Ecological restoration can be understood as an ensemble of practices from the natural sciences, the social sciences, politics, and technology. The objective of this article is not to overload readers with jargon from ecological restoration, instead, to generate a discussion that focuses on the concept of wetland restoration as a cultural phenomenon. Despite being one of the most degraded ecosystems in the world, wetlands are very important as they provide several ecosystem services. A recent paper by Ros et al. (2019) mentions a study of restoration of a coastal wetland. According to the authors, coastal wetlands are present in landscapes which are densely populated, largely modified, and where restoration may conflict with cultural values. Therefore, with the inclusion of the cultural dimension in the practice of ecological restoration, it is hoped that public acceptance of restoration projects will increase.
In developed countries, cultural ecological restoration is important as it increases the society’s commitment to ecological conservation. The cultural approach to restoration does not focus primarily on ecological processes, rather it focuses on people’s perception and their interactions with the ecosystem. If, however, the cultural dimension is not included in the restoration process, important discussions on trade-offs may get sidelined, and historical values associated with the ecosystem may be ignored. Decisions taken in the ecological restoration project are then often left to expert judgement – ‘What was there’ or ‘what should have been there’ (Hobbs, 2016). Ignoring the perception of locals, their culture and history decontextualizes the restoration process, and hampers the long-term vision of the project.
The study by Ros et al. (2019) was undertaken in the Pletera’s coastal wetlands to assess the public’s acceptance of a restoration project. The results of the study showed that most of the visitors are not interested in the wetlands being developed for the provisioning of ecological services, rather they wanted the wetland to be developed for recreational use. However, the study also revealed that while wetlands are perceived positively by visitors, they are mostly undervalued. A similar study was undertaken by me as part of my Master’s Dissertation on Urban Wetlands in the Dheerpur region of Delhi. There were two aspects of the study – i) ecological referencing, and ii) choice experiment. In the case of choice experiments, similarities can be drawn between the case study of Pletera and my study. As part of the experiment, locals were provided with four kinds of plausible scenarios of how the Dheerpur wetlands should be managed. Results of the study showed that local residents in the Dheerpur region, much like in the Pletera case study, preferred recreational use of the wetland over ecological services.
Ros et al. (2019) state that cultural ecological restoration is crucial in order to increase social commitment towards ecological restoration. The cultural dimension raises important questions like what values must be addressed, why these values must be addressed, and how these values must be addressed. Cultural ecological restoration influences how humans produce nature as it incorporates human factors in the restoration project. This being said, the practicality and applicability of cultural ecological restoration is often complicated, especially when user groups are diverse or when the majority user group is transient.
For instance, in the Dheerpur region, majority of the population are students who have migrated to the region as it serves as an education hub. Because they are not permanent residents of the locality, it is challenging to accommodate their choices and consider them as custodians of a restored ecosystem. In such a scenario, how important is it to incorporate their opinion while preparing the restoration plan? Yet, ignoring their opinions is not an option as it may lead to the missing out of some crucial information which may be important for the project. Although contradictions between the goals of the restoration project and local’s perceptions are inevitable, a compromise must be reached and the best possible restoration plan must be devised.
- Pueyo‐Ros, J., Ribas, A., & Fraguell, R. M. (2019). A cultural approach to wetlands restoration to assess its public acceptance. Restoration Ecology, 27(3), 626-637.
- Hobbs, R. J. (2016). Degraded or just different? Perceptions and value judgements in restoration decisions. Restoration Ecology, 24(2), 153-158.