Landscape restoration saves more than just farmland

Commonland regenerates soil and society

Commonland has developed a framework to regenerate depleted landscapes and improve local economies. While full recovery can take twenty years, the first green shoots are appearing.

Environmentalists have long been ringing alarm bells about the threat to biodiversity and food security posed by erosion and soil depletion. Willem Ferwerda took up the call in 2013, cofounding Commonland, a company and foundation aiming to restore moonscapes to long-term fertility and profitability.

“More and more land around the world is so damaged it will no longer support life,” says Ferwerda, an ecologist by training. “The amount is now estimated at over 2 billion hectares, with more lost every year. The main culprit is the conversion of natural habitats to intensive monocrop agriculture, leading to species extinction, erosion and loss of top soil. The result is economically unviable farms, loss of hope and migration.”

The “4 returns” model

Commonland’s method divides damaged areas into three zones: an economic zone, a zone combining regenerative agricultural practices and nature, and a protected green zone. And it promises four types of return on investment: financial, but also environmental, inspirational, and in terms of social capital like employment and security. The first Commonland “4 returns” initiatives – covering almost 2 million hectares in Australia, Spain, South Africa and the Netherlands – are well under way.

“We work with local people and nature, not against them,” says Ferwerda. “A regenerative approach to agriculture lies at the heart of our method in the combined zone. Our local partners train farmers in regenerative farming methods. These go beyond organic methods, mimicking the natural system. When you restore an ecosystem in this way, you rebuild the biodiversity and resilience of the soil, which enhances long-term food production.”

“Regenerative farming goes beyond organic methods”

- Willem Ferwerda, Commonland

A chain of benefits

By rebuilding top soil, rotating crops, and using minimal inputs, the farmers may achieve productivity beyond conventional yields within two to five years. Combining regenerative farming and reforestation also reduces the risk of crop failure and erosion. It raises the local water table and increases carbon sequestration. Once a landscape is productive again, jobs, tourism and tax incomes follow. Above all, says Ferwerda, hope returns, a great benefit when succession problems and suicide haunt many farming communities.

The downside? “It’s hard work,” Ferwerda admits. “A farmer recently told me she sometimes had doubts whether it had been a good idea to switch to our methods. Using conventional methods, you know exactly when you can go on vacation. Regenerative farming makes it more difficult to plan.”

Crops farmed using regenerative methods on the left, traditional methods on the right.

A twenty-year plan

Landscape restoration also takes time. Commonland’s local partners carefully consider which areas to take on to make sure they can turn things around in twenty years. Once an area has been selected, the team’s experts study its ecosystem in depth to find out how it works, and what land use forms are best suited to it.

The next step is to start establishing long-term partnerships with local people. “We enter a new phase of building trust, avoiding misunderstandings and managing expectations,” says Ferwerda. “We start by asking people about their challenges and their dreams. When we asked the villagers in Spain, their answers had nothing to do with farming or biodiversity. They wanted the school and public swimming pool to reopen: for young families to come back.”

“We start by asking locals their challenges and their dreams”

- Willem Ferwerda, Commonland

United behind a cause

Commonland’s model aims to unite an area’s stakeholders, instead of each of them focusing on their own problems. “The mayor might see water levels in the aquifer dropping every year, farmers fear they won’t get a good harvest, and youngsters believe there is no future in farming and want to leave,” explains Ferwerda. “We show them they have more in common than they might think and that they must work on solutions together.”

Commonland provides ongoing support, access to soft loans, and expertise in regenerative farming, business development and reforestation in the years it takes to achieve results. Returning areas to profitability is an essential part of each initiative. Ferwerda has been heartened by participants’ willingness to adopt new ideas. In Spain, villagers set up a foundation based on the Commonland concept within six months and created a company to sell local almonds.

Wide Open Agriculture (WOA), a company which emerged from a Commonland initiative in Western Australia, floated on the stock market in 2018. “We are creating a hub where people can see this new model working and be inspired by it,” says Stuart McAlpine, non-executive director of WOA and pioneering regenerative farmer. “We want them to take ownership and take it back to their communities.”

Impact investing

Commonland has tapped into philanthropic and impact investment money for the up-front development costs of its first four initiatives, but aims to build a portfolio of opportunities for institutional investors.

Ferwerda: “Some larger pension funds are still prohibited from investing in our work by their national banks, but I believe this will change as landscape restoration becomes an established practice. Meanwhile, we’ve started explaining the framework to them and we’ve had a lot of interest. I think the first funding pilots are not far off.”