A recap of the Bioregional Weaving Labs (BWL) Learning Summit, November 2023.

It’s a cold, rainy day in East Germany. A diverse group of people from across Europe sit in a circle, periodically placing objects in the centre of a room. Two carved sheep, representing sheep farming in disparate European regions, are thrown in, alongside a scattered array of paper drawings, traditional foods, sticks, rocks, and the odd piece of jewellery. A Chilean-Dutch regeneration leader grins across at a Spanish activist; an ex-urbanist in a checked flat-cap gazes pensively at the pile of things, as a Polish organics expert gets up to make a cup of tea. What has brought this eclectic bunch together?

You may be thinking: this sounds a bit cult-like. And you wouldn’t be completely wrong: All these people are self-defined “weavers”. They fervently believe in the power of collective action to drive systemic change. Their work connecting people and organisations to tackle Europe’s growing ecological and social crisis is what has led them to this circle at the annual BWL Learning Summit 2023.

And their work is urgently needed: between 60-70% of Europe’s soils are degraded and nearly 10% of the region is at risk of desertification. The destruction of Europe’s ecosystems is giving rise to many other issues: biodiversity loss, water pollution and scarcity, rural depopulation, and social polarisation among them. Indeed, rural depopulation is an ever-pressing problem in much of Europe’s countryside, often driven by land degradation and its negative impacts on local economies and livelihoods. It’s clear Europe needs new ways of managing its common resources for the greater good – and this group of “weavers” are at the forefront of finding solutions.

Gabriela Poiană, a weaver from Romania, writes her thoughts on storytelling during a workshop at the BWL Learning Summit 2023.

The Bioregional Weaving Labs (BWL) Collective is a growing assembly of 25+ international system-changing organisations, funders, and impact investors, initiated by Ashoka, co-led by Commonland and OpEPA, and grounded in a community of practice. BWL represents hundreds of system changers in the field working directly with farmers, nature conservationists, communities, educators, and other stakeholders in bioregions to restore, protect, and regenerate (biodiverse) ecosystems.

From Sunday 19 to Thursday 23 November, 18 “bioregional weaving teams” from all over Europe gathered in an old town hall 100km outside Berlin to exchange knowledge and co-create action plans for the future. Here’s what we learnt about scaling landscape restoration from them:

1. There is no scaling without weaving

Maria Gímenez talks to a crowd of weavers during a field visit to her farm, Wilmer’s Gaerten.

Weaving is an emerging discipline that involves bringing people from diverse roles, backgrounds, and perspectives together to co-create meaningful collaborations that drive positive change. It unites fragmented projects so that, together, they can create systemic change. Weaving entails an intrinsic awareness of our interdependence with each other and the rest of nature – at its heart lies an understanding that people and planetary well-being go together. And, on a practical level, it’s the foundation of scaling change.

Why? For landscape restoration to be successful and have lasting impacts, you need strong social alliances across a landscape – as demonstrated in this recent paper. In other words: if you want to restore ecosystems on nature’s time scale, requiring at least 20 years of dedicated work, you need local communities, businesses, and politics to start – and keep – working together towards one shared vision.

Weaving is the invisible work done behind the scenes to unite local stakeholders around a common goal: a healthier future landscape. Everyone at the learning summit – all of them weavers in their different landscapes – talked about the challenges intrinsic to their work: how to find and reach the right people, how to get people to share a collective vision and – a pivotal point – how to fund the process of weaving.

2. We urgently need new systems – but they must be diverse

Geert van de Veer, Founder of the Herenboeren initiative, is interviewed in between workshops.

Many European regions face challenges with similar roots – unsustainable farming practices and land speculation are prominent trending issues that give rise to other problems. Weavers at the summit frequently alluded to the need to diversify land ownership and management, with Geert van de Veer, co-Founder of the cooperative farming project Herenboeren, reminding us that a whole generation of farmers will retire in the next 10 years, leading to an array of challenges and opportunities for the regenerative transition. Geert asked, “what kind of system can we build so that we can produce livelihoods in landscapes that are becoming deserted?”

But the answer is complex. While there may be many shared challenges in Europe, each bioregion is unique: you can’t take a cookie-cutter approach to landscape restoration. Where one bioregion is facing mass tourism and the consequences of that on land and sea, another has nature in abundance but struggles to motivate local communities to protect it; while another, still, is awash with regenerative entrepreneurs but has little available land for them to restore. Many participants highlighted historical factors that define the problems their communities face today, emphasising that solutions must be culturally-specific and locally led.

3. Cultural change is the foundation of long-term landscape restoration

Willemijn de Iongh, Landscape Developer at Commonland, brainstorms with Maurice Sanciaume and Eduardo Cáceres Salgado.

The importance of bioregional cultures and local peoples’ sense of belonging to a place was raised again and again. As Eduardo Cáceres Salgado, Founder of Mas Newen and a regenerative leader in The Netherlands and Chile highlighted, “if we only focus on the landscape then we forget our essential role as caretakers within the land. Yes, we want to do large-scale restoration, but we must start with culture […] if we really want to make sure this is embedded in our communities and pass it onto the next generations, the only way of doing that is creating the right culture”.

As such, Edu’s project, run with Yanneke Bruil, Food Policy Advisor at the Municipality of Wageningen, in the South Veluwe region in The Netherlands, focuses on “biocultural restoration”, what they define as restoring “culture back to place and our place back to culture”. Drawing upon the region’s Celtic history, they are working to connect local people to indigenous, ancestral traditions of caring for land to create a collective vision for future generations.

The importance of biocultural restoration was expressed across different regions. Gabriela Poiană, Programme Coordinator at Asociația Kogayon in Romania, noted, “being aware that you’re part of a community and really feeling this sense of belonging is the basis of moving forward. If you want to do something to develop your region and be part of the movement, first you should feel the connection with place and people. This is something that we are together cultivating in our [separate] bioregions.”

To foment a sense of local belonging and connection to a region’s history, it was clear that effective storytelling is key. Many weavers talked about the challenges they face in engaging local communities in the regenerative transition and driving cultural shifts – and discussed ways to story-tell for impact. As Geert from Herenboeren noted, “we need belief in nice, hopeful futures” to make change.

4. Bioregionalism can help tackle social polarisation

Svenja Nette, German BWL Weaver, discusses with a Polish weaver the connected challenges their bioregions face.

Weavers across regions witness socio-economic polarisation in Europe first-hand – it is often characterised by a rural-urban divide, with traditional farming communities and urbanites (politically) pitted against each other in a culture war that centres around questions related to climate change and land management. We’ve all seen the recent headlines: Farmers’ tractors line motorways in protest against climate measures, at the very same time that students stage sit-in climate protests on city streets.

Weavers painted a complex picture of how this polarisation plays out at the local level, highlighting that bringing people together in bioregions to flesh out a shared vision can actively counter extremism and bring everyone back to common ground. As Svenja Nette, official BWL Weaver and Land Lobbyist at Expedition Klimalandschaft Fläming in Germany, expressed “A potato is unpolitical by nature – it’s so important that we can meet around food production. We all share histories of producing food. … How can we find the nuggets of connection even when disagreeing? […] That’s why I value BWL so much – it’s about bringing people together and doing local governance”.

Part of this is about bringing common spaces back to life, providing local spaces for people to meet, connect and build trust. As a traditional farmer gets to know a newly-arrived urbanite trying to implement regenerative farming practices, both can learn from each other and bridge the apparent divide. As one German weaver highlighted, this is also key to shifting multi-level policies to enable locally-led nature restoration; she asked “how do we bring these stories to local governments who are not working in the forests and the fields?”, noting the importance of inviting a range of regional and national stakeholders into local discussions to “open […] up [their] eyes, ears, and hearts.”

5. We need a new approach to landscape finance

Weavers walk through the market garden at Wilmar’s Gaerten.

Weavers across Europe shared similar challenges when it came to financing nature restoration in their bioregion. Global economic trends continue to define regional economies: the global food system and its complex, interdependent supply chains, alongside the global commodification of land as an asset, have effects that ripple out across all of Europe’s landscapes. An immediate challenge echoed by many weavers was simply: how to fund weaving in landscapes. As an ongoing process that provides the foundations for long-term landscape restoration, weaving is essential. But finding long-term, “process” funding continues to be challenging in a world where project grants are time-limited and investors expect quick returns on investment.

Funding for farmers who want to transition to more regenerative practices was also top of mind. As Maria from Wilmar’s Gaerten, highlighted, the “financial factor has to be taken seriously as, still, no one gets money for doing [regenerative agriculture]. Farmers […] need to be supported by public and governments to do this kind of agriculture.” The motivation for these actors to invest in regenerative farming should be clear: soil erosion costs European countries €1.25 billion in annual agricultural productivity loss and €155 million in gross domestic product (GDP) loss, according to a JRC new study.

One thing was clear: we need new financial frameworks to fund the regenerative transition. Such frameworks could bring not only environmental and social, but also economic benefits: the restoration of Europe’s biodiversity-rich land protected under the Habitats Directive is estimated to cost EUR 154 billion but will generate benefits valued at EUR 1,860 billion, resulting in a cost-benefit ratio of 1:12.3 (!).

Learning networks fuel sustainable, just transitions

Weavers listen to Maria explain agroforestry techniques employed at Wilmar’s Gaerten.

After 3 jam-packed days of knowledge exchange, field visits and co-creation, weavers returned to their separate bioregions brimming with connections, ideas, and inspiration to continue their landscape restoration work. As Maurice Sanciaume, a weaver in the Adour-Garonne region in France, reflected, “I leave inspired by the stories that people shared with me about their enthusiasm, passion and relationship and work with nature”.

“It’s very comforting and useful to know that I am part of a learning network of people struggling with the same challenges […] learnings around mistakes and best practice travel very fast to others in the network. We try to solve issues together – it’s way easier to act in a network than by yourself”

Gabriela Poiană, Programme Coordinator at Asociația Kogayon, Romania

One message shone clear through the winter clouds as we all trundled up the bus steps to leave: Systems change and local change are symbiotic. To meet European climate and biodiversity targets, we need to “weave” local environmental action and, by doing so, we could scale impact across the continent. The 18 weaving teams brought together in Germany are doing critical but often invisible work for new systems to emerge. Creating new worlds isn’t easy – but being part of a learning network gives these frontrunners the recognition and support they need to build their (individual and collective) weaving capacity and keep going when times are tough. As Maria Gímenez, Founder of Wilmar’s Gaerten, hinted, “we are like the mycelium underground,” a network of essential nodes creating deep connections to transform Europe’s landscapes for the greater good.

Thanks to the German Weaving Team, the Bosch Foundation, and colleagues at Commonland and Ashoka, who made this event in the bioregion of Brandenburg, Germany possible. This landscape is home to restoration efforts led by Expedition Klimalandschaft Fläming, Regen Farming News, Baumfeldwirtschaft, Klimapraxis, RÄUME ERÖFFNEN E.V. and Ökobüro Hoher Fläming, among others.We were honoured to be hosted by these organisations for 3 full days of connecting, weaving and solution-making around restoration in Europe. November’s summit was an important step in BWL’s mission. It was a chance for the growing community of BWL “weavers”, who are hosting the multi-stakeholder processes in their respective bioregions in Europe, to connect and learn together to drive tomorrow’s systems change.

About BWL

The Bioregional Weaving Labs (BWL) Collective is a growing assembly of 25+ international system-changing organisations, funders and impact investors, initiated by Ashoka, co-led by Commonland and OpEPA, and grounded in a community of practice. BWL represents hundreds of system changers in the field working directly with farmers, nature conservationists, communities, educators, and other stakeholders in bioregions to restore, protect and regenerate (biodiverse) ecosystems.

The BWL’s mission is to support 1 million changemakers who together contribute to restoring, protecting, and regenerating 1 million hectares of land and sea in Europe by 2030. The goal is to create observable impact across the 4 Returns: social, natural, financial and inspirational returns. To this end, we are establishing Bioregional Weaving Labs in 10 different countries in Europe before 2025 with the aim of mobilising at least 100.000 changemakers per bioregion. You can find out more about the 10 bioregions here.