instead, Meadows proposes a mindset change and emphasizes that the ability to see the paradigm differently is more effective for a big, long-term shift. From this point of view, what we need is to scale ‘deep’ in addition to scaling ‘up’, since the former addresses shifts in culture and relationships, while the latter replicates existing initiatives.

Undeniably, the future of forests we restore through SUPERB will be in the hands of local communities, practitioners, and decision-makers. Not only will the existing narratives transform, but new narratives will emerge. These narratives connect interested individuals and groups and bring new people into the conversation. While some narratives may support and build on the work we leave behind, others may use it with specific interests. That is why understanding the power of story is important, as it can impact how people see, feel and value restored forests in their surroundings (For more about the role of story in systems change, I invite you to read this beautiful piece by Ella Salmarche).

So, what can we learn from the existing restoration stories? In search of successful stories, I used a YouTube Data Tool to collect the most viewed YouTube videos with the keywords ‘restoration’ and ‘forests’. While some of them are linked to other types of restoration, we could use these examples to identify the elements that contribute to making these stories visible online.

No.ChannelVideo titleView countURL
1National Geographic50 Years Ago, This Was A Wasteland. He Changed Everything | Short Film Showcase5160840https://youtu.be/ZSPkcpGmflE
2Andrew MillisonThe Canal That Accidentally Grew A Forest In The Arizona Desert3814238https://youtu.be/jf8usAesJvo
3Happen FilmsMan Spends 30 Years Turning Degraded Land Into Massive Forest – Fools & Dreamers (Full Documentary)3363467https://youtu.be/3VZSJKbzyMc
4Leaf of LifeHow Spain Is Turning It’s Deserts Into A Farmland Oasis – Greening The Desert Project1754190https://youtu.be/nmOX622P-OU
5Down To EarthHow A Farmer Turned 90 Acres Of Wasteland Into A Lush Green Forest In Odisha1577571https://youtu.be/C08FAa-Vlj0
6Mossy EarthWe’re Bringing Back Iceland’s Forgotten Forests751498https://youtu.be/K-r2EetCtO0
7Trees for LifeRestoring The Ancient Caledonian Forest Alan Watson Featherstone TEDxFindhorn677705https://youtu.be/nAGHUkby2Is
8DW NewsJustdiggit: Restoring Dry Land In Tanzania | Global Ideas431109https://youtu.be/RPJ9T4yAEGs
9XAG OfficialApplication | Forest Restoration By XAG Agricultural Drone In Brazil398272https://youtu.be/CqivF6PaFfY
10Mossy EarthWe Are Reforesting The Ocean – Here’s How371184https://youtu.be/pzmc8ztD4e8
11Growing SmallTurning Degraded Land Into Forest, Woman Builds Natural Homestead303170https://youtu.be/T145drzKhGc
12Mossy EarthBringing Back The Ancient Viking Forests Of Iceland | Rewilding Iceland300703https://youtu.be/5lAegYUc1lU

While different storytelling techniques are employed in these videos, the top four have something in common; they focus on one simple solution. These videos also use a narrative that praises the power of nature.For example, the National Geographic documentary highlights planting grass as a solution to percolate the water into the ground, eventually transforming a wasteland into a biodiversity-rich area. Another video by the permaculture practitioner Andrew Millison also talks about the raised canal structure as an accidental solution for native forests to grow in a swale, emphasizing how nature makes it possible. Three out of five top videos also discussed biodiversity as a positive byproduct resulting from forest or nature restoration.

Protagonists as “heroes” is another commonly used technique in the top videos. Among the top five, three feature one “hero” throughout the story. For example, the Down to Earth’s video features a female farmer in India who bought the degraded land in the 1980s to experiment with organic farming techniques, eventually resulting in a lush forest cover. Other stories added personality to the protagonist by showing their daily routine and interviewing family and friends.

Unsurprisingly, journalistic videos talk about conflicts, disagreements, risks, and disasters. The example from Happen Films highlights the conflicts between the protagonist, who believed gorse could transform farmland into forests, and local pasture farmers who were skeptical towards his idea. In addition, a Lead of Life video with 1.8+ million views treats desertification in Spain as a risk.

While third-party YouTube channels produced the top 5 videos, some were also filmed by those involved in forest restoration. A good example is Mossy Earth, who filmed their own on-ground restoration actions in Iceland, indicating how a forest practitioner could take a viewer on a journey to forest restoration.

But a powerful story does not require high-end video editing techniques and journalistic skills. This is portrayed in the TED talk by the Tree of Life founder, Alan Watson Featherstone, who listed key restoration principles in his inspirational talk.

While these are some takeaways from the top YouTube videos, a story can also be told at a much more grassroots level. A story we tell our families, friends and colleagues can be as powerful as the story told in a professional setting. As Alan Featherstone says, “Restoration is about reconnecting the stands in the web of life, but it’s also about reconnecting people with the rest of the web”. Similarly, a story can bring the web of life closer to people, and people closer to the web of life.

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forestsrestorationstorytelling

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