Naive interventionism in Ecological Restoration and How to Avoid It

Philosopher Nassim Taleb coins the term naïve interventionism to name management actions on complex systems that are highly ineffective and can also generate iatrogenics which literally means “harm done by the healer”. Sadly, most restorationists and about 99% of forest engineers perform naive interventions on restoration initiatives that go really wrong.

Here i will discuss shortly the three most common naïve interventions in different restoration projects. Avoid them at all cost. No one is safe from making mistakes, but this ones are non-acceptable.

1. intricate designs in restoration projects

Squared designs, triangular designs, circular ones etc. You name them. I’ve seen a lot these  plantings with 10, 20, 30 years old and it’s all pasturelands. The money was lost, and the possibility to recover those lands.  They don’t work. Where have you seen this perfect geometrical arrangement of species in nature?




Artificial bird perches are probably my favourite example of  naïve interventionism.  They are silly, a waste of time and resources, but actually they don’t do much harm. They just have awesome designs  coming  from good hearts and good intentions.  Thankfully people are recovering their minds and some papers are already showing they have limited potential and are inefficient (Graham y Page 2011)


bird perchartificial bird perch



This is a design for a restoration project that went wrong in Colombia.  It got blocks, bird perches, refuges for fauna, it looks  can’t get worse than this:

planting design go wrong


How to avoid it: Don’t think you can engineer nature. What you can do is direct and accelerate succession, help natural regeneration and stop perturbations. This concepts are all related to the idea that you need to take the natural system to a point where it can function on its own. Be aggressive about it.

The rationale behind most planting designs is to avoid competition. I love competition. In most sites you can plant at high densities and let the plants compete and thrive in a natural way.. It’s what you see during the first phases of succession. Also workers like these geometrical planting designs because they look great on published reports. Others come also from temperate zones where this kind of designs make more sense in landscapes dominated by few species.

Now with the bird perches. Why use them when there are tons of actual trees and tall shrubs to use instead? you can also choose species that produce fruits to attract the birds. Living fences and minicorridors of plants are also a great way for birds to move on. But whatever you do, please forget artificial bird perches (although a neat construction can impress your friends)


2. Overuse of monocultures of  exotic species 

exotic species


In most sites at Central and South America,  restoration initiatives only use monocultures with exotic species like Eucalyptus and Pinus. The end result are green deserts because these plants often don’t allow any other species to grow, and don’t recover any ecosystem processes at all. Some people do this kind of stuff because they don’t know what else to do, but my guess is most prefer exotic plantations because of greedy interventionism.

How to avoid it: Use native plants. Go to the reference ecosystem and collect seeds, seedlings, do some cuttings.  In the tropics there is an abundant supply of native species to use. The more the better. Some are harder to find but it’s worth the effort. Sometimes it’s valid to use exotic species off course, but for very specific purposes which are out of the discussion here. There are some cool agroforestry examples using timber products that can be applied if that is the best value for the land.



3. Small scale projects with Little connectivity at the landscape level.

You may use native species, plant at high densities, use pioneer species to accelerate succession, but if your project has no connectivity at the landscape level, then it’s lost time. Green islands don’t work. The image below is an isolated forest fragment surrounded by a matrix of croplands.  Probably the good willing farmers gave some naive practitioner that piece of land to “restore it” and have him busy for a few years, so he could not see where the real problems are.

forest fragmentacion


How to avoid it: Restoration projects must be conceived and executed at the landscape level. Working in an isolated area makes no sense. For practitioners, choose and design your projects where it’s feasible to enhance connectivity. It builds resilience in the landscape and avoid extinctions.


Now, do you have other examples of naïve interventionism in restoration?


Leave your thoughts here