When it comes to restoring landscapes for the long term, experts say we need to step back from individual projects and look at the bigger picture. In June 2021, the U.N. declared the next 10 years the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration (UNDER), highlighting the importance of restoring our degraded ecosystems.
UNDER’s science task force concluded that progress has been slow, poorly monitored, and inadequately funded despite the many projects and programs worldwide pursuing land restoration.
“If restoration is truly the win–win–win nature-based solution the world needs, why are we not overwhelmed by the massive scale of effective actions being undertaken?” the task force wrote in a report. “The reality is that restoration is more complicated than most people envisage…The global economy clearly does not value ecosystem restoration sufficiently.”
With the problem’s complexity, how can sufficient progress be made during this decade?
During a keynote address at the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress (WCC) held in September, Willem Ferwerda, the founder and CEO of the systemic landscape restoration organization Commonland, highlighted two crucial ways those working to restore large-scale ecosystems can cultivate meaningful impact in the world. Commonland is a Core Partner of the 1000 Landscapes for 1 Billion People initiative.
Collaborative partnerships for the win
Ferwerda offered his thoughts during the WCC’s session called “Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration.” Other speakers included officials such as representatives of the German development agency GIZ, the German State Secretary for the Environment Jochen Flasbarth, Malawi’s Minister of Forestry and Natural Resources Nancy Tembo and FAO’s restoration expert Christopher Besacier, some of the people who could most help to speed progress.
During this keynote, Ferwerda described Commonland’s 4 Returns Framework and how it is incorporated into 1000L’s shared vision of integrated landscape management and restoration. These two concepts work together to ensure landscape restoration projects are inclusive, effective, and sustainable.
Ferwerda discussed the need to take a comprehensive, farsighted approach to large-scale landscape restoration that could lead to real, consequential change. He said that while short-term, isolated projects are important, ultimately, large-scale, long-term goals and plans will propel restoration and sustainable development forward within a widescale landscape approach.
“You need to think in large areas and move away from project-based thinking—to start seeing projects as jigsaw pieces of a bigger puzzle,” Ferwerda said. “We use the minimum size of 100,000 hectares to make sure that we move away from this project thinking and look at the more holistic level of the landscape.”
However, according to Ferwerda, one major challenge to thinking bigger is securing long-term funding, especially while donor governments and other financial supporters are still in a short-term project mindset. Currently, the way land restoration projects are financed favors a short-term approach.
“Projects are typically funded for a fixed and often relatively short period of time within which the outputs have to be delivered,” a study published in the journal Land of “projectification” in ecological restoration concluded. The authors found that financiers create objectives and timelines to assess whether to keep or remove project funding. Ferwerda asserts that the problem with this approach is that landscape restoration yields the most benefits when conducted over the long term, as the financial risks lessen and inspirational, social, and sustainable financial returns increase.
“To have more impact, we need process or development funding instead of project funding to develop and support lasting locally embedded landscape partnerships,” he said. “Within a project setting, it’s very difficult to build trust and thus create transformative change. You need to really work on that systematically over years and include all stakeholders within the landscape—conservation organizations, farmers, local entrepreneurs, Indigenous people, and local government.”
Even if process funding is secured, Ferwerda said, those financing the project must work collaboratively with people implementing them on the ground. Also, there needs to be a mutual understanding between groups with competing interests for restoration work to be as beneficial and effective as possible. Providing long-term funding will build trust between those outside the landscape, like financiers and large corporations, with those on the ground, creating the needed transformative change on both sides.
He argues that effective conservation, regenerative agriculture, and other restoration efforts within a large landscape setting are not projects that happen overnight. Instead, they are multi-decade green infrastructural works that take time, money and collaboration. But how can professionals overcome the lack of these necessary ingredients? Through a cohesive structural framework that possesses a clear, inspirational language.
Moving to a common language
It’s essential to create a unified narrative and language to increase buy-in to sustainable development and restoration, he said. That’s not at all the case now: There are more than 100 terms that describe roughly the same idea as integrated landscape management. They all describe using a large-scale restoration and development approach that strives to include many stakeholders and goals.
The problem with using different terms with equivalent meanings is that there can be a loss in translation. If members of a landscape partnership are on different pages, the project could end up missing its objectives or damaging partnerships or the landscape in the long term, like by inadvertently increasing deforestation or lessening the effectiveness of the restoration of ecosystem functions. Continuous co-creation to sustain a landscape partnership must be maintained for many years. Ferwerda calls a landscape partnership the motor of transformation and the framework the “intel inside.”
“It’s still difficult for the global landscape restoration movement to align on a very strong key message that brings in the external actors like banks, investors, big business, big tech, governments and all of those who are not into this idea too much yet,” he said. “It’s those actors who will help us have a huge impact.”
Moving forward, the people who live, work and invest in landscapes must challenge their conceptions of how to safeguard and improve them. Ferwerda speaks about the dangers of following a path of short-term profit presented by economics alone.
Instead, holistic or integrated landscape management should be led with an eye toward sustainability, ecology and improving the livelihoods of those who live within them. That path demands bringing more voices into leadership positions—Indigenous and local communities who call a landscape home, environmentalists, researchers and civil societies. In essence, this is also a process of self-reflection about what biodiversity means for us as a species. “Tech should follow; it should not be leading. Finance should follow; it should not be leading,” Ferwerda said.
“For centuries, we have created financial capital at the costs of people, nature and the climate,” he says. “We are now entering an unprecedented period in man’s history of turning that concept around, [where] the sole purpose of financial capital is to restore nature, our life support system, and bring hope and meaningful jobs. We have [captured that] in a practical framework and built a proof of concept that is now ready for others to use. That is why the shared vision of 1000 Landscapes is a milestone.”
He also warned that failing to alter society’s unsustainable exploitation of landscapes could lead to more dire consequences than the world is already seeing, resulting from climate change and land degradation. “If we don’t look in the mirror, ecology will know how to find us,” he said.