The economics of restoration in South Africa – ASSET Research project

Download this article as a PDF document here. And visit the interactive models page here.

ASSET Research, in partnership with SAEON and with the support of the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), is developing and populating South Africa’s first database on the economics of restoration ( This will equip policy- and decision-makers as well as restoration practitioners to take informed, science-based decisions with respect to restoration. It will also advance the science, business and practice of restoration in general. The database will be used to develop an open access and user-friendly online system dynamics modelling tool that will enable users to simulate the benefits and costs of their own restoration projects.

The economics of restoration underpins the quantitative response to both local and global ecological crises by enabling society and policymakers to estimate the economic impacts of restoration and to prioritise investments in ecological restoration.[1] This branch of scientific enquiry has been growing rapidly both in South Africa and in the world since the mid-1990s, as can be seen in the rise of the number of citations globally and the growth in the number of publications locally.[2] The economics of restoration, by definition, necessitates a multi-disciplinary research approach and the adoption of economic valuation techniques.[3] The economics of restoration seeks to rectify two societal ills linked with degradation, namely:

  1. an institutional and moral failure indicative of the fact that the rules of economic engagement are wrong, and
  2. wrong price signals in the markets distorting resource allocation.[4]
Figure 1: Papers published on the Economics of Restoration in South Africa

Figure 2 illustrates the economic life cycle of most restoration projects. This cycle commences with a financial investment and restorative actions. Since degradation is often the consequence of many years of erroneous land use practices, recovery also takes time. There are, therefore, no quick fixes and the result often is a delayed ecological recovery towards improved system-wide functionality. This improvement, however, yields a stream of benefits from the restored area. Over time the value of these benefits exceeds the costs (see Figure 3 for evidence) which motivates further investment, in conjunction with the fact that restoration is the right thing to for the sake of our future.  

Figure 2: Economic life cycle of restoration projects

The future of this project

ASSET Research intends to develop an open access economy-environment system dynamics model to inform resource use and land management decisions by using economics of restoration data. This data is being generated in increasing quantities by several researchers, but is not yet centralised, organised or easily accessible. The disjunct between data producers, data consumers and restoration practitioners is perpetuated by the absence of such a centralised database. This project seeks to address this disjunct by constructing a database and using the information to develop an easy-to-use model for all, while promoting awareness and transparency of restoration practices.

Figure 3 is a stylised depiction of the indicative values of the average costs and benefits of restoration for various biomes as found in literature. The economic costs and benefits of restoration vary much depending on the biome, the degree of degradation and the type of intervention. While variations are large, this indicative set of costs and benefits highlights that, across all biomes, the benefits of restoration greatly outweigh the costs thereof. 

Figure 3: Stylised depiction of the indicative benefits and
costs of restoration in South Africa

While various databases on the topic of the economics of restoration exist internationally, they do not provide comprehensive coverage of findings in South Africa. The above table lists a selection of repositories and sources of peer-reviewed academic articles of South African studies. The draft ASSET database currently consists of 78 peer-reviewed papers. This list is not yet complete, and further work as well as a series of stakeholder engagements are planned to expand it. The draft database is available in both Excel and GIS-format (see Figure 4 and the link provided). Figure 5 gives an overview of the distribution of the researchers and research networks (as currently given by the draft database).

Figure 4 is a print screen of the GIS interface of the database. Each pindrop represents a study site. Clicking on the pindrop opens a popup window with vital information about the specific study. This source is available from and will be integrated with SAEON and other data portals.

Figure 4: Print screen of the GIS-based map showing the location of the study sites from the literature
Figure 5: Institutional map indicating the researchers and their affiliations

Figure 5 illustrates an institutional map indicating the researchers and their affiliations with respect to peer-reviewed papers on the economics of restoration.Papers are mostly written by researchers who collaborate within their defined clusters. This emphasises the strength of local networks. The size of the dots representing the name of the author reflects the frequency of publications. The thickness of the lines connecting dots indicates the frequency of authors collaborating on papers. Most papers are written by authors affiliated with UCT, the majority of papers dealing with the subject of botany (see Figure 6).

Figure 6: Distribution of authorship in terms of affiliation and scientific discipline
Figure 7: Screenshot of a module in the online interactive system dynamics model

Database uses

Using this database, ASSET Research is developing an open access, user-friendly online system dynamics modelling tool that will enable users to simulate the benefits and costs of their own restoration projects. Figure 7 above provides a screenshot of the user input module where users can change input parameters for the interactive models. 

Previous system dynamics models relating to research on restoration conducted by ASSET Research have been uploaded online as interactive models (these can be found at These models give a good indication of the intention of creating an economics of restoration system dynamics model. 

In building this database we hope to strengthen these collaborations and increase the study and reporting of the Economics of Restoration while healing the land and healing people.


[1] Wilson, K.A., Lulow, M., Burger, J. & McBride, M.F. 2012. The economics of restoration. In Stanturf, J., Lamb, D. & Madsen, P. (Eds). Forest landscape restoration. Dordrecht: Springer, 215-231.

[2] Blignaut, J., Aronson, J. & de Wit, M. 2014. The economics of restoration: looking back and leaping forward. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1322(1):35-47.

[3] Robbins, A.S. & Daniels, J.M. 2012. Restoration and economics: a union waiting to happen? Restoration Ecology, 20(1):10-17.

[4] Blignaut, J.N. 2019. Making investments in natural capital count. Ecosystem Services, 37:100927.

[5] Crookes, D. & Blignaut, J.N. 2019. Investing in natural capital and national security: a comparative review of restoration projects in South Africa. Heliyon, 5(5):e01765.

Visit the ASSET Research website to download the draft database or interact with our restoration models.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *