Healthy landscapes and water systems are essential if we are to secure the livelihoods and well-being of future generations and our environment. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ratified these points in 2015. In particular, the goal of a Land Degradation Neutral world is explicitly mentioned in SDG 15: “Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.” However, many other SDGs are related to landscape (or ecosystem) restoration, as a quarter of the world’s land is seriously degraded from centuries of unsustainable human activity, and this degradation is interlinked with other major global environmental themes like climate change, food and water security, and biodiversity decline. These larger biophysical themes then directly influence on-going shifts in human well-being, security, poverty, and migration, and not always for the better.

The United Nations Environmental Program, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and the World Resources Institute estimate that there are two billion hectares (double the size of China) of severely degraded land suitable for rehabilitation through ecological restoration. Of that, 1.5 billion hectares are suited for mosaic landscape restoration, in which forests and trees are combined with other land uses, including regenerative forms of agroforestry and agriculture.

The private sector has an undeniably large role in land management. However, business investments in land rehabilitation and restoration are still new and relatively untested at large spatial and temporal scales. Their benefits are often still not obvious because of immediate costs. Further, the market does not factor in land degradation as a cost and healthy ecosystems as a value, so unsustainable practices are often still preferably profitable in the short term. For businesses to further engage in scaling up sustainable land practices, they need to explore and pilot smart, scalable models aiming for land degradation neutrality and restoration that also secure returns on investment.1 Further, a common language that business and local stakeholders understand is urgently needed. The Tragedy of the Commons must be changed into a Promise of the Commons by understanding all stakeholder’s needs and perspectives on land.

To achieve this, three groups came together in 2013: a business school (Rotterdam School of Management of the Erasmus University), an international network of ecologists (the Commission on Ecosystem Management of IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature), and a private family office. Together, they formed the new organization Commonland.

Commonland envisions large-scale landscape restoration activities involving businesses by building transformative business cases with local farmers, land users, and experts.2 In this way, the urgent need for project pipelines towards (institutional) investors will be bridged. Commonland unites four roles: mobilization of stakeholders, development of business cases on the land, bringing in knowledge and expertise, and connecting it to finance and investments. It consists of a foundation and social impact companies and is currently setting up an investment fund.

A Holistic Approach and Speaking a Common Language in Partnerships

Large-scale restoration projects are complex and require joint understanding and action from stakeholders. There needs to be a mutually agreed upon and clear vision of a sustainable future, where economic activity operates within the functional planetary boundaries and capabilities, based on a solid understanding of how natural systems work. Designing and implementing restoration projects and programs that are effective, efficient, and engaging will enable businesses and investors to reduce risks and cost-effectively scale-up restoration efforts.

In the coming years, public and private sector collaboration will likely be a key component in furthering work on landscape restoration. Private sector decision-makers will need to understand ecosystem concepts. Public sector decision-makers will need to understand corporate processes.3 This type of joint effort was codified in SDG 17, which is about creating partnerships as a critical success factor to achieve any of the other goals, like that of SDG 15 on land. SDG 17.17 states: to “encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships.” That is exactly what we want to realize on the ground: multistakeholder partnerships that realize large-scale landscape restoration projects based upon viable business cases. An innovative framework with a common language is needed so that the landscape is viewed in a holistic way taking a long-term (intergenerational) viewpoint.

Commonland Framework: Four Returns, Three Zones, and 20 Years

The “four returns, three zones, 20 years” Commonland framework.

Involving businesses and investors in partnerships with farmers, land users, scientists, and other stakeholders is critical to effectively restore degraded ecosystem functions to a state in which they support a balanced and diverse socio-economy. The aim of the “four returns, three zones, 20 years” Commonland framework that is presented here is to be practical, measurable, and understandable. It is intended to function as a basis for working with all stakeholders for years to come.4


Four returns


We start with the assumption that degradation causes four losses per hectare: loss of meaningfulness, jobs, biodiversity, and financial profit.5 To reverse these, successful restoration partnerships should be based on the optimization of four returns per hectare:

  • Return of Inspiration: hope, engagement, awareness, and passion
  • Return of Social Capital: jobs, income, security, and social cohesion
  • Return of Natural Capital: soil and water quality and biodiversity
  • Return of Financial Capital: financial performance (profit)

Three zones


To implement this framework in landscapes, we use an integrated approach of three defined landscaping zones that in the end will produce the four returns:

  • Natural Zone: Restores the ecological fundament and biodiversity. In this zone there will be rich biodiversity; soil for ecosystem services; carbon sequestration; forest products; and opportunities for leisure and hunting.
  • Combined Zone: Delivers low economic productivity. In this zone there will be partially restored biodiversity; soil recovery, carbon sequestration, and timber supply by agroforestry; fruit trees; water supplies; and opportunities for leisure.
  • Economic Zone: Delivers high economic productivity. In this zone there will be productive zones for sustainable agriculture and dedicated zones for real estate and infrastructure.

The restoration of these zones as components of a singular integrated ‘four returns’ masterplan creates landscapes in which an increase of biodiversity and vegetation cover goes hand-in-hand with developing new and established agricultural lands in a sustainable way. The plan is made in close consultation with local stakeholders by zooming in and out. Within those mosaic landscapes that are established and customized for each project, ecological, sustainable agricultural, and economic zones coexist in balance and losses are replaced by the four returns.


20 years


The creation of landscape restoration partnerships that have the flexibility to constantly develop creative solutions to combat complex stakeholder challenges requires a long-time horizon. Restoration of ecological functions also can take decennia. For the sake of providing clarity to long-term investors (like pension funds), we have chosen a one-generation time frame of 20 years.

Implementation on the Ground

Since 2013, Commonland has started projects in Spain, South Africa, and Australia to understand how the four returns framework would be perceived and could be implemented. Each case presents a unique set of issues, discussed below.

An example of an integrated productive ecosystem for large scale land restoration, based on the business case of the ‘Almendrehesa’ system developed by the AlVelAl Association in Altiplano, Spain.

Altiplano, Spain

The Altiplano region in Eastern Andalusia (Spain, 630,000 hectares) is one of the largest production areas in the world for rainfed organic almonds. It contains 100,000 hectares of superior quality almond groves, of which 45,000 hectares are certified organic. However, like many other areas in the Mediterranean Basin, the region suffers from severe land degradation, desertification, rural abandonment, and unemployment. The area has become less attractive for younger generations and lacks support for entrepreneurs. People are leaving the area in search of a better living. In September 2014, Commonland started working with a local group of passionate farmers, landowners, and entrepreneurs to jointly develop a path to eco-social restoration. The farmers have now established the AlVelAl Association (named after the counties involved: Altiplano, Los Vélez and Alto Almanzora), to promote the four returns restoration initiatives and support business and farm development.6

Together with the local groups, we have developed the ‘Almendrehesa’ concept. The ‘Almendrehesa’ is an integrated production system: a combination of almond and local trees, aromatic oils crops, active bee-hiving, and lamb farming, complemented by joint processing and marketing. This productive ecosystem decreases erosion, restores water balance, enhances biodiversity, and beautifies the landscape. Altogether this enhances the local economy while promoting local pride and inspiration.


The Western Australian Wheatbelt

The Western Australian Wheatbelt is an ancient, immense, and dry landscape covering over 15 million hectares (more than four times the size of the Netherlands), with only 75,000 inhabitants. Intensive agriculture (monocropping wheat and overgrazing) has resulted in the clearing of 75 percent of the natural vegetation in the past 200 years and severe soil degradation (mainly salinity, wind erosion, soil loss, and falling soil fertility). Failure to attract investment to the Wheatbelt has resulted in a stagnation of innovation in farming and land-care practices. The area is overcleared, depopulating, and the remaining family farmers are under significant financial pressure. They are often trapped in a cycle of debt that forces them to apply conventional, chemically-led farming practices.

People walk along the road in the Australian Wheatbelt, a dry landscape suffering from the effects of intensive, unsustainable agriculture.

Commonland’s Australian business partner Wide Open Agriculture is a future-focused company that has identified innovative solutions to regenerate the Wheatbelt landscape and its economy. These solutions include: (i) innovative biological farming practices enabled by sustainable water management systems; (ii) measures to restore the soils and biodiversity; bringing migrants—the ‘new Australians’—to the area as employees or business partners; and (iii) an approach to scale up, through listing on the Australian Stock Exchange, which makes it possible to attract equity from retail and institutional investors.7


Baviaanskloof, South Africa

With one million inhabitants, Port Elizabeth is the largest city in the Eastern Cape province in South Africa. Seventy percent of the water supply to the city comes from the Baviaans, Kouga, and Krom catchments, which cover a total of 500,000 hectares. These catchments are suffering from the effects of 120 years of overgrazing and unsustainable land management, leading to decreased water absorption by the land. The first business opportunities materializing are in the Baviaans catchment, where the focus of activities is in the Baviaanskloof Hartland. The area is home to approximately 2,500 people and has 13 active farms owned by both commercial and emerging farmers. The NGO Living Lands had already been working in the Baviaanskloof before Commonland joined the process by building a professional team, bringing additional expertise, and providing finance and investment for the sustainable and collectively owned farming enterprise established by the farmers. This Baviaanskloof Development Company provides an alternative income stream that allows the farmers to remove their goats from the degraded hillsides. These hillsides have now been made available for restoration. The initial focus of the Baviaanskloof Development Company is to establish an organically certified essential oil production, processing, and marketing business. By the end of 2016, 100 hectares of lavender and rosemary will be planted, bringing a total of 20,000 hectares of land under improved management. This will be scaled up to a potential of 750 hectares of essential oils, bringing 46,000 hectares of land under improved management by the end of 2018. Improved management involves replanting over 2,100 hectares of degraded land with the dominant canopy tree Spekboom and the restoration of small dams and alluvial fans for better water distribution, improved infiltration, and stabilized ground water levels.8

While we can see the positive results from this on-the-ground work, it is still important to retain a unique forum for the private sector in these efforts. We are thus also establishing an ‘Academy for Business and Landscapes’ with respective partners and the aim of educating business developers.


The intervention approach in the Baviaanskloof is to take the goats off the hills, replacing the income from goats with income from an alternative, in this case aromatics. Above, an image from before intervention, and below, a photoshop impression of the landscape after intervention.

Academy for Business and Landscapes

To effect real change, it is essential to train the next generation of business leaders and developers in such a way that they realize business’ interdependency with ecosystems. As a result, the Academy for Business and Landscapes is being established now as a partnership of Commonland, Rotterdam School of Management—Erasmus University, IUCN–Commission on Ecosystem Management, the World Business Council on Sustainable Management, and the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative.9 The curriculum of the Academy will blend online, classroom, and on-the-ground learning by developing Massive Open Online Courses, experiential learning during field trips and summer schools, and executive education. While the Academy will draw from a wide range of disciplines and sources, the on-the-ground experience and first-hand insights can be provided by Commonland projects.

Students of the Academy for Business and Landscapes will understand the value and materiality of land-based (ecosystem) resources and learn how to incorporate a four returns approach into the strategic and operational decisions of their current or future business. These people will serve as agents of change in their respective business sectors (e.g., agrifood, water, beverages, infrastructure, insurance) since they will be trained to speak and understand the common language needed to successfully orchestrate, negotiate, and facilitate four returns business development as well as large-scale land management and restoration projects.

Final Thoughts

Overall, our strategy is to build bridges between farmers and local landowners, investors, companies, and governments. That is our way to restore living and productive landscapes. It is not an easy way and requires much effort, but we believe that our four returns approach is a viable way to achieve long-term landscape restoration success, which is sorely needed in a world of degraded lands. We are open to working with future partners and stakeholders and their ideas about alternative or complementary approaches to achieve integrated landscape management and landscape restoration: solutions that are easy to communicate to stakeholders, that can effectively be implemented, and that are scalable as well. We welcome communication on such.


  1. Land Degradation Neutrality. A business perspective. WBCSD (2015) [online].
  2. Ferwerda, WH. 4 returns, 3 zones, 20 years: a holistic framework for ecological restoration by people and business for next generations. Rotterdam School of Management–Erasmus University / IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management [online] (2015).
  3. Waage, S. The benefit multiplier of investing in nature: solving business problems and realizing multiple returns through working with ecological systems. Business Brief in collaboration with Restore the Earth Foundation, Ithaca, New York. (BSR, San Francisco, California, 2016).
  4. 4 returns: a systemic and practical approach to restore degraded landscapes [online] (2015).
  5. 4 returns from landscape restration. Youtube [online] (2015).
  6. Spain: Los Vélez-Altiplano. Commonland [online].
  7. Australia: Western Australian Wheatbelt. Commonland [online]
  8. South Africa: Bavianskloof. Commonland [online].
  9. Commonland [online].

Willem Ferwerda

Willem is director and founder of Commonland, a multidisciplinary organization of experts that develops landscape restoration projects based on a four returns business approach, providing inspirational,...


Simon Moolenaar

Simon is a sustainability professional who combines his knowledge base, practical experience, and analytical abilities in complex projects that address strategic issues. His main field of expertise is...

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