GUEST ARTICLE: “Green Deals” will help us recover better from the pandemic economic impact, but landscape restoration is key

This Guest Article for REVITALIZATION is written by Willem Ferwerda.

The impact of coronavirus is enormous. Every day articles are published about what this means for people, our economy, employment, nature and the climate, and that this crisis is an opportunity to make the world a fairer place.

The Altiplano Landscape (Andalusia/Murcia, Spain) is a degraded area where landscape restoration is driven by community participation and regenerative business development (Photo credit: Aleval)

During the lockdown, two highly awaited policy documents were presented as part of the EU Green Deal: Farm to Fork — focused on linking farming systems to local food chains — and the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030: Bringing back nature into our lives — aimed towards greater protection and regeneration of natural areas.

Reading these policies with interest and anticipation, I observe that what is missing is a “Landscape Approach”.

Food production and biodiversity conservation take place within the same landscapes, involve the same groups of people, such as farmers, and focus on the same root causes, like land degradation, yet the two policies are designed separately.

To realize the ambitious aims within the policies what is required is an integrated landscape approach based on “Systemic Connection”. Systemic, because landscapes are geophysical and social, and Connection, because transformations are about people.

We need a practical model that connects healthy food with healthy landscapes, which is community-driven and can be replicated at a large-scale. Only then can we receive support from the diverse people living and working in European landscapes and achieve the goals laid out in the EU Green Deal.

Commonland: facilitating large-scale landscape restoration

In 2013, after a career at International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), I took the initiative to launch Commonland together with business experts and investors.

Since then, we have gathered experience in implementing large-scale landscape restoration driven by community participation and regenerative business models. We develop landscape visions and restoration plans in close cooperation with locals, based on cultural meaning, social, ecological and economic motives. From the beginning, we knew any method must be clear and coherent, applicable on the ground, based on sound business and with measurable results.

Over the last seven years, our diverse team, as well as landscape partners on the ground, have been fine tuning a framework for large-scale landscape restoration, we call this landscape approach: 4 Returns, 3 Zones, 20 years.

Transforming 4 losses into 4 returns

Across the world you see how land management practices based on maximization of profit per hectare ultimately lead to degradation and four losses: people become estranged from the landscape and lose pride and meaning; reduced local economic activity leads to fewer jobs and a weaker social fabric; impoverished biodiversity means a decline in ecological resilience and increased global carbon emissions; and finally, a degraded landscape eventually leads to a decrease in financial returns, causing migration and abandonment.

These four losses can be transformed into 4 Returns: inspiration, social capital, natural capital and financial capital. This is done by developing a landscape restoration plan rooted in sustainable business models; turning around the loss of hope and pride to inspiration and meaning (Inspiration); from job loss to job creation (Social capital); from species’ loss to the restoration of biodiversity (Natural capital); and from economic loss to sustainable economic profit (Financial capital). Each return is measurable with a set of key performance indicators.

A common language to solve the landscape puzzle

The 4 Returns offers a common language to facilitate a common understanding of what a healthy landscape means. That is essential because landscapes are complex: diverse groups of people, interests, ideas and cultural meaning are attached to land.

The 4 Returns interlinks ecology, community spirit and long-term economic sustainability at the landscape level (e.g. the financial returns are not possible without the first three returns) and allows people from across the spectrum — policymakers, business owners, farmers and ecologists — to co-create a common vision for the landscape and develop business cases. Together, a diverse community can start imagining how a landscape can become sustainable, livable and financially attractive to as many people as possible.

A landscape overview with 3 Zones

The 3 Zones approach applied to an area of the Altiplano, Spain (Image credit: Alvelal)

To effectively develop a landscape approach, it is important to analyse a landscape “overview”. By visually subdividing a landscape into zones based on its physical, ecological, productive and cultural characteristics, a shared image of ‘what is now’ and ‘what can be’ is created for everyone.

This entails dividing a landscape into 3 Zones: a natural zone (where the ‘ecological engine’ is located and where biodiversity is protected and restored), a combined zone (an area for nature-inclusive or regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, rotational grazing), and an economic zone (where industry, infrastructure, processing and urban areas are found). In this way, farmers, landowners and other stakeholders gain an understanding of what is needed in the long term and what they can do together to make this possible.

Difficult choices have to be made about how land is used for housing, agriculture, economic infrastructure, or nature. Trade-offs take place between the global and local, health and livability, ecological impoverishment and biological diversity, living or dead soils, infrastructure and mobility, market and subsidies, city and countryside, beauty and ugliness. Having an overview of a landscape helps reconcile these trade-offs and builds resilience for agriculture and conservation, while reducing investment risks for farmers, nature organisations and businesses.

Inspiring people to restore landscapes over 20 years

Building trust is essential for large-scale area-based partnerships that are dynamic, flexible and operate on a long-term horizon. For farmers, ecologists and investors to appreciate the full benefit of landscape restoration, at least 20 years, or a generation, is necessary. The implementation of a landscape approach results in connections between diverse people in large areas, resulting in a myriad of community networks, restoration and regenerative farming activities. In essence, people and institutions learn to work together in a structured way in large landscapes (which are ecologically and culturally a whole) and are able to make long-term decisions.

Landscape restoration driven by regenerative business

Landscape developer Otto Beukes restoring thicket vegetation through ponding, seeding, brushing techniques (Photo credit: Commonland)

Commonland is currently facilitating restoration activities with landscape partners across the world. Guided by AlVelAl, a regenerative transition is taking place across 1 million hectares in the Altiplano, SpainWide Open Agriculture — the world’s first stock-listed 4 Returns company, work within 300,000 hectares in the wheatbelt of Western Australia.

Living Lands and Grounded combine forces and galvanise local farmers across 550,000 hectares to restore the water catchment of Port Elisabeth in South Africa. And in the densely populated western peat meadow areas in the Netherlands, work with farmers to improve soil management and find regenerative solutions to Dutch dairy farming across 125,000 hectares.

In all these landscapes, the local organisations set up local business — such as Almendrehesa in Spain or Dirty Clean Food in Australia — and activities that work towards ecological restoration on a large-scale while fostering a regenerative industry. A landscape approach through the 4 Returns, 3 Zones, 20 years framework has been adapted to diverse contexts and plans are in place to prove the concept in more landscapes across Europe and the world.

Bridging the gap between vision and action

Monique Van der Laan, an organic Dutch dairy farmers, tests soil as part of a excursion (Photo credit:

The Biodiversity Strategy 2030 and Farm to Fork are wonderful to see but we need an integrated approach, practical tools and a common language that inspire and mobilize people living in landscapes across Europe. We need to effectively operationalize visionary policies and prevent them becoming merely aspirational dreams found only on paper. A landscape approach through 4 Returns, 3 Zones, 20 years is a way of bridging the gap between a joint vision and action on the ground.

And that’s exactly what we need right now. In line with what scientists have been propagating for decades: nature’s interest is our own interest and must become part of economic decision-making!

Frans Timmermans listened carefully. And that is praiseworthy. Never before have food, agriculture and nature policies approached each other so closely. We must do everything possible to make the EU New Green Deal a success because there are not many alternative options for a sustainable Europe. After seven years of building a proof of concept, we are convinced that the 4 Returns model will help the European Commission and member states to build that bridge between policies and people to steer.

About The Author:

Willem Ferwerda is the CEO of Commonland, which is based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. He received master’s degrees in tropical ecology, tropical agriculture and environmental sciences in The Netherlands (University of Amsterdam) and Colombia (Universidad Nacional, Bogotá). In Colombia he studied the restoration of the bunchgrass páramo within a mosaic landscape setting of agriculture and mining.

Ferwerda is a conservationist with entrepreneurial skills. From 1986-1995 he worked in the eco-tourism industry and led expeditions in Latin America and Europe. Between 1995 and 2000 he headed the Tropical Rainforest small grants Program of the Netherlands office of IUCN. From 2000-2012 he was director of IUCN NL. There he was, among other things, leading large ecosystem grants programs, and the initiator of Leaders for Nature, an international network of CEOs and prominent people from the business community who act as advocates for sustainable and responsible dealing with biodiversity. It led to several agreements and policy changes. In 2012, Ferwerda left IUCN NL for a sabbatical and joined the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM-Erasmus University). He published 4 returns, 3 zones, 20 years: a holistic framework for ecological restoration by people and business for next generations (2015, IUCN CEM, RSM).

In April 2013 Ferwerda founded Commonland together with RSM-Erasmus University, IUCN CEM and supported by funders. Since then he is ceo of Commonland, an organization that is active worldwide in promoting sustainable development through the restoration of large degraded areas. He is involved as an advisor or board member with various international organizations in the field of nature, biodiversity, agriculture and sustainability. In 2016, Ferwerda was awarded first place in the Sustainable 100, the list of Dutch people with the most influence on the environment and sustainability. In 2019 he received the Dutch sustainable landscape award. Ferwerda is chair of the Thematic Group Business and Ecosystem Management of the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management.

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