Our key areas of activity
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 and its partners’ work is scaling up around the world – based on the proof that large-scale landscape management and restoration with regenerative business cases can be achieved across a diversity of landscapes. Landscape Development and Support works with our partners through – among other activities -strategic guidance, tools, networks, capacity building, and knowledge and experience sharing between landscapes.
Despite being the second ‘Covid year’, 2021 was also the year we readied ourselves for significant scaling up of impact. In the Netherlands, South Africa and Spain, our partners have started exploring how they might expand their reach by sharing knowledge and experience beyond their current working area. One example is the Aland Foundation, established in 2021, which inspires and catalyses other initiatives in the Iberian Peninsula by using the 4 Returns approach and the impact of landscape partner AlVelAl in the Altiplano (see 5.2).
Our portfolio of landscapes and partners is significantly expanding. Different models to engage and support landscape partners are being tested – such as the cross-country Lab initiative in Europe. At the same time, other organisations with large landscape portfolios are becoming close collaborators. These include Wetlands International, Landscape Finance Lab, WWF Namibia and the Red Cross societies. An active search has also begun for more landscape partnerships to add to the proofs of concept we are building in Europe and Africa. Other regions follow in 2022 and 2023.
In 2021, we’ve built partnerships and matured relations with initiatives in Germany (see 5.5.2), Poland, the Galapagos Islands, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Tanzania, Namibia, Zambia, Ivory Coast and the Philippines. You can read more about the developments taking place in our landscapes in chapter 5.
Covid disruptions in 2021
Covid has left no part of the world untouched, and its effect is clear on the landscapes we operate in. While our landscape partners in Australia, the Netherlands, South Africa and Spain have managed to make significant progress, the disruption has been greater in landscapes where we did not yet have long-standing working relationships.
Fragile communities have been particularly exposed. In India, our partner Samerth switched to Covid emergency relief, using community support workers from our programme, and secured government livelihood support. Unfortunately, the pandemic proved a significant barrier to the rest of our work in India last year.
In other cases, it meant slowed progress. When so much of our work is building enduring relationships with stakeholders, travel and meeting restrictions are a barrier. In Germany, for example, the launch of a regenerative farmers’ network in the Sternberger Seenland faced delays due to Covid lockdowns.
These hurdles have required responses that, in some cases, have brought us also closer together. Our Mountain Trail learning journeys (see 4.2) were attended by a far wider audience than the offline events they replaced, giving birth to an innovative way of harvesting insight. Other initiatives prepared during the pandemic are expected to accelerate now that in-person events are possible again. The Pintakasi Lab, for example, in the Philippines, brings together multiple stakeholders to coordinate efforts towards 4 Returns 4 Resilience. The lab will push further forward in 2022.
While the pandemic is unpredictable, we welcome the more open contact that has been possible in 2022 thus far.
Co-creation and landscape partnerships: 4 Returns Labs
Developing a trust-based landscape partnership and a shared understanding among multiple stakeholders is the first step in any landscape restoration project. We use the 4 Returns Labs at three levels: within landscapes as part of the 5 elements; between different 4 Returns Labs within one continent; and as a catalyst towards transformative system change with partners such as governments and financiers. The aim of 4 Returns Labs is to develop a shared understanding and identify common intentions, motivations and barriers faced across different landscapes. In doing so, a 4 Returns Lab becomes a Space of Belonging where bonds are forged, trust is built and foundations for large-scale change are laid. Here’s how we took our 4 Returns Labs forward this year:
Bioregional Weaving Labs – a new partnership with Ashoka, the Presencing Institute and Drawdown Europe – now has the 4 Returns Framework embedded in it . The Bioregional Weaving Labs initiative threads together proven social entrepreneurs and communities dedicated to scaling biodiversity impact within large landscapes. Last year, a joint vision for a European ecosystem of labs gathered pace. Three possible labs have been identified in Romania, Ireland and Sweden, with deeper analysis of landscapes and stakeholders taking place in 2022.
We’ve joined forces with Ubuntu Labs, the African branch of the Presencing Institute, to create an applied online-offline learning programme for emerging and established leaders and innovators across Africa. There is now close alignment between Commonland and Ubuntu Lab Institute to prepare a Bioregional Lab Programme from 2022 onwards in Africa, with 5 to 7 landscapes in the process of being selected.
The Galapagos Islands gave birth to modern notions of species inter-relations and remain a jewel of biodiversity. But its precious ecosystems face pressure from international tourism and overfishing in waters outside its marine conservation areas. With the World Bank, Global Environment Facility, Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), Conservation International and Presencing Institute, the 4 Returns Framework was introduced and through a Lab process, a vision for holistic seascape management in the Galapagos was co-created. Willem Ferwerda and Dieter van den Broeck launched the lab in April, attended by the President of the Galapagos Governing Council. The consortium undertook sensing journeys of the fishery system and is steadily determining its common vision through workshops throughout the year. The Galapagos Lab is an example of how the 4 Returns Framework creates common understanding between stakeholders’ visions empowering communities and landscapes to thrive.
For Tomorrow’s Harvest was our first 4 Returns Lab (2018), based on experiences in Australia, Philippines and the Galapagos. In this programme, 80 different system leaders were supported with 4 Returns and Theory U, resulting in new initiatives and partnerships. Three years later, together with the Dutch Physical Environment Consultative Council, we’re and Commonland are preparing an accelerator programme (‘Versnellingshuis’) as a next phase. While landscape partner Wij.land focuses on regenerative agriculture practitioners networks, the ‘Versnellingshuis’ will offer a learning infrastructure in regional labs to solve system barriers and create holistic impact. Simultaneously eighteen young participants have started a second Youth Lab, and regional stakeholder analysis processes have been initiated in the island of Texel, municipalities in the province Noord-Holland and the Amsterdam metropolitan region.
Knowledge, education & innovation
Building a joint body of knowledge and sharing it together is essential for the implementation of 4 Returns in landscapes. The core of our Knowledge, Education & Innovation activities is monitoring and evaluation, knowledge exchange and learning. We bring partners together to share what they are learning while being on the frontline of holistic landscape restoration. At the same time, we advance knowledge about impact evaluation and digital technologies to better store, share and understand data. Our educational offerings are developed in close collaboration with business schools and universities worldwide, and are valued by a wide variety of professionals and restoration practitioners. Our 4 Returns community platform provides landscape practitioners and partners with insights and connections they need to advance in their work.
4 Returns community is growing
A pillar of this work is inspiring and nourishing our 4 Returns community supported by our open-access digital platform 4returns.commonland.com. The 4 Returns community is a partnership-driven Community of Practice that sparks inspiration, fosters learning and builds leadership skills for holistic landscape restoration. With our landscape partners, we harvest knowledge and lessons learned and share them in the community. The community itself is also a lively space in which experiences and knowledge from practice are shared and new connections are made.
The 4 Returns community platform has over 1000 members, 160 tools uploaded, access to stories, learning events, and – most importantly – connections to other members. In the second half of the year, we engaged with existing members extensively to co-create the 4 Returns community and learn about their needs and desires for the community through an online session, survey and interviews. Early 2022 will see the launch of the new community calendar, as well as new features to support community engagement.
“The Return of Inspiration is at the heart of community.”
- Sarah Queblatin, Green Releaf, Philippines
Most popular tools in 2021
- A new version of the 4 Returns Business Model Canvas is published
- The 4 Returns Theory of Change Template
- A collection of soil tools
Most popular featured stories in 2021
Events to support knowledge & learning within our network
In 2021, we continued with the so-called ‘Mountain Trail’ learning journeys for our community on the Return of Inspiration and on Business Development. The Mountain Trails allow us to harvest insights from our core landscapes and make them accessible to the global landscape restoration community.
Inspiration is that elusive yet crucial factor that enables and sustains the other 3 returns. Walking the Mountain Trail with our partners, we compiled 5 Basic ingredients for the Return of Inspiration in landscape restoration. Among them is the need to understand our work is connected to the nature, culture and history of a place and the need to have courageous conversations to build trust and a sense of a combined future together.
The Business Development Mountain Trail looked at how business landscape partners such as Wide Open Agriculture with their brand Dirty Clean Food from Australia are positioning themselves to take advantage of the growing consumer trend for regenerative agriculture products, whilst also learning from external guest experts.
In the monthly Community of Practice sessions, members exchange knowledge and experience on relevant topics connected to holistic landscape restoration and regenerative agriculture. We held 17 sessions throughout the year. Topics covered included agroforestry, innovation and social change, monitoring and evaluation, and reforestation.
"In my personal journey, I understood that if nature is not something that is outside of us, but if we are nature, I could not only become ecologically concerned, but I could become ecologically active because I am part of the system."
- Anne van Leeuwen, founder Bodemzicht and Embassy of the North Sea during the Mountain Trail on Inspiration
Monitoring and Evaluation: Measuring, collecting and sharing impact data
Landscape carbon credits, market premiums, direct to consumer sales and other mechanisms are providing landscape managers and regenerative farmers with ways to more effectively monetise their activities. But each of these developments requires high quality data shared within and between landscapes. Existing software fails to meet this requirement.
The Open Landscape Network (OLN) provides a digital infrastructure that allows landscapes to plan and monitor, reporting on progress and return on investment. Uniquely, it also monitors ecological data. Regenerative farmers and landscape managers can therefore be compensated for the true value of their activities as they diversify income streams and make advances in holistic land restoration.
The first OLN prototype was developed in 2021 together with our technology partner, Humboldt Environmental Systems (HES) and has since been implemented in 4 Returns landscapes in the Netherlands, Spain, and preparations are made for India. Landscape managers have praised the immediate improvements in daily workflows, knowledge distribution, funding opportunities, and most importantly — creating a more effective way to restore landscapes.
The Return of Inspiration is both a motivator and a goal of landscape restoration, but demonstrating its occurrence is complex. As part of the Central Highland Restoration Project (CHiRP) in India, we set up a pilot case study to better understand and measure what the driving factors for inspiration are. The pilot was set up after discussing, with funding partner the IKEA Foundation, that current indicators may not go deep enough and that better understanding of what really inspires people is a key challenge. The pilot will continue in 2022 in cooperation with local partners, contributing to Commonland’s overall thinking on inspiration and ways to describe and measure it.
Monetisation & mobilising funds
To restore landscapes, we need to redesign our current economic model. This requires a long-term focus and an integrated value perspective that considers the return of inspiration, social return, natural return, and financial return.
4 Returns Landscape Valuation method
Through the development of its landscape valuation methodology, Commonland has taken a first step towards monetizing the integrated long-term value of restoration interventions at a landscape level based on the 4 Returns Framework. In June 2021, we took our valuation method forward, publishing an updated version that included a case study from Spain, in which the monetary value of landscape restoration has been estimated. The method was presented at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in September 2021.
Blended Finance Mechanism Development
However, to mobilise finance at scale, Commonland, together with our partners, aims to develop blended finance mechanisms that channel capital to landscapes in both the form of investment capital and grant funding.
Blended finance brings public, philanthropic, and private capital together. This entails structuring opportunities in a way that allows organisations with different financial, social and environment objectives to invest alongside each other. Critically, grant funding that drives landscape-level interventions, including building trust and stakeholder alignment, helps to lower the risk of investments to attract the participation of the private sector.
The continual trust of our cornerstone funders means we can implement generational change in line with the 4 Returns. Because their support is sustained and long term, we’re able to invest time, expertise and resources to build the relationships that lead to large-scale, durable impact.
With the COmON Foundation, we undertook an evaluation of our partnership, while renewing the 3-year contract. We are grateful for their continued support of the Commonland team. We are also entering into a new phase as we launch the collaboration with Wetlands International and Landscape Finance Lab, with support of the COmON Foundation, joining efforts in 6 landscapes.
The IKEA Foundation agreed to extend the India programme by 1.5 years due to the impact of the pandemic. We greatly value their flexibility, trust and commitment. During this year we were also able to re-direct funding to provide emergency support in the form of food, water and sanitation when Covid-19 affected communities.
In May, the Foundation’s Agricultural Livelihood partners came together for a 5-day Agricultural Livelihoods online learning event. Thekla Teunis, founder and director of our partner Grounded was a guest speaker and CEO Willem Ferwerda joined an expert panel.
After a positive evaluation for the period 2016-2020 we signed a new 5-year partner agreement with the Dutch Postcode Lottery for 2021-2025. Thanks to the participants of the Postcode Lottery, they can play an important role by providing long-term unearmarked funding.
In 2021 we finalised the agreement to launch Fund De Roeper, a long-term donor-advised fund – for us the first of its kind. Over ten years, the fund aims to invest €2.5 million in local actions that increase biodiversity and help local restorative businesses and communities to build a future based on ecosystem and climate resilience. To ensure that its activities are embedded in a broader programme of holistic landscape management and restoration, the fund will focus exclusively on landscapes that already implement the 4 Returns framework.
In 2022, Fund De Roeper will kick off supporting regenerative agriculture activities with local partners Grounded (Tanzania, Zambia, South Africa), AlVelAl (Spain) and Ecosystem Restoration Camps Altiplano (Spain). Among these upcoming initiatives is a three-year regenerative agriculture support fund in collaboration with Grounded that supports producers and producer groups in making their farms more regenerative.
"Our children and grandchildren are far better off inheriting a green and cool planet rather than family wealth. So, I am grateful that with this fund we can contribute to a necessary systems change towards putting our society back in balance with nature. Commonland’s vision, approach and sparkling team are truly inspiring. We look forward to working together!"
- Corien Botman, Founder Fund De Roeper
Restoring the ecological foundation of natural zones on a large scale promotes the capture and storage of carbon in trees and vegetation. These sequestered tonnes of carbon can be quantified, verified, certified, and sold to businesses and institutions looking to offset their emissions. Commonland, as an intermediary between landscapes and other market players, is uniquely positioned to foster carbon negative practices within the landscapes’ natural zones and help landowners reap the benefits of modern carbon markets.
Commonland’s Carbon Team launched in september 2021 to unite and progress carbon activities around all our landscapes, and is currently working on three carbon projects:
Carbon Farming Foundation (CFF) in Western Australia
New in the Australian partnership is the Carbon Farming Foundation (CFF), an Australian Charity founded in October 2020. CFF’s ambition is to instigate carbon projects on 1 million hectares within 10 years. CFF partnerships include landowners, food companies and other organisations across the country that work with the 4 Returns framework.
Together with CFF and local partners, Commonland’s focus is on project activities taking place in the Western Australian Wheatbelt. This includes feasibility studies, supporting project certification under a trustworthy carbon standard, and as well monitoring and reporting of carbon credits as they are generated.
Simalaha Community Conservancy Zambia
Zambia has been identified as one of the top 20 greenhouse gas emitting countries – a large driver of this is the population’s use of charcoal and wood fuel.
In 2018, Peace Parks Foundation asked Commonland to develop a carbon asset management program that supports their core business by generating an additional income stream from the sale of carbon credits to protect wildlife and to help the local communities.
The aim is to start generating carbon credits from improved cookstoves and allocate the proceeds from the sale of the carbon credits to the Simahala Community Conservancy Trust to fund agroforestry or other feasible community programmes, preferably on a revolving nature. Besides slowing or even halting deforestation, the advantage of an improved cookstove programme is that it immediately generates carbon credits from the moment it is used by households.
By August we had distributed nearly 10,000 improved cookstoves – vital for improving people’s health and reducing carbon emissions. The improved cookstove programme has been certified by the Gold Standard early 2022, generating the first carbon credits later in the year.
Netherland’s Western Peat Meadows
Activities that could yield carbon revenues for Wij.land’s farmers are peatland emission reduction by optimising the water table and regenerative practices including composting techniques, reduced tillage, subirrigation and optimal grazing plans, that enable topsoil regeneration, increase biodiversity, and support carbon sequestration.
Together with the Rabo Carbon Bank and a group of ten dairy farmers, Wij.land officially launched a carbon credits pilot. The launch received widespread online media attention, and was covered by Dutch newspaper Trouw. The farmers have committed to implementing a suite of regenerative practices for 3 years (2021-2023). In return, the farmers receive payment for the increased carbon storage in their soils.
Commonland is now supporting Wij.land to explore opportunities for generating revenue from selling carbon credits in the Wij.land landscape under the framework of the National Carbon Market Foundation in the Netherlands.
Policy and building influence
As pressure builds on leaders to tackle multiple interrelated crises, we are making the case for the 4 Returns framework as a positive policy response at landscape level. When ecology and communities thrive, the economy does too.
To this end, with Wetlands International, and Landscape Finance Lab, we published The 4 Returns framework for Landscape Restoration to coincide with the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration in June (see box). The publication sets out the 4 Returns for communities, policy makers, business and finance demonstrating how holistic landscape restoration is applied in India, Fiji and Spain. In September, we signed a partnership agreement between Wetlands International and the Landscape Finance Lab with three main goals: to jointly promote the 4 Returns framework, to partner on six landscapes to build a proof of concept further and to create a 4 Returns carbon co-benefit component in projects.
We also contributed our expertise to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration by joining the UN Decade Best Practice Taskforce. In addition, and as part of this ongoing contribution, Willem Ferwerda became advisor of the World Economic Forum expert groups on One Trillion Trees (1T.org) and the Biodiversity and Finance Group for investors.
1000 Landscapes for one Billion People unites the capacities of several large-scale integrated landscape management partners, while leveraging their audience reach and ability to attract funding. Its worldwide partners include EcoAgriculture Partners, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Rainforest Alliance, Conservation International, Landscape Finance Lab, and Tech Matters.
Having completed the first phase of the 1000 landscapes initiative, the partnership gained a better understanding of landscape partnership needs and priorities, developed a shared vision for thriving landscapes , and define four core services. A global digital landscape action platform ‘Terraso’ will support the initiative. The partnership is now moving on to Co-Design, Testing and Demonstration Phase, engaging new partners and landscapes in the process.
Setting the agenda
Commonland remains an active member of networks such as Earth Charter, Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration (GPFLR) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). We have also contributed to the following global agenda-setting events such as those at IUCN World Conservation Congress, the third Biennial Global Forum on Ecological Restoration organised by SER, and attended the CBD Conference of the Parties (COP) 15 (Part 1), Global landscape forum in Glasgow, Regenerative Alliance Summit 2021 in Brussels. Commonland also became an observer of the Convention on Biological diversity (CBD), and contributed to a report of Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
Through these roles and events, we continue to direct global attention to the value of the 4 Returns while supporting the integrity of holistic landscape restoration worldwide.
“The adoption of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will require innovative tools that cut across disciplines to deliver on the multiple beneﬁts from the conservation, sustainable use and sharing of the beneﬁts of biodiversity. I congratulate all partners on the development of the 4 Returns framework for landscape restoration, [which].. provides a way for holistic large-scale ecosystem restoration to realize beneﬁts for biodiversity, people and climate, and I hope that interested countries can be supported to take full advantage of it.“
- Ms. Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration exists to promote the reversal of ecosystem degradation worldwide while taking advantage of the “unparalleled opportunity for job creation, food security and addressing climate change”. Its partners include UN bodies as broad as UNESCO, UNDP and the World Health Organisation – demonstrating the multifaceted nature of the benefits that land restoration brings.
As one of the supporting partners of the UN Decade, and as part of the UN Decade official launch, Commonland brought together business and investor community, governments, ecosystem restoration experts and practitioners to discuss how to create opportunities for integrating business objectives in large-scale restoration action that seeks multiple returns for people, biodiversity and climate.
Commonland also used the occasion to launch its 4 Returns framework report, showing the 4 Returns in action in landscapes around the world. A collaboration with Wetlands International, Landscape Finance lab, the report was a precursor to the co-operation agreement signed with both organisations later in the year.
Over 200 people from 89 countries attended the event to hear speakers Oral McGuire (Chair, Noongar Land Entreprise Group), Sean Kidney (CEO, Climate Bonds Initiative) and Ibrahim Thiaw (Executive Secretary, UNCCD).
Telling the story
In 2021, our story reached many people, inspiring them with the mission of holistic landscape restoration, and educating them about 4 Returns as an alternative to conventional ways of doing business.
The fruit of our efforts to engage audiences digitally during Covid was a 40% increase in website traffic over the year. Our digital content is becoming ever more immersive, taking audiences into our landscapes and putting them in touch with communities in transformation. Our followers on Instagram and LinkedIn have grown by 40% and 30% respectively – proof of the growing engagement with our work and online dialogues. Our story is increasingly picked up by ambassadors like Jonny Wates, Kees Klomp (who named Commonland in his co-authored book Thrive) and Tim Christophersen.
A living language for landscape restoration
In the past year, we’ve consulted 50 stakeholders about our positioning, reputation, and communication. Based on these outcomes, Commonland started a rebranding towards the end of 2021. The result is an accessible and professional visual language and a new narrative that places communities and landscapes at the heart of our communication. The rebranding will be launched early 2022.
As part of the rebranding, ‘4 Returns’ resulted in a 4 Returns towards healthy landscape label. The label already appears on Little Cow & Cookies’ organic ice cream in 95 Albert Heijn XL stores, and together with partners we’re exploring how the trademark can empower 4 Returns businesses in the landscape. You can read more on the Little Cow & Cookies website, and in section 5.5.2 on our German landscape partnership.
Public Appearances and outreach
Awareness for Commonland continues to build through colleagues’ appearances in the media. The Guardian mentioned Commonland and John D. Liu in an article on landscape restoration of the Loess plateau and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula plans. Al-Jazeera News and Euronews ran an Associated Press video that featured an interview with Willem and an AlVelAl farmer.
Our engagement with online media brought further the insights of the 4 Returns framework to an ever wider public. To name a few: Jasper Bertels shared our new valuation method on the ‘Investing in Regenerative Agriculture and Food’ podcast; Alfonso Chico de Guzman (AlVelAl) and Erica ten Broeke were guests on the award-winning Farmerama podcast speaking about our landscape programme in Spain; Willem Ferwerda was interviewed for Dutch television documentary ‘‘De Boeddhistische Blik: Voorbij het virus” with Wij.Land farmer Dirco te Voortwis; Willem was also interviewed for the RegenNarration podcast.