Why land restoration deserves a seat at the sustainability table

Paul Marshall
Paul Marshall
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This year’s World Environment Day, celebrated annually on June 5, shines a spotlight on three urgent global issues: land restoration, desertification, and drought resilience. According to the United Nations, 2 billion hectares of land are degraded globally, impacting 3.2 billion people, driving species to extinction, and exacerbating climate change. As a testament to its commitment to addressing these challenges, Saudi Arabia has been chosen to host this year’s event, reflecting its efforts to restore and protect its arid landscapes.

At NEOM, we are proud to be at the forefront of these important efforts in Saudi Arabia. Committed to preserving 95 percent of NEOM for nature, we are pioneering a new balance between economic development and biodiversity conservation. Here, nature conservation is not an afterthought, but a central pillar of our vision for the future.

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The NEOM Nature Reserve lies at the heart of our conservation efforts. Like many other arid areas across the Kingdom, the NEOM region has previously been affected by common contributors to the degradation of natural landscapes. These include desertification, overgrazing and overuse of groundwater. We aim to implement innovative, globally significant conservation practices that reverse these impacts and reconnect people with nature. Our restoration, regreening, and rewilding programs are driven by cutting-edge technology and the best available science.

Our journey towards this ambitious vision is well underway. In just our second year, we have restored 734 hectares of land, with plans to restore an additional 1,500 hectares by the end of 2024. Our regreening program, part of the Saudi Green Initiative, has already planted over 2 million trees. This is just the first step towards our target of planting 100 million native trees, shrubs, and grasses by 2030. The benefits are already evident, with a significant increase in birds and insects at our planted sites. Natural regeneration is also thriving, with over 50 plant species reemerging alongside the 41 species we have planted.

Our rewilding efforts are equally impressive. We have established two rewilding sites, reintroducing native animals such as mountain and sand gazelles, oryx, ibex, and ostriches. For species like the oryx, this marks the first time we have witnessed a new generation born in the wild in this part of Saudi Arabia for over 100 years. We aim to rewild 1.5 million hectares across NEOM, and our breeding program is promising, with over 80 offspring from an initial introduction of 400 animals.

Our conservation efforts extend beyond the land to the crystal-clear waters of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba. The entire marine area of NEOM is part of the Nature Reserve, with programs in place to protect endangered sea turtles, dugongs, sooty falcons, and other marine life. We are committed to helping these populations return to their historical abundance through comprehensive surveys, assessments and management.

NEOM is supporting conservation efforts by applying world-class monitoring and reporting systems. Through the targeted use of satellites, drones, and infrared technology, combined with advanced AI tools, we’re tracking species abundance and monitoring changes in vegetation cover. We are also piloting innovative methods like eDNA testing to gain deeper insight into species diversity and ecosystem health. Through our extensive technology program, our aim is to support pioneering research to share with other reserves and experts, ultimately improving the natural environment beyond NEOM’s nature reserve.

As we celebrate World Environment Day, NEOM’s approach to regreening, rewilding, marine conservation and new conservation technology stands as a testament to what can be achieved through innovative thinking and collaborative efforts. By restoring our landscapes, we are rejuvenating ecosystems and fostering a healthier and more sustainable future for generations to come, creating a place where people and nature are reunited.

Read more: Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 unleashes economic potential beyond oil sector

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