Interview with Marina Frietsch, Leuphana University Lueneburg

In this interview, Marina Frietsch introduces us to the hopeful and dynamic world of ecosystem restoration. Marina is part of the subprojects for coordination and integration within the DFG research unit. She has explored the different temporal and spatial scales of restoration in her PhD and highlights the complexities of restoration, including the critical role humans play in both the degradation and recovery of ecosystems. Learn about innovative approaches to sustainability, the integration of social-ecological systems thinking, and the collaborative research going on in Rwanda.

In your PhD, you’re working a lot on restoration. What is restoration all about as a topic?
That’s a nice question because I think people have very different opinions, or perspectives on what ecosystem restoration actually is. I use the word ecosystem restoration quite frequently because I think, it tells you a lot about what we want to restore. It’s about different ecosystems, it’s not only about trees; it’s about different systems, where usually people interact with nature. We have not only ecosystems but actually social-ecological systems where restoration is happening. I believe ecosystem restoration is a lot about identifying degrading practices and then finding ways on how to respond to this degradation and develop or create ecosystems valuable both from an ecological point of view, but also for the people that are living in these ecosystems or close to these ecosystems.

Can you speak a bit about the role that humans play in these systems?
I think humans play a very central role in restoration, because on one side, they are the reason for degradation in many cases. And because they have practices that lead to ecosystems being not as ecologically sound as they could be. But I also think that people are a solution to these degrading practices because together with the people that work and live in the ecosystems that are being degraded, you can, of course, also develop solutions through ecosystem restoration that are sensitive to the needs and to the values of these people. So, I think, people do contribute to degradation but at the same time, they are the solution and they are the ones who then put restoration into practice in the end.

What got you interested in ecosystem restoration?
When you interact with sustainability in general, you come across a lot of very depressing topics like climate change, biodiversity loss and so many more. And I think for me, it was very nice and valuable to find an approach to sustainability that is very, very positive and where you can find a lot of enthusiasm for developing solutions that benefit both people and nature. So, for me, it’s a very positive way of responding to sustainability crises.

What do you want to find out about restoration? What’s the motivation or the research gap you’re looking at?
I want to bring together different scales at which restoration is happening. In my thesis, I’m looking both at a local and at a global scale and I’m also looking at the present and the future. I think it’s very important, to not only think about restoration in this simplistic way of “oh, what can we do today?“. But to also incorporate future challenges that might lie ahead, future values, future needs that people might have. So, I want to integrate spatial and temporal scales to better understand what can be good approaches to restoration that are actually sustainable in the long run.

The socio-ecological ladder of restoration ambition (Frietsch et al. 2024).

In a recent paper, you’ve proposed a ladder of restoration ambition. Can you tell me more about this concept and how it relates to these different scales?
That’s something that came up when we were travelling through Rwanda. We thought a lot about how restoration developed there and we saw that, over time, restoration really changed a lot because people had different values and different needs. And what we propose with the ladder of restoration ambition is just this very simple thought actually, that over time and in different areas, people have different needs. It’s very valuable to acknowledge that restoration can also change and that we don’t have to stick to one specific way of doing restoration or to one specific restoration aim. We can also say: “what do we need now? What do we maybe need in 20 years or in 100 years? How can we bring this together?“. This paper really shows that restoration is very dynamic in its essence and not something that is static.

What makes Rwanda so interesting for this kind of research?
Rwanda is an excellent place to study restoration and there are many reasons for it. One of them is that Rwanda has been active in restoration for a couple of decades now and globally is one of the restoration leaders. And when you get to the country, you can really see this. There are many NGOs, and the government is also very active in putting restoration into practice. There are of course also many challenges concerning ecosystem restoration. We have governance issues and power inequities that need to be considered in ecosystem restoration, and this also applies to Rwanda. We also have large scale degradation that happened over the past century and a really dire need to respond to this and there are, of course, financing issues. A lot of big restoration challenges that apply to Rwanda, at the same time also apply to many different countries and systems all over the world. So, it’s very nice to study restoration in Rwanda to better understand the challenges and to find solutions that then also apply beyond.

 You mentioned working with NGOs and other stakeholders. What does that look like?
We’re still in the starting phase of the research project. We’ve already met quite a few people and it was always very inspiring to talk to the people who actually put restoration into practice. You can also see that there’s a lot of motivation, enthusiasm for restoration with these stakeholders. That’s very, very nice. What we aim to do with our research project, is a co-development of knowledge and of understanding. We let the people who do restoration guide what we specifically look at. Ideally, you want it to be a cooperation and it’s a process of working together and sharing the expertise that everyone brings to the table. Through this we want to develop solutions for ecosystem restoration to work in the specific context that we have in Rwanda.

On the other hand, research in the global South is often accompanied by questions about power dynamics and justice. How is this reflected in your research?
That’s a very good question and I personally have spent quite a lot of time thinking about this issue. Because I think that, of course, you have a responsibility when you come from a country like Germany with a lot of money, as we have from the DFG, that is funding our project. You, of course, have this responsibility: how do you act in this context, how you use the money. It’s a challenge, that’s for sure. I think it’s extremely important to be sensitive to the context in which you’re working in and to actually talk to the people, and not just about the people. We really have to be attentive and reflect on these issues. In our research, we want to find a way to engage with stakeholders in Rwanda that is truly collaborative and respectful and that is sensitive to the power inequalities that exist in such a context.

You’re working in a large research unit with lots of scientists from different institutions. What’s your role in the team and what’s your perspective that you want to bring to the table there?
I am a postdoc in the coordination subproject. Our responsibility as a coordination team is to overview the whole process and make sure that everything goes smoothly. We’re also the point of connection for everyone else. And I’m also part of the integration subproject where we towards the end of the research project aim to integrate the different insights that were gathered by our colleagues. This is really amazing in my opinion because we have so many great people that are part of this research project and look at so many different aspects of ecosystem restoration. We have this very nice combination of a lot of expertise and very motivated PhD students who are still learning and who are still in the process of engaging with social-ecological systems research. It will be a privilege to then take all of this data and look at overarching patterns and look at dynamics that emerge from the more detailed findings that our colleagues are producing

An impression from this year’s kickoff workshop in Kigali from which the forthcoming paper emerged.

Looking forward, what are the next steps in your research?
In the next few weeks and months, we want to focus on a manuscript that talks about different visions for the future of ecosystem restoration in Rwanda. This manuscript is based on a workshop that took place in Kigali at the beginning of this year. I’m very much looking forward to it because that’s a paper that brings together close to 40 co-authors. It’s a team of Rwandan restoration experts and the DFG research unit members. I think that’s going to be a very nice collaborative product, talking about different visions and different ideas for what restoration in Rwanda might look like in the next decades.

What’s your favourite part of your research? What excites you about it?
I think the nice thing is that I like everything of it: I really like data collection, I really like data interpretation, I really like writing. And I really, really like being in contact with researchers and other stakeholders. So, the good news is I like all of it! I think what I love most about it, is when I’m talking to people who are also excited about restoration and who share their motivation and enthusiasm. And these little conversations that sometimes happen on the side where you can see the people are so motivated and people want to make a difference and want to contribute to finding solutions that then benefit nature and benefit people. And I think that’s very motivating also for me to keep putting my energy into this topic.

Interview by Felix Schaaf.

Read more about ecosystem restoration here:
Frietsch, M., Fischer, J. Kaplin, B. A., & Martín-López, B. (2024). The relevance of international restoration principles for ecosystem restoration practice in Rwanda. Restoration Ecology 32(3): e14085. DOI: 10.1111/rec.14085.

Frietsch, M., Loos, J., Löhr, K., Sieber, S., & Fischer, J. (2023). Future-proofing ecosystem restoration through enhancing adaptive capacity. Communications Biology 6: 377. DOI: 10.1038/s42003-023-04736-y.

Frietsch, M., Pacheco-Romero, M., Temperton, V. M., Kaplin, B. A., & Fischer, J. (2024). The social–ecological ladder of restoration ambition. Ambio. DOI: 10.1007/s13280-024-02021-8.

An Introduction to Subproject 7

Aside from the assessment of already restored sites that forms the main focus of this research unit, subproject 7 will be focussing on live restoration in co-creation with local stakeholders. From 2024 through 2027, a Living Lab will be implemented in Northwestern Rwanda within the four nW districts,(Rutsiro, Nyabihu, Ngororero and Rubavu, a region known as a high risk soil erosion zone with Ngororero being at the top and Rubavu at the third position after Muhanga District). Here we are developing round tables of restoration practitioners to build up a network of key actors and exchange experiences. WhatsApp groups are being used as a starting point for this. The living lab will probably be set up across two to three different cells and villages where one village involves more traditional restoration activities (typically performed by ARCOS), another village involves typical ARCOS activities as well as our own additional actions, and a third village carries out restoration by a bottom-up community approach within a village.

With the aim to create actionable knowledge on how to design and implement restoration activities on the more ambitious side of the restorative continuum in different socio-political contexts, the Living Lab will be used to carry out scientific experiments together with stakeholders, using a transdisciplinary approach, to integrate science and practice towards positive social and ecological outcomes. The Living Lab will help foster local capacity building, empowerment through action, iterative learning, and capitalization on experience in a process-oriented way. Thus, the outcomes of this sub-project will be of direct relevance to sustainability transitions on the ground for a higher reproducibility as generalizable model for up-scaling of restoration practices as well as to boosting the academic understanding of which factors best leverage sustainability transitions.