Bioversity International: research for development in agricultural and tree biodiversity

Seeds of change: training restoration practitioners to solve genetic problems

30 Nov 2016

Riina Jalonen, Associate Scientist at Bioversity International, explains why training for planning implementation and monitoring of ecosystem restoration is critical to improve the effectiveness of restoration programmes and meet related global commitments including Aichi Targets 14 and 15.

This is the fourth blog in the CBD COP13 Forest and Landscape Restoration Blog Series highlighting why mainstreaming agricultural and tree biodiversity in sustainable food and production systems is critical to achieve the CBD's Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, with a particular focus on forest and landscape restoration.

Restoration practitioners across the tropics lack capacity to select suitable tree seed and seedlings for forest and landscape restoration. It is common to collect seed from just a handful of trees, often from nearby forest fragments. Such practice, however, results in seed of low genetic diversity and puts at risk the viability and adaptive capacity of the resulting forests, hampering the achievement of the objectives of restoration and the related socio-economic benefits.

Capacity strengthening and training for the planning, implementation and monitoring of ecosystem restoration is crucial to improve the effectiveness of restoration programmes and meet global commitments on restoration, including Aichi Targets 14 and 15 on restoring degraded ecosystems and the services they provide, especially to the poor and vulnerable. Capacity strengthening is part of the Short-term Action Plan on Ecosystem Restoration that the Conference of Parties to the CBD is expected to adopt in Cancun as a guidance to countries and other actors committed to restoration.

But how to get restoration practitioners interested in genetic issues and equip them with tools to select more diverse and viable seed with better adaptive capacity? It doesn’t help that the word ‘genetics’ already tends to put people off – many perceive it as an extremely technical subject; as lab work with little connection to the realities of the field.

“When we open a genetics textbook the pages are often full of equations and people get frightened of it,” says David Boshier, Forest Geneticist, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford. Working in collaboration with scientists at Bioversity International, he has developed a Forest Genetic Resources Training Guide to help forest managers and conservationists identify and address genetic issues in their own work through practical examples and group exercises.

“We haven’t tried to develop a tool that is used to train a whole new generation of forest geneticists”, says Boshier. “Instead, the purpose is to give tools for ordinary forestry or biology students, forest managers and other practitioners so that they can see that there are genetic issues in their areas of work or study, and if those are completely ignored they are missing something from their understanding of the environment and their ability to effectively manage or conserve it.”

At the end of October, more than 50 restoration practitioners, university lecturers and forest researchers across Asia and the Pacific gathered in Beijing to see what the training guide can offer to them. In the four days of training, they developed conservation strategies for threatened tree species, learned how genetic erosion can rapidly reduce fruiting and seed production in small populations, mapped out tree seed supply systems, and identified bottlenecks that tend to reduce genetic diversity of tree seed and practical actions that help maintain genetic diversity in seed supply. 

“I realized how important forest genetic resources are for restoration”, says Hazel Consunji, Philippine coordinator of the Environmental Leadership and Training Initiative. “We run training programmes for governmental and civil society organizations and research institutes on using native tree species in restoration, but until now we haven’t covered genetic aspects in the training sessions. I can’t wait to go back and incorporate in our training programme what I learned about genetic conservation strategies during this course.”

Associate Professor Haiwen Wu from the Chinese Academy of Forestry commented: “What is very special about this course is the methodology. No perfect answers are given. Instead, we learn how to solve problems through practical case studies and group work, so that in our future work, we know how to identify and address genetic issues on our own”.  

The training was the first in the series of training sessions planned by the newly launched Asia Pacific Regional Training Centre on Forest Genetic Resources. Establishing the centre stemmed from the widespread needs for improving capacities in management and conservation of forest genetic resources in the region that is home to an astounding diversity of tree species, a high proportion of which are threatened.

Tree seed systems was selected as the topic for the first training, given the growing demand for tree seed to fulfill global and national pledges on forest and landscape restoration.

“I’m pleased about the extremely positive feedback from the participants and hope that the insights gained will contribute to improving the success of restoring functional and productive forest ecosystems” says Zheng Yongqi, Research Professor at the Chinese Academy of Forestry who spearheads the Training Centre initiative.

The next training is already planned for September 2017 and will focus on training of trainers, given the huge demand for forest genetics training services in the region.

The Forest Genetic Resources Training Guide is fully open access and also suitable for self-learning.

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The Asia Pacific Regional Training Centre on Forest Genetic Resources is a joint initiative by the National Forest Genetic Resources Platform of China, the Chinese Academy of Forestry, the Asia Pacific Forest Genetic Resources Programme (APFORGEN), the Asia Pacific Association of Forestry Research Institutions (APAFRI), Bioversity International and China Happy Ecology Industrial Ltd., a private company working on tree breeding and ecological restoration. Partnering organizations are grateful to China Happy Ecology for their generous support that made possible the establishment of the Training Centre.

This blog is part of a series that Bioversity International is rolling out around COP13 - Mainstreaming Biodiversity for Well-Being. The blogs explain why mainstreaming agricultural and tree biodiversity is critical in sustainable food and production systems if we are to achieve the Convention on Biological Diversity's Strategic Action Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 that "By 2050, biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and widely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people".

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Photo: Trainer David Boshier poses with training participants after handing out certificates. Credit: China Happy Ecology

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