Rewilding: navigating below the tip of the iceberg

By Davide Pettenella and Mauro Masiero (University of Padova, Italy)

In recent times, the tip of a large iceberg called rewilding has been spotted in the vast ocean of nature management and ecological restoration. Profound global and local changes have shaken this iceberg from its glacial platform, sparking ample interest in rewilding approaches. Although most attention is directed to the iceberg’s visible tip, rewilding conceals deeper complexities below the surface. Unveiling hidden depths would help a better understanding of rewilding as an emerging, wicked topic.

What are different pathways to rewilding and how do these approaches build on various ideas of human-nature relationships? We will embark on a journey to navigate these depths onboard a “socioeconomic and policy” submarine. Join our crew to gain a perspective different from – or, at least, complementary to – more ordinary periscopes.

Italy as a case study

We will explore just a part of such a vast ocean, as, for simplicity and concreteness, we will refer to Italy as a case study. Though building on a specific example and acknowledging it does not allow us to grasp the full complexity of rewilding, we will try to draw some general considerations and conclusions.

Why Italy?

With the highest biodiversity rates in Europe, vast mountainous ranges, and extensive forest coverage, Italy presents an intriguing landscape for rewilding efforts. Approximately two-thirds of the country consist of marginal areas, which are predominantly home to national forests. Moreover, Italy boasts a significant percentage of protected areas, encompassing about one-fourth of its territory. Finally, nearly half of the population resides in urbanized areas, occupying only a fraction of the national landmass. All these factors play a crucial role in shaping rewilding dynamics and trends across the country.

The Val Grande National Park, one of the many mountainous protected areas covered by lush deciduous forests in Italy. Credit: Priscila Jordão

Three pathways to rewilding

Within the targeted context three main pathways to rewilding emerge: (i) passive rewilding, (ii) rewilding as a green marketing strategy and (iii) active rewilding.    

Passive rewilding can be described as rewilding unintentionally deriving from the abandonment of managed natural areas. A good example is provided by the natural reforestation of pastures and farmlands in Italian mountainous areas, which has been the main driver behind the doubling of the national forest cover in the last 70 years. Today forests cover about 37% of the country and since 2021 semi-natural areas have exceeded intensively and semi-intensively farmed lands at the national scale. This process, however, has not been envisioned by a long-term strategy, nor planned or supported through actions and investments. It is also poorly perceived by society at large. Furthermore, it does not come without risks as it might result in the spread of invasive alien species and increasing exposure to hazards associated with climate change, such as wildfires, windstorms, pest attacks etc. It might also lead to social issues, such as in the case of the spread of ticks and tick-borne diseases in the Dolomites, as well as human-wildlife conflicts (e.g. involving bears, wolves, wild boars etc.).

Rewilding as a green marketing strategy links to the emergence of a specific market segment consisting of the so-called Lifestyle Of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) consumers that are very sensitive to multiple sustainability aspects rather than price, and show high brand fidelity. Their purchase behaviour is driven by values like “greening”, local products, fairness etc. and they are very much attracted by wild products such as wild meat, herbs, sap water, etc. It is not by chance, therefore, that many products bear names and brands linking to their wild and natural origins, such as for example “wild” (e.g. wild asparagus, wild mint, etc.), “mountain” (e.g. mountain milk and cheese, such as mountain parmesan) or “forest”.  A variety of standards, certification systems and labels have been created to ensure these products meet a range of environmental, quality, health, and socioeconomic requirements. Examples include (among others) forest certification standards like those set by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and even specific standards for wild products, such as FairWild.

Finally, active rewilding refers to actions taken to restore and conserve natural resources consistently with several policy initiatives aiming to mitigate climate change effects and protect biodiversity, such as the Kumming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework and policies within the EU Green Deal (e.g. the EU Biodiversity strategy for 2030, EU Nature Restoration Law, etc.). Within this framework, a strong emphasis has been given to nature-based solutions (NBS), defined by the European Commission (2015) as “solutions that are inspired and supported by nature, which are cost-effective, simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits and help build resilience.” The NBS concept builds on the ecosystem approach to incorporate different forms of green interventions. Possible NBS-related actions and strategies might include active rewilding by recovering natural processes that would have occurred without human intervention (e.g., setting and maintaining strictly protected areas), proforestation, i.e. stopping forest management practices to leave forests to natural evolution dynamics (e.g., old coppice stands converted into high forests), and active and purposive land restoration to recover human-degraded areas, for example with reference to Natura 2000 sites (e.g., species enrichment, ecological connections, wetland building etc.). 

Framing values behind rewilding policies

In a recent review, Himes et al. (2024) framed nature values from existing research into three main blocks: instrumental, intrinsic and relational. These blocks combine with non-mutually exclusive life frames introduced by the IPBES in 2022 to describe people-nature relationships. The “Living from nature” frame builds on the idea of nature as contributing to human needs and wants: this anthropocentric life frame mainly refers to instrumental values and links well to provisioning and regulating ecosystem services. For example, it might refer to the expected contributions of forests and natural areas in offsetting carbon emissions towards carbon neutrality. This frame mainly links to rewilding as a green marketing strategy.

The categories of intrinsic, instrumental, and relational values by Himes et al. (2024)

The “Living in nature” frame focuses on nature as a place with which people develop physical and symbolic relationships. This strongly links to relational values and cultural ecosystem services as well as to the social dimension of biodiversity conservation in terms of recognizing and respecting the worldviews, values and traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities.

The third frame, “Living with nature”, implicitly implies intrinsic values i.e., the right of each species to exist and live for their own sake and regardless of any instrumental value and utility. Such a frame reflects ongoing debates and initiatives on nature rights, and it might be associated with passive rewilding.

Finally, the “Living as nature” frame sees nature as a physical, mental and spiritual constituent of self, thus rejecting the people-nature dichotomy and, rather, seeing humans and nature as part of a broader community. This last frame, as well as the second one, seems to be more connected to the idea of active rewilding.

Concluding remarks

Like most wicked problems, rewilding is a complex and not univocal topic – so are possible approaches to it. Passive rewilding may look like an easy and low-cost option, but it may carry direct and indirect risks as well as hidden costs. On the other hand, active rewilding demands solid scientific foundations confirming positive environmental spillovers, while at the same time considering possible socioeconomic trade-offs.

Wicked problems cannot be addressed via simplistic approaches and one-size-fits-all solutions. Given the deeper complexities beneath the surface, we should keep exploring and observing from different angles. Navigating these depths requires acknowledging the intricate dynamics and embracing diverse approaches, considering multifaceted, complementary, and harmonised solutions towards rewilding.

Banner illustration: Gabriela Rueda