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Stories as enablers for ‘deepscaling’ forest restoration 

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 the SUPERB project, 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 neighborhoods 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. channel video title view count url 
National Geographic 50 Years Ago, This Was A Wasteland. He Changed Everything | Short Film Showcase 5160840 https://youtu.be/ZSPkcpGmflE 
Andrew Millison The Canal That Accidentally Grew A Forest In The Arizona Desert 3814238 https://youtu.be/jf8usAesJvo 
Happen Films Man Spends 30 Years Turning Degraded Land Into Massive Forest – Fools & Dreamers (Full Documentary) 3363467 https://youtu.be/3VZSJKbzyMc 
Leaf of Life How Spain Is Turning It’s Deserts Into A Farmland Oasis – Greening The Desert Project 1754190 https://youtu.be/nmOX622P-OU 
Down To Earth How A Farmer Turned 90 Acres Of Wasteland Into A Lush Green Forest In Odisha 1577571 https://youtu.be/C08FAa-Vlj0 
Mossy Earth We’re Bringing Back Iceland’s Forgotten Forests 751498 https://youtu.be/K-r2EetCtO0 
Trees for Life Restoring The Ancient Caledonian Forest Alan Watson Featherstone TEDxFindhorn 677705 https://youtu.be/nAGHUkby2Is 
DW News Justdiggit: Restoring Dry Land In Tanzania | Global Ideas 431109 https://youtu.be/RPJ9T4yAEGs 
XAG Official Application | Forest Restoration By XAG Agricultural Drone In Brazil 398272 https://youtu.be/CqivF6PaFfY 
10 Mossy Earth We Are Reforesting The Ocean – Here’s How 371184 https://youtu.be/pzmc8ztD4e8 
11 Growing Small Turning Degraded Land Into Forest, Woman Builds Natural Homestead 303170 https://youtu.be/T145drzKhGc 
12 Mossy Earth Bringing Back The Ancient Viking Forests Of Iceland | Rewilding Iceland 300703 https://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 be

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