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What is the role of non-native species in restoration?

What is the role of non-native species in restoration?

What role do non-native, or exotic, species have in restoring degraded environments and creating economic opportunities? Often demonized in popular culture and within conservation circles, exotic species can actually serve a valuable role when introduced safely and consciously, especially within biodiverse systems such as analog forestry. Many foods that today are considered staple crops and provide many economic and social benefits were once introduced species.

Exotic species, also known as non-native, alien or introduced species, are defined by Britain’s Non-Native Species Secretariat as “[…] a species, subspecies or lower taxon, introduced (i.e. by human action) outside its natural past or present distribution”. It is important to note that though introduced species have the potential to become invasive, this is by no means necessarily the case.

Cacao, the principal ingredient of chocolate, is native to Central America and Northern South America, and is now naturalized in many parts of the tropics

Cacao, the principal ingredient of chocolate, is native to Central America and Northern South America, and is now naturalized in many parts of the tropics. Photo: A. K. Dickinson

For practitioners of analog forestry, introduced species may be the most practical for providing economically viable options while at the same time restoring the environment. In Costa Rica, one practitioner of analog forestry, Milo Bekins, currently grows cinnamon, mangosteen, nutmeg, cardamom, citronella, ginger and turmeric on his farm, none of which are native to the region. He does this utilizing a sustainable method that is successful in conserving and rehabilitating the natural ecosystem.

Many authors have highlighted the biased manner in which non-native species are viewed and the need to reexamine how we think about ecosystems. Fred Pearce, for example, discusses how our conception of “virgin nature” is often mislead, with some studies estimating that our impact on the earth dates back much further and across a much greater distance than previously believed. The theory of “ecological fitting” suggests that “ecosystems have always been in a constant state of flux,” and while humans have without a doubt increased the frequency and speed, “novelty is the norm”.

Coffee, similarly, is an African native that is now cultivated wherever it can be grown. (Photo: RRI)

Coffee, similarly, is an African native that is now cultivated wherever it can be grown. (Photo: RRI)

Beyond their utility for people in terms of foodstuffs, non-native species may also be beneficial for the restoration of degraded landscapes. According to a recent study, they may act as food or habitat for native species, promote pollination, replace ecological engineers or provide important ecosystem services, among others. Not wishing to diminish the real danger of many invasive species, IAFN hopes to promote the idea that exotic species can be used positively and effectively and should not be discounted solely based on their non-native status. To learn more about this topic, please check back in January when a short article will be published on IAFN’s website.

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