1. Introduction to 4 Returns thinking

What is the 4 Returns framework, and what do we mean with the 5 elements, 4 Returns and 3 zones? What are key principles to keep in mind when working with the 4 Returns approach? This module will help you to ‘think 4 Returns’.

The 4 Returns Framework offers a simple formula to create a common understanding of what a healthy landscape means. Landscapes are complex: diverse groups of people, interests, ideas and cultural meaning are attached to land. The 4 Returns Framework connects ecology, community values, spirit and culture, and long-term economic sustainability at the landscape level. The approach allows people from across the spectrum — government, business and communities — to co-create and deliver a common vision for a resilient landscape. Together, a diverse community can start imagining how a landscape can become sustainable, liveable and financially attractive to as many people as possible. It is a conceptual and practical framework that aims to help stakeholders achieve 4 returns by following five processes (the 5 elements) within a multifunctional landscape (the 3 zones). This transformative approach takes place over a realistic time period (minimum 20 years). The process recognises the importance of: inclusive governance and the role of laws and policies; finance to fund the transition to landscape restoration; and the importance of markets, to ensure the long-term security of sustainable enterprises.

Watch this video to hear Willem Ferwerda, CEO of Commonland, explain what the 4 Returns framework is:

Why landscape restoration?

Healthy ecosystems are the foundation underneath our existence. Without the services they provide – food, water, fibre, climate regulation, and so on – we would not have an economy and would not be able to survive. We are part of our environment; we are part of the ecosystems that surround us.

However, as a species, we are degrading this foundation at an ever-increasing rate. According to the FAO, land degradation affects almost 2 billion hectares of land worldwide, home to 1.5 billion people. Every year, 24 billion tons of fertile soils are lost due to erosion. 12 million hectares of land are degraded each year – this is 23 hectares (about 32 soccer pitches) per minute!

Land degradation and the erosion of the ecosystems that we depend on can lead to loss of biodiversity, food insecurity, water insecurity, flooding and landslides, conflict, and mass migration, and even contributes to climate change. Many of the big issues that the world is facing at the moment can be wholly or partially be traced back to degrading landscapes. In other words: if we want to truly solve these issues, we have to look at the source and start restoring landscapes.

Although the global rate of land degradation is massive, locally, it can be a very slow process that happens over the course of decades. Because of this, it can be difficult for people in those landscapes to observe what is happening, and to do something about it. The process of degradation can become a vicious cycle (see image). In addition, landscapes are complex systems that are shaped by different forces (geological, ecological, climatic, social, economic, political). This makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly what is causing the degradation, and often it is not one single thing but rather a combination of factors.

With ‘landscape restoration’ we do not mean restoring a landscape to the state it was in at some point in the past. This would be futile; things have changed, and the landscape will never be exactly the same again. Rather, we aim to restore the functioning of the landscape, both ecologically and economically, so that it is future-proof. So, it could be argued that ‘regeneration’ is a better term to use than ‘restoration’. Basically, we want to get out of the vicious cycle of degradation into a vicious cycle of regeneration.

Business-driven landscape restoration

Donor funded projects alone are not enough to create scalable and sustainable change. First off, donor-funded projects only last about 3-5 years and it is often difficult to sustain the outcomes beyond the project term. Secondly, there is only so much donor funding available in the world: it is not enough to solve the problem, especially if the funding is trying to fix problems that keep being created by an economic model focused on maximising short-term profits at the cost of long-term production capacity of the ecosystems around us. To be able to turn this around, we need two things:

  1. Change the mindset from focusing on just maximisation of short-term profits to focusing on realising long-term benefits
  2. Create business models that both regenerate the land and are profitable for the land users.

If we can show it is possible to turn a profit while regenerating land, the work is no longer dependent on donor funding and can really reach scale. Learn more about business-driven landscape restoration in Module 8.

6 principles for business-driven landscape restoration

At the core of the 4 Returns approach is a set of six basic principles that set us up for success. These principles form the foundation of many of the strategic decisions that need to be made in the process of restoring a landscape.

Principle 1: Holistic solutions

We are often tempted to find quick fixes or technical solutions for problems that arise. When it comes to landscape restoration it is the same. But that is not enough, we would be treating the symptoms of a broken system. Without addressing the root cause of these problems, symptoms will return or different, worse, symptoms may arise. As an example: if tomato crops are increasingly suffering from drought-related issues, you could modify and develop a tomato that is more drought-resistant (addressing symptom) or regenerate the soil so that it has regains capacity to infiltrate and store water (addressing cause). Landscapes are systems, and to create sustainable solutions you must look at the root of the problem, the cause. Only then can we come up with holistic solutions that can reach scale.

Principle 2: Long-term commitment

It takes time to change the mindset, it takes time to restore an ecosystem. It definitely takes time to change the economy. System transformation is a slow process, so you need a long-term outlook and patience. The traditional three- to five-year project cycle is too short to achieve system change. It takes persistence and adaptability, especially when times are tough. That’s why we believe it takes at least a generation (20+ years) to restore a landscape. Remember: 20 years is nothing for a tree.

Principle 3: Local leadership and ownership – build on what’s already there

The only way in which landscapes can reach sustainable solutions is through local leadership and ownership. Local communities know their landscape the best. Besides, if they don’t feel ownership over the initiative, chances are that once the project ends, there is nobody to carry forward the result and the project will have been for nothing. Initiatives should be led by local stakeholders that we support, not the other way around.

In most landscapes, there are already local initiatives that work on topics related to landscape restoration. It is therefore not necessary to start something new, rather we build on what is already there. Often, these existing initiatives work in isolation from each other. A landscape partnership aligns these efforts with each other under a shared vision.

Principle 4: Trust is the key in landscape restoration

Landscape restoration is all about working with stakeholders. Trust is of paramount importance: you cannot achieve anything as long as you do not have a basis of trust. The relationships with our partners and other stakeholders should therefore be very carefully managed; it can make or break a programme or project. Keep in mind that trust is built very slowly and destroyed very quickly. Trust from stakeholders is a primary consideration for all our decision making, and especially when it comes to interactions we have with partners.

Principle 5: Think big, start small, act fast

Tangible results are paramount in building trust: it shows it is not just talk, things get done, too. Even if they are experiments that ‘fail’. A risk with big, holistic, long-term visions that involve many stakeholders is that you end up in ‘analysis paralysis’: you keep building and finetuning the analysis and the plans without actually doing things. In reality, things almost never go to plan. Therefore, we act upon the basis that we always know enough to start and have the trust that we will learn more along the way. So: think big, but get started quickly with small, tangible projects that can be implemented fast. It often doesn’t even matter that much what exactly you start with. Of course, there is a benefit to planning, and we should do that, but we don’t want to linger in that phase too long. We try stuff; if it works, great, then we’ll do more of it. If it doesn’t work, great, because we have learnt something and do something different next time. Failure is OK, as long as we learn from it.

Principle 6: Work with the willing first

If you try to get the whole landscape transformed at once you will fail. Most people are resistant to change. Or rather, they don’t want to change until they’ve seen someone else try it first. The trick is to not try and work with everybody in the landscape right from the get-go, but rather to find the innovators and early adopters in a landscape who are keen to change by themselves and work with them first. Connect them with each other, strengthen their initiatives, and develop examples that work. Slowly but surely, more and more stakeholders will see with their own eyes what is possible, get inspired by it, and want to join.

The theory of the diffusion of innovation states that the population can be divided in five groups. Anyone can be part of a different group at different times, depending on the context.

  • The innovators are people who develop new things, new ideas, new products
  • The early adopters are people who like new things and are quick to adopt them. These are the people who stand in line for three days when the new iPhone comes out
  • The early and late majority are people who sit on the fence; they need to see an innovation work with someone else first before they are willing to give it a go
  • Finally, the laggards are people who refuse to change and will not adopt an innovation unless they are forced to

This means that there is only a small group of people who are interested to be part of innovation. Given that a lot of what we do can be considered an innovation, at least in the local context, this means that our strategy is that of finding and working with the innovators and early adopters first, when you have created showcases with them the majority will start to become interested to participate as well.

Tag a friend?