Philanthropy Impact

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Landscape restoration – a holistic approach to create biodiversity

A blog by the event Chair, Heiko Specking, specking+partners, Zurich

Landscape restoration – a holistic approach to create biodiversity

Event report
Our ecosystems are imbalanced and often degraded to a devastating extent. Extensive farming practices in the past decades, as well as the rapidly increasing climate change effects, have for instance a huge impact on soil quality, increasing desertification and water availability, particularly due to the rapidly sinking ground water tables everywhere.
 
How do we face these challenges when demand for food security and high-quality rises, nutrients, safe habitats for the protection of endangered species and valuable flora in its vast genetic variability are desperately needed? On the other side, there is also the dimension of us people, our social and economic wealth and general well-being which much relates to our environment.
 
The practice of landscape restoration has proven successfully that ecosystem can reclaim, offering opportunities for sustainable economic development. Recreating biodiversity through regenerative agriculture truly refers towards the recreation of variety and variability of life in particular areas. Large patches of land with a regained soil fertility become once again a welcoming habitat for micro-organisms, animals, pollinators, and a multiplicity of different nurturing plants which have been missing for a long time. We may even see butterflies come back to the fields who are on the verge of extinction globally today.
 
During the recent Philanthropy Impact Roundtable which took place in Zurich June 29th, we discussed the topic of ‘Sustainable Landscaping – reaping a financial harvest from biodiversity’ from various angles. Peter Wheeler, Executive Vice-President of The Nature Conservancy in London, Astrid Vargas, Leadership Team member and Strategic Advisor to the Commonland Foundation and Tompkins Conservation in Amsterdam and Tenke Zoltani, Founder for Better Finance in Geneva exchanged best practices for regenerative land restoration with the audience. We learned that the topic of recreating biodiversity is complex and requires a broader way of thinking than we are normally used to.
 
We learned that it is essential to have a sophisticated concept aligned with a greater vision and the availability of grant money to start a viable project. In this sensible start-up phase of a program or initiative, philanthropic engagement is crucial. Thereafter business opportunities both in services and production can be identified and sensibly developed which marks the transition into a profitable impact driven investment phase. Agriculture by nature implies and requires long-term thinking and the more systemic you are looking at a development, the more you can profit from its dynamics.
 
The example of the Alvelal Association, an initiative in the mountains of Altiplano, Andalucía, one of the driest and poorest areas in Spain, shows a possibility to act through the principle of the four returns. This approach was developed and applied by the people from the Commonland Foundation in The Netherlands. To make a process successful you base your investment decision not only on a targeted financial return (realizing long-term sustainable profit) but at the same time you also consider the return of natural capital (restoring biodiversity, soil, and water quality) and social capital (bringing back jobs, business activity, education, and security). Additionally, the return of inspiration (giving people hope and a sense of purpose) is a key driver of the project as it empowers the people. It engages the local communities on multiple levels and therefore it all becomes a people’s business. Model farms are identified to showcase good practices and to identify new possibilities to farm in accordance with the local environment. This way other farmers are encouraged to further explore innovative solutions to farm their land sustainably and identify business opportunities.
 
Within the first three years of its existence, the Alvelal Association initiative has established a well-working exchange between the farmers and new distribution channels for the locally grown purely rainfed organic almonds with a German partner. Almonds generate a good price in the current market these days which encourages the people to continue with their efforts.
 
But the broad region of the Altiplano not only stands for their farmland but also for its vast natural beauty and long existing cultural heritage also making (eco) tourism an attractive income stream. The approach of landscape restoration through the planting of aromatics forming old cave paintings can also have an artistic dimension and completes the scheme in a holistic way.
 
There are many more successful and inspiring examples out there. The challenge once more remains to connect the growing community of committed philanthropists and investors with viable projects. Those should be initiatives that have a solid base, that are really walking the talk - motivated by their own purpose and the creation of new business opportunities.
 
In the spirit of one of the greatest conservationist of the 21 century, Doug Tompkins, Founder of Esprit, The North Face and Tompkins Conservation Trust: “Ecological restoration is a growth industry and the work of the future, since we humans have degraded so much of the planet, we have almost endless opportunities to return ecosystems to health” – and profit from it.