Our key areas of activities
Commonland brings a holistic approach to landscape restoration. Our international team of specialists offers our partners a wide range of support tools, advice, guidance and global network to maximize the 4 Returns framework at scale. Our 4 key areas of activities include:
- Landscape development & support
- Knowledge, education & innovation
- Monetisation & mobilising funds
- Policy and building influence
Landscape development & support
Commonland aims to transform economic models of landscape degradation into sustainable ones; to turn yield maximisation to 4 Returns optimisation. That is why we work with landscape partners, farmers, land users and other stakeholders to restore land at a large scale. Our role is to support, facilitate and challenge our partners across the many different facets of landscape restoration, bringing access to knowledge, tools, insights, finance and networks.
Since 2013, Commonland, together with our local partners, has been building a universal proof of concept in large landscapes worldwide. You can find – quite literally – living proof of this approach in transforming large landscapes in South Africa, Australia, the Netherlands, and Spain, where we continued to support our core partners in 2020.
In 2020, we expanded our landscape programme in India with the IKEA Foundation’s support and continued our partnership with the Netherlands Red Cross in Haiti and the Philippines. We began researching new landscapes in Germany and Ivory Coast. We explored enthusiasm for the 4 Returns approach in Brazil, Colombia, the Galapagos Islands, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, New Zealand, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Tanzania, and Zambia.
Although every landscape is different, we happily take on the challenge with our partners to co-develop unique interventions supported by local farmers, communities, and the many stakeholders within each landscape.
Our 4 Returns Labs activities accelerated in 2020, particularly in the Netherlands through Voor de Oogst van Morgen (For Tomorrow’s Harvest) and the Danjoo Koorliny (Walking Together) Social Impact Project in Australia (see 5.3).
Challenges in 2020
In 2020, Commonland was more determined than ever to restore landscapes, regenerate communities and work towards a more equitable economic system. However, challenges such as the impact of COVID-19 and lockdowns, the ongoing drought in South Africa and the Australian wildfires, greatly affected our work. Health, economic and societal systems in all countries where we are active came under acute pressure. With our partners, supporting vulnerable members of local communities, especially in Haiti, India, the Philippines, and South Africa, was most important. For a detailed overview of our work in the landscapes, please see Chapter 5.
Co-creation and landscape partnerships: 4 Returns Labs
4 Returns Labs and Theory U, part of the 5 elements in the 4 Returns Framework, are critical and integral parts of our work on holistic landscape management This year was marked by testing, developing, and presenting our 4 Returns Labs proposition with partners in Australia, The Galapagos Islands, The Netherlands, and The Philippines, and exploring a partnership to develop bioregional labs in Europe. This taught us how these Labs could help design and maintain an enabling environment for holistic restoration and transformative system change.
You can find a great example of our Labs in the Philippines, one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable nations. Hunger threatens 7.6 million families, while COVID-19 repercussions have caused rice farmers’ income to drop to 0.12 euros a day. Serious socio-political issues limit the long-term impact of ecosystem-based interventions.
Together with our local partner Green Releaf, the lab brought together local and international practitioners, organisations, and government officials. Together, they worked to exchange best practices and challenges, explore and design a regenerative food system, and develop a landscape approach to food security and economic recovery to address the country’s climate and pandemic vulnerability. After three months, this ecosystem activation and consultation workshop series emerged as a potential multi-stakeholder platform that can develop national targets for ecosystem restoration in 2021.
For Tomorrow’s Harvest – Regional Labs in the Netherlands
In just two years since its kick-off, the 4 Returns Lab For Tomorrow’s Harvest (FTH) is well underway connecting change makers and leaders to explore new ways to strengthen and accelerate the transition to a sustainable agricultural and food system.
In September 2020, For Tomorrow’s Harvest organised a hybrid offline/online summit at five locations in the Netherlands. It celebrated the journey so far, presented the 14 ‘Harvesters’ transition experiments and kickstarted five regional landscape labs in the Netherlands. Each summit location offered a tailored online programme. Even in these extraordinary times, we can successfully connect people on a national level while hosting a regional programme.
For Tomorrow’s Harvest also launched the youth lab ‘For the Day after Tomorrow’s Harvest’. Twenty young farmers and Dutch food system professionals participated in a U-lab. In 2021, a new cohort will start.
For the design, development, and implementation of FTH, Commonland partners with the Physical Environment Consultative Council of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management (OFL), in close consultation with the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality.
Knowledge, education & innovation
Commonland provides landscape partners and practitioners, and other professionals with knowledge, tools, training, and education to initiate and sustain their own 4 Returns landscape restoration initiative. Our open-access, digital platform 4Returns.earth supports the 4 Returns community and connects the broader (expert) network of (future) landscape practitioners.
Knowledge exchange & learning
To connect, learn and grow together, we work with landscape partners and an expanding community of practitioners on knowledge exchange and impact measurement in and between landscapes.
In 2020, we hosted over ten sessions and webinars for our community of landscape partners. Topics included carbon credits programmes, landscape deep-dives on Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning, social change and innovation, and developing resilient business models. Some of these sessions are open to an external audience, such as the webinar on water harvesting techniques with contributions from Australia, Spain, South Africa, and the United States.
Six years of lessons learned
Due to our fast-paced working lives, we do not always have time for reflection and joint learning, vital to driving the transition toward thriving landscapes. To exchange and reflect on lessons learned, Commonland organised and hosted its annual ‘Learning Fest’ – currently an online event. We captured, shared and celebrated six years of lessons specifically on regenerative agriculture with our key partners and the wider network and looked ahead to the next five years.
Impact evaluation & digital infrastructure
To support continuous learning between landscape partners and improve impact measurement, Commonland monitors landscapes’ activities and evaluates impact numbers. In 2020, we improved our Monitoring Evaluation & Learning (MEL) framework, which provides the principles of monitoring the 4 Returns. We also started building a centralised digital infrastructure to collate, harvest and share new data, information, and knowledge on landscape restoration and the 4 Returns. This digital infrastructure will offer insights on farm-level, landscape-level, and eventually at the aggregated Commonland MEL Portal level.
Monitoring, evaluation, and learning is a continuous, systematic process of collecting, analysing, and using data to track a landscape’s progress and guide future management decisions. By leveraging the latest technologies, farmers can benefit from greater operational awareness and increased data collection. This knowledge helps us to improve future landscapes.
By cooperating with universities worldwide, Commonland develops and delivers education programmes that can be integrated into various (business) curricula. These help university students and (young) professionals who want to become frontrunners in the restoration economy to realise the interdependency of their (business) activities on ecosystems and communities.
We share our lessons learned via online sessions, case teachings and through massive open online courses (MOOCs):
- A Business Approach to Sustainable Landscape Restoration
- Business Model Innovation for Sustainable Landscape Restoration
This year, Commonland continued its collaboration with Rotterdam School of Management of the Erasmus University (The Netherlands) while teaching the Global Sustainability Challenges course, supervising MSc students whose thesis focus on resilient business models for landscape restoration and assessing the potential for developing a new curriculum for 2021-2023. Our core landscape partners are an integral part of the curriculum, with contributions from our 4 Returns landscape partners in South Africa, Living Lands, and Spain, AlVelAl.
“There is no one size fits all solution, Regen Agri encompasses a whole host of techniques,
practices and concepts. In the absence of a close working network or existing
guidelines for any given farming sector, options must be narrowed down from a large
suit, this can often seem daunting and without a clear playbook it can be intimidating
to new farmers.”
– Matt Sephton, Living Lands, South Africa, on six years of lessons learned on regenerative agriculture. 11
4Returns.earth: building an informed community
On 4Returns.earth, our growing landscape restoration community can meet international like-minded people, share and learn from each other, and collaborate. Practitioners and professionals can also find interesting tools, networks, stories, jobs, and events.
The next level
In 2020, we used the extra time behind our computers to bring 4Returns.earth to the next level. A major update in October brought fresh design and new features, including a split between landscapes and stories:
- Landscapes now showcases initiatives; how to apply the 4 Returns Framework in practice.
- The stories page offers all kinds of inspiration and information about what’s happening on the ground.
- More interaction on the community page, such as searching members, adding and chatting with friends, and viewing content you’ve saved or created.
100+ practical tools
In 2020, the 4Returns.earth toolbox expanded and currently contains 100+ tools, ranging from guides and workshop tools to mapping and analytical tools. We also launched the first how-to guide on cover cropping. These are rooted in science-based knowledge and on-the-ground experience. In 2021, we will release more how-to guides answering community questions.
Monetisation & mobilising funds
Although ecologists know that more biodiversity means fewer risks in the long run, the finance industry does not yet have the tools to understand this and is not involved in large-scale landscape restoration. Money spent on holistic landscape management and restoration is often seen as a cost, not as an investment with a high return in inspirational, social, ecological, and economic benefits. This approach poses a barrier to reaching scale. So, how do we measure and quantify the returns of long lasting, or even decades, of landscape restoration? And how can we make sure that all landscape stakeholders speak one common language?
4 Returns Landscape Valuation method
With KPMG and several expert organisations, we worked on a way to measure and quantify the 4 Returns at the landscape level. This resulted in a preliminary 4 Returns Landscape Valuation method that lets us assess the benefits and risks of landscape restoration in monetary terms and demonstrate how landscape restoration investments yield multiple returns for stakeholders.
We tested this generic method with data from the Altiplano Estepario landscape in Southern Spain. A report on the method and the Spanish case study was created and presented to a broad, global audience of investors, NGOs, governments and landscape experts in a webinar in October 2020. This was done in collaboration with WWF Landscape Finance Lab, APG Asset Management and Toniic Institute, a global community of asset owners seeking deeper positive net impact across the spectrum of capital. Afterwards, we discussed the new method with representatives of NGOs, government bodies, Development Finance Institutes (DFIs), other private and financial investors, and experts worldwide.
After the first method’s launch and outcomes for Spain in October 2020, we continued the development of a balanced, integrated value assessment method that includes social, natural and financial values. In 2021, we will work on a simple, generic tool that offers a quick, easy, and high-level overview of potential returns for each stakeholder in any given landscape for investment decisions and policy development.
“Commonland pioneered the business case for private sector investments on restoration. The value of Commonland is to ensure landscape restoration has a broad enough focus. The strategic move from operating landscapes itself to helping others, shapes the narratives for successful investments.”
- Tim Christophersen, Head, Nature for Climate Branch, UN Environment Programme.
Since Commonland was founded in 2013, it has acted as an accelerator of change in the four core landscapes. Commonland mobilises various funding streams so 4 Returns landscape restoration initiatives can access resources needed to implement interventions and set up and run local 4 Returns businesses. Over time, we use a blended finance approach to create financial leverage. Through Commonland funding, landscapes can unlock financial investments, in which subsidies, grants, and philanthropy can complement public and private funding such as loans and investments. In 2021, we will develop 4 Returns Landscape Plans to show actions, costs and benefits per landscape in the next 20 years.
As part of our approach, and as a founding partner, our landscape partnerships entail a commitment of at least 20 years – often much longer. On that journey, turbulent times are bound to come our way. The pandemic-dominated year 2020 demonstrated this but also strengthened our relationship and commitment. Long-term partnerships with cornerstone funders let us continue our long-term support for landscape restoration worldwide. Of these, the COmON Foundation has extended and increased support with a long-term beneficiary agreement in 2019 and will continue to walk the path with us. We are deeply grateful for this continued trust and commitment.
The COmON Foundation also directly supported several landscape partners, such as Wide Open Agriculture with their food brand Dirty Clean Food in Australia, in the Netherlands for Aardpeer: together for land (see 5.4). In Haiti, they supported our partner Red Cross to work on 4 Returns 4 Resilience (see 5.5.2). Another exciting element of this partnership is developing another 4 Returns landscape, which we explore in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany.
In fundraising, we marked several highlights. With the Dutch Postcode Lottery, we evaluated our five-year partnership and extended it by another five years with a total of € 4,500,000 for 2021-2025. With this funding, we can demonstrate that it is possible to achieve holistic landscape management and restoration at scale in our core landscapes. We also continued working on our extra project, ‘Upscaling rehabilitation in the Baviaanskloof’ in South Africa, and succeeded in restoring 1,100 hectares and strengthening the conservation organisation.
2020 marked the second year of our partnership with the IKEA Foundation. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, we continued to work on the Knowledge & Innovation Platform and the Agroforestry Program in India. Together, we also raised awareness of the need for landscape restoration worldwide. In 2020, the IKEA Foundation selected Commonland to showcase our work in the worldwide (digital) 2021 IKEA catalogue, and Willem Ferwerda was interviewed together with Sharla Halvorson (IKEA Food) for an ‘Ask an expert’ webinar. Together with the IKEA Foundation and Frisse Blikken we worked on the Your Return Game, which provides insight and a better understanding of how your grocery shopping affects global landscape restoration and local communities’ lives.
Policy and building influence
Holistic landscape management and restoration relies on long-term partnerships that are built on trust. We need to do this on at least two levels, within a landscape using the 5 process elements and Theory U, and with actors that have an impact on these landscapes, but who are often located outside those landscapes. Commonland develops and maintains partnerships with communities, businesses, investors, governments, NGOs, experts and practitioners to build bridges and break through sector silos. It is essential that all relevant sectors communicate, think holistically, and collaborate using a common language and toolkit to facilitate the restoration of landscapes and deliver 4 Returns.
At an international level, Commonland mobilises investors and engages with policy actors to promote policies and investments that benefit nature, people, and the economy. In 2020, we focused on developing a policy influence and advocacy strategy.
“It’s Commonland’s strength that you have had the guts to put a landscape approach into action. I think more and more people will go your way.”
- Jan Kees Vis, Global Director Sustainable Sourcing Development at Unilever.
Due to COVID-19, key international events, such as the IUCN World Conservation Congress and UN Conferences of the Parties on Biodiversity and Climate, were postponed or cancelled. Due to EU travel bans, we could not visit governments or expert networks personally, so we focused on building relationships online. Among other things, we;
- …became an advisor at the One Trillion Trees (1T.org) at the World Economic Forum.
- …became a partner of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and joined the UN Decade Best Practice Taskforce in advance of the start of the Decade.
- …became a member of IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
- …stayed engaged with our audience and participated in online events by, e.g., World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Global Landscape Forum, European Union, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Social Economic Council of the Dutch Government, and Climate CleanUp.
- …continued our core partnership of the 1000 Landscapes for one Billion People initiative with EcoAgriculture Partners, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Rainforest Alliance, Conservation International, WWF Landscape Finance Lab, and Tech Matters.
- …started a collaboration with Wetlands International and WWF Landscape Finance Lab on the 4 Returns Framework.
- … through our local partners continued our connection with Spanish, Australian, South African and Dutch ministries and governmental institutes.
Through peer-reviewed articles, expert partnership meetings and webinars, we continue to influence the global debate and create credibility and legitimacy in the international policy arena.
Raising awareness on holistic landscape restoration
Besides COVID-19’s adverse role in our efforts to influence the global debate offline, we managed to raise awareness of our work online through webinars, events, and creative content on our website and social media channels.
The first webinars took place, such as an expert session about Commonland’s Landscape Valuation method and publication (see 4.3), and screening of the Spanish documentary ‘Head, Heart and Hands’ (see 5.2) and American movie ‘Kiss the Ground’. The last two events included Q&A’s with the director, cast members and local or indigenous (regenerative) leaders and were attended by over 30 nationalities.
We also shared the stories of 4 Returns landscapes with a broader audience through film and reading materials:
- Commonland ambassador John D. Liu told the amazing history of holistic agriculture company and 4 Returns partner Sekem – how a miracle in the desert became reality in Egypt.
- UN Environment Programme video On the Front Line – Farmers #ForNature, on our partners’ work in South Africa.
- A short documentary ‘From the Soil Up’ about the importance of soil in landscape restoration was released.
- Together with IKEA Foundation, the first episode of a documentary on our joint work in India is being developed.
- To top it off, author and journalist Judith Schwartz included the work of Commonland, AlVelAl, John D. Liu and The Weather Makers in her latest book ‘The Reindeer Chronicles’.
Sharing the regenerative story of Commonland and our landscape partners with an increasing number of people is great. 2020 saw a steady growth of our website’s visitors (+30%), social media followers (on average +30%) and newsletter recipients (+20%). We will continue to include the outcomes of the stakeholder analysis (see chapter 3) in our communications, positioning Commonland as a system changer, bridge-builder and connector of stakeholders, and conveyer of the 4 Returns Framework.
Radical collaboration to reach 1000 landscapes and 1 billion people
Together, we thrive! Commonland joined forces with organisations worldwide, including WWF-Landscape Finance Lab, Conservation International, Rainforest Alliance, UNDP and EcoAgriculture Partners. Together we can link currently fragmented efforts, realise one shared vision for thriving landscapes, and build capacities. The 1000 Landscapes initiative aims to unlock investment finance to help landscape partnerships worldwide to achieve their regenerative landscape and livelihood ambitions more quickly, effectively and at scale. A global digital landscape action platform will support the initiative.
In the first half of 2020, we better understood our landscape partnerships’ needs and priorities with the IKEA Foundation’s support and developed a shared vision. Through design teams’ consultations, a co-design workshop, and a Theory U lab initiated by Commonland, we built a firm basis of trust. As a result, we agreed on a shared vision based on the 4 Returns Framework and the 5 elements of WWF Landscape Finance Lab and EcoAgriculture Partners as the top guidelines for the 1000 Landscapes initiative.
By mid-2020, we started co-designing, testing, and demonstrating four focus areas:
- Developing the Terraso Digital Landscape Platform;
- Filling gaps in financing landscape investment portfolios;
- Building landscape leaders’ practical capabilities to implement Holistic Landscape Management by developing a curriculum for education and training;
- Setting up a Global Action Network.
We have taken the first step towards 2030 when the 1000 Landscapes Initiative aims to achieve regenerative production and sustainable land use worldwide.