We all rely on landscapes for our existence. They provide us with food, water, clean air, materials, a stable climate, and more. But landscapes are being degraded at an alarming rate. According to the FAO, land degradation from human activity is increasing by 12 million hectares each year – about 32 soccer pitches per minute. 

Degraded landscapes make communities vulnerable to flooding, drought or landslides. Farmers lose production while jobs and business opportunities dry up. Social fabric becomes more fragile. People lose pride and hope in their landscapes and may move away. Globally, this drives instability, displacement and conflict. 

Many serious issues facing the world can be traced back to degrading landscapes. If climate change, biodiversity loss, food insecurity and mass migration are to be tackled at source, landscape restoration must be part of the solution. 

What is landscape restoration?

Landscapes can become degraded, but they can also be restored. We do not mean restored to a past state, because the landscape can never be exactly the same again. We aim to restore its function – socially, ecologically and economically – so that it is future-proof. 

Landscape degradation has multiple causes, many interdependencies and various stakeholders who each hold a different understanding of what the problem is and who should fix it. To achieve large-scale holistic landscape restoration goals, efforts must tackle the complex nature of ecological, social, economic and political landscapes in an integrated manner. 

Many individual short-term initiatives have aimed to tackle particular conservation challenges around the world. While they have achieved successes, such as protecting endangered species and winning battles against deforestation, these victories may be short lived. Siloed approaches fail to deliver lasting positive change.  

“Restoration is an inevitability. We have to do it, and now is the time to figure out how everyone participates. We’ve got an economic system that’s creating a incentive to degrade the ecosystems, but need to change to an economy that serves ecological restoration. Then, everybody’s effort will go to restoration and it will be much easier to address the risks for climate change, ensure that our community’s are healthy and fed, and resilient.” – John D. Liu, ambassador Commonland

Why should we take a holistic approach?

Landscapes are complex systems and must be treated as a whole – or holistically. We believe a system’s physical, chemical, biological, ecological, economic, and socio-cultural processes are connected and should be addressed together, at a large scale and in the long term. 

If we fail to address problems holistically, symptoms may return, or new ones arise. For example, if tomato crops increasingly suffer from drought-related issues, we could take the problem in isolation and develop a tomato that is more drought-resistant, or we could look at the problem in context and regenerate the soil so that it regains the capacity to store water. Looking at the whole system means we can identify opportunities and create holistic solutions that benefit nature and communities. 

We believe it’s essential to view the whole living system – meaning the landscape, including social and ecological factors – and identify interconnected components, relationships, behaviours and interactions within it. Each component, such as an organisation for landscape restoration, finance or health, is a system in itself and making a change to one has a knock-on effect on the rest.  

Challenges around food, soils, clean air and water, housing, job opportunities and a stable climate all connect to a landscape where people live and work in balance with nature and each other. That’s why holistic landscape restoration is a long-term endeavour that relies on local communities to feel inspired and hopeful. A balance between top-down decision-making and inclusive bottom-up approaches is critical to success.

Read about our 4 Returns framework for holistic landscape restoration.