[June 2017] In the story of environmental degradation, islands have a very special place. Through the eighteenth and nineteenth century, remote islands were significant in early theories of the relationship between the local climate, forests and soil degradation. Islands were important bases in the spread of colonial patterns of environmental exploitation, offering safe harbours, supplies of water and timber. The scientists based there noticed the impact of these practices which very quickly collapsed the fragile island ecosystems. Island species and experiences became synonyms for extinction; few things are as dead as a Dodo, and no island more deserted than Easter Island.
This dynamic was very apparent in the week that the RECARE project was working in Iceland. The whole project, for one week only (28th May – 2nd June), was based in an area that less than forty years ago was a desert of black, shifting volcanic sand which apart from providing a dramatic backdrop to the snow-capped volcanoes was of little use to Icelanders. The Icelandic Soil Conservation Service has been working since that time to stabilise the soil, planting grass and trees that have not only stopped the sand from spreading but also providing useable land. Partnerships between local farmers and soil scientists have been responsible for this restoration. Projects such as RECARE are demonstrating that such techniques exist for many communities and could be implemented quickly in the right conditions.
Outside of the project, the importance of this success is that we need to start to reverse some of the stories about environmental collapse and decline. Of course, this is not to suggest that there are not serious problems but it is also important that countervailing stories that exist are told. While soils are fragile and events can cause enormous damage in a short period, that loss can be addressed, and restoration can take place through actions that are often relatively cheap and will result in a change in timescales that are observable. The importance of this message is that empowers people to make changes, which rather than passive victims of environmental damage they can be protagonists in ecosystem restoration.