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Landscape finance

Effective holistic landscape restoration initiatives need reliable long-term funding that suits their timing, scale, and expected returns. They need funding that allows them to invest time and attention in establishing, growing, and fostering multi-stakeholder landscape partnerships for long-term success (see chapter, Establishing a landscape partnership). However, most landscape initiatives depend on grant funding on a project-by-project basis. The search for funding is time-consuming and shifts focus away from action in the landscape. Philanthropic and public grants alone are not sufficient for landscape restoration initiatives to reach scale. So, attracting private capital through investments and blended finance mechanisms is often required.

Cover photo: Baviaanskloof, South Africa, 2022. Photography: Commonland; Reblex Photography. 

In this chapter

  • Basic concepts and options for landscape finance, including investments, philanthropy, governmental funding, and payments for ecosystem services (PES).
  • Landscapes require blended finance systems to suit different needs and stages of development. Investment financing emerges as viable business cases as your landscape evolves, but process funding is required to establish landscape partnerships and develop opportunities.
  • Long-term, trust-based donor partnerships fit the 20-year timescale of the 4 Returns.
  • An entrepreneurial environment and spirit are critical, as is balancing appropriate legal structures for the new businesses.

To reach the quantity and type of funding needed to scale up landscape restoration worldwide, there is a need to:

  • Move towards process-level funding – unrestricted, long-term funding that landscape partnerships can rely on
  • Use concessional capital, such as grants and subsidies, to unlock private sector finance, including large-scale investment capital

Landscape finance can be defined as the provision and management of all the financial resources necessary to carry out actions and processes that enable long-term holistic landscape restoration. It encompasses financial streams to support nature restoration, sustainable land use, and development of viable investment opportunities within a landscape.1 It draws from related fields including impact investing, conservation finance, place-based impact investing, blended finance, and inclusive green growth.

A restored landscape will benefit many stakeholders and reduce risks for governments, companies, and people. This is why we prefer to compare landscape finance with the long-term finance of large infrastructure projects, such as high-speed trains, tunnels, or entire new cities. By combining green and grey infrastructure, landscape restoration parallels traditional infrastructure in investment and challenges but enhances climate resilience, cost efficiency, and societal benefits. It emphasises the importance of acting at a landscape level in infrastructure planning to mitigate long-term environmental and economic risks.

This chapter is for everyone interested in the topic. Landscape Finance knowledge shouldn’t be limited to financial specialists. Anyone working on a landscape-scale restoration project can benefit from understanding the role of finance in effective landscape restoration projects.

Breaking down barriers

There are significant barriers to landscape finance, including the fact that often environmental and social benefits are not considered in deliberations about how to allocate funding. This is true of most non-financial benefits. It is especially the case when it comes to private sector investment. Public and philanthropic funding does consider these benefits, but they are difficult to measure. This results in funded projects where financial returns are of foremost importance even when consideration of other returns would make it clear that they are less effective overall. Fortunately, taking a landscape approach can reduce some of the barriers (see the figure on page 10 of Commonland’s latest Landscape Finance report).

Landscape funding changes with time

Different types of funding are needed at different points in time (see illustration below). As the risk of investing reduces over time, landscape-level funding may shift from being reliant primarily on grant funding (with no expectations of financial returns) towards private investments (when business cases and projects have been developed that can attract capital which expects a financial return). Additionally, as landscape action expands, the scale of funding could also increase. Most importantly, flexible (unrestricted) and long-term grant funding to landscape partnerships, also called ‘process funding’, is critical for driving holistic, large-scale landscape restoration and unlocking other types of large-scale finance, such as private capital.

Process funding:

  1. Provides landscape partnerships with reliable funding every year, which allows them to hire permanent staff and keep the lights on, regardless of what project funding they find
  2. Allows the development of viable investable businesses and projects which in turn can raise private investment
  3. De-risks investments by providing low-cost capital to landscape actions that are not yet investable or not expected to generate revenues. 

Why various funding options are required and how they can be channelled to diverse actions that contribute to holistic landscape restoration efforts is illustrated below.

Landscape story: flexible, unrestricted funding

Since 2015, AlVelAl has been working on an ambitious 4 Returns landscape restoration initiative in an area spanning one million hectares in the Altiplano Estepario, Spain (learn more here). Commonland has supported AlVelAl since the beginning, with long-term and unrestricted grant funding. AlVelAl was able to roll out initiatives to help farmers transition to regenerative agricultural practices in the landscape, kick-start and support 4 Returns regenerative businesses, restore natural zones by optimising ecological functioning, and run projects to inspire others to join their restoration effort. Having initial funding without restrictions on its use has helped AlVelAl raise the same amount from third-party donors and investors.

To tackle the challenges of attracting investment, such as the higher risk of new business models, AlVelAl promoted the development of a 4 Returns business environment to commercialise regenerative products from the landscape, including La Almendrehesa for almonds, Hábitat for olive oil, and AlVelAl Foods to support commercialisation of regenerative products. (Read more about innovation networks). These businesses attract investment funding in the landscape that complements the broader landscape restoration initiative. The objective continues to create a thriving regenerative economy which can generate financial returns for the landscape.

This example highlights the role of flexible, unrestricted funding in kick-starting landscape restoration efforts, which can lead to additional funds from donors and investors. The development of a 4 Returns business environment illustrates how innovative business models can attract investment in regenerative practices. This is a successful strategy for creating a sustainable, regenerative economy that benefits both the environment and the local community. However, it’s important to note that an entrepreneurial environment and spirit is critical, alongside appropriate legal structures for the businesses.

Main sources of funding

This section offers an overview of the main sources of funding that could be relevant to your landscape restoration initiative. Each section explains a funding type, its relevance, and how to learn more. You can also find steps for getting started and case studies for inspiration.

Philanthropy

What is it?

Philanthropy literally means love of humanity (‘phil’ = loving, ‘anthrop’ = humanity) and relates to gifts or donations from individuals (donors, supporters) or organisations (foundations or funds).

Philanthropic donations are a good option for starting a holistic landscape restoration programme because private supporters (as opposed to public funding) often have more flexibility to be innovative. A private donor or organisation can choose to take risks and be involved long-term. They are also more likely to fit the holistic nature of landscape restoration because they are not bound by a ministry or department. They can support unrestricted (not yet determined, or long-term) costs, as opposed to earmarked projects because they do not have to justify their support to taxpayers or shareholders.

Given the long-term nature of 4 Returns landscape restoration – at least 20 years – it is important to develop long-term, trust-based partnerships with funders. This is because restoring natural processes, as well as changing human systems, takes time. To create real impact together in a world where we work with nature-based solutions, it makes sense to let nature lead the financing too.

For the same reason, to let nature lead the way, it is helpful to receive unrestricted donations. This means the funder does not specify how the money must be spent. Unrestricted donations are important because of their explorative nature any landscape restoration effort. Many lessons are learned along the way, and it may be necessary to adjust your way of working. Unrestricted funding as a basis for your operation allows for testing, experimenting, and building social networks (see Landscape story: flexible, unrestricted funding). This is also the most efficient way of funding, with donations, because less time and effort go into a strict monitoring, stop-start and reporting cycle that is characteristic of ‘project-led funding’. It means more funds can flow towards work on the ground.

Project funding is the most common way of funding work through philanthropic donations. These donations are dedicated to a project with a beginning and end, and with a restricted budget and specific deliverables. This can be helpful in landscape restoration, for example when acquiring capital (machinery or land), in combination with a loan (to reduce risk), or for work that is meant to be transferable to the public domain (with funding becoming public in the long term).

There are many ways of raising philanthropic funding. An easy way to start is by writing to foundations. In many countries, there are public indexes of all charitable foundations that support charities, with a description of their mission and goals. Some have open application calls and others are by invitation only.

A popular option for start-up funds is a crowdfunding campaign, for which there are many open online platforms. This requires a strategy, launch and network to pitch your idea to. If you don’t have a network yet, it is advisable to search for a platform where a receptive audience might already be tuned into your mission or sector.

Sometimes, a business can be a good partner for your organisation, and you can start a sponsorship. Do note that many companies have their own foundation, a separate legal entity, which works parallel to a CSR team (often part of a marketing and communications department) that is based within the company structure.

Be aware that raising funds can take a lot of time and dedication. Many organisations have an employee or volunteer who is dedicated to this, or their role may be combined with marketing and communications. Also, there can be a long wait before any funds arrive. It can take a year for the first donations to start coming in because foundations have funding cycles, and a network of donors takes time to build up. The position of a fundraiser often becomes stronger over time, and it may take three to five, or even 10 years before major donations come in.

It might be wise to consider fundraising through teamwork. No single person can raise funds on their own; the entire organisation needs to be involved. Financial colleagues need to help with budgeting priorities, field-work colleagues need to deliver content for applications, and marketing colleagues need to support communication and awareness building.

Together, you will have a larger network of potential funders. For the same reason, ask for help from a board or other governing body whose network could be useful for fundraising purposes. When you have a few supportive donors, who are engaged with your organisation and mission, they could become ambassadors and help with their network, knowledge, and experience.

Is it relevant to you?

Anyone with a registered charity, who performs work, can receive charitable donations. Each country has its own process and law around charities. Many countries allow tax benefits for charitable and not-for-profit organisations.

Learn more

To find out more, or start fundraising for holistic landscape restoration, check out A quick-start guide to fundraising for holistic landscape restoration projects. It offers a practical solution for all restoration practitioners who want to raise philanthropic funds for their holistic landscape restoration project or programme. Follow 10 simple steps to gain ideas about what kinds of funds you could raise and how.

A quick-start guide to fundraising for holistic landscape restoration

Public funding

What is it?

Typically, public funding is available through fiscal measures and is granted from either supranational institutions, such as the EU, or national, regional, or local government. The purpose of public funding can be to foster innovation, finance feasibility studies, fund relevant research, or in the context of landscape restoration, to restore, conserve or regenerate nature. It is often in the form of grants that are not expected to be repaid. Compared with private funders, subsidies might require more detailed proposals in which all actions are outlined, and more extensive reporting. However, there are a lot of public grants available for landscape restoration, especially to aid the transition to a sustainable agriculture system. Subsidies can offer a great kick-start for a new product, service, business, or concept that has ecological and social value.

Commonland has suggested that policy actors, such as the EU, increase public funding to holistic landscape restoration, including: recognising landscapes and landscape actors in policy frameworks; increasing the options for public finance to play a catalytic role in landscapes; and ensuring infrastructure investments adopt holistic long-term perspectives, prioritising green infrastructure (see recent report). If we work to create a more enabling environment with aligned policies, as recommended in the report, it will be easier to develop large-scale landscape finance structures to advance holistic landscape restoration.

Is it relevant to you?

Public funding is relevant if you have a programme, project, initiative, or plan that aligns with the strategic goals and policy of an area of interest to the relevant government. Do a quick but thorough pre-assessment of your options before going all in. This could include communicating with the grant provider in advance to decide whether it is worth the effort of submitting a proposal. Also, be aware of the available funding in relation to the expected competition.

Learn more

Investment funding

What is it?

Investments in the context of holistic landscape restoration refer to finance allocated to support actions that, in addition to inspirational, social, and natural returns, can also generate financial returns. Investments will most likely require the potential for revenue generation to pay back investors at some point in the future – but innovative finance models such as impact bonds also exist.

Two main types of investment funding

  1. Debt financing refers to borrowing money and repaying it, probably with interest. Usually, this type of funding is obtained through: loans, often directly from a single lender; bonds, often larger amounts and from many different lenders; and lines of credit, often from a local financial institution. Importantly, lenders do not have ownership in the company or project and do not share in its profits but are the first to be paid.
  2. Equity financing means selling ownership in the form of a portion of the company in exchange for investment. These investors become shareholders and are entitled to a portion of profits. They can also influence the management of the company, given that ownership typically comes with voting rights.

There are other types of investments, such as convertible financing, as well as many blended and innovative finance models with more complex structures. For further information, see links under ‘Learn more’ below. Blended finance refers to the use of catalytic capital from public or philanthropic sources to increase private sector investment by allowing organisations with different objectives to invest alongside each other while achieving their own objectives, whether those are financial, natural, social, or inspirational returns (source: Convergence).

It’s important to understand the distinction between sources of investment and the type of finance itself. For example, while governments often provide grant funding, they also allocate investment capital to government-aligned initiatives in the form of debt through development finance institutions, multilaterals and export credit agencies. Other important sources of investment capital include: financial institutions; high-net-worth individuals; asset managers, who manage specific funds and might be impact-first or more commercial; institutional asset owners, such as insurance companies and pension funds; and local and multinational corporations.

Finally, of particular importance is corporate investment. The Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures and the Science Based Targets Network (SBTN) offer pathways for corporations to embed nature in their decision-making frameworks. SBTN also makes landscape engagement recommendations. These initiatives provide structure for businesses to report on and manage their environmental impacts and needs. Aligning in this way aids the transition towards unrestricted, long-term funding for landscape partnerships.

Is it relevant to you?

Investment funding might be appropriate in your context when you have identified, developed, or are developing business cases (companies or co-operatives, for example) or projects (building a school or a hospital, or developing a renewable energy project, for example) that can generate revenues and therefore pay back an investor over time.

It is also important to analyse the existing sources of revenue for the landscape – its economic drivers – because probably that will be the best way to find investment opportunities. This might include revenues generated by sales of products from the area, for example loans to farmers to support a transition to regenerative practices, and local services such as ecotourism.

Learn more

Payments for environmental services and carbon finance

What are they?

Payments for environmental services (PES) enables transactions between environmental service providers and those who use them. PES aids positive changes in land use for a healthier ecosystem. It targets services such as pollination, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and water purification. Buyers fund custodians of these benefits to the environment.

PES in landscape restoration supports multiple benefits, contributing to natural, financial, social, and inspirational returns. It aims to be more profitable than degrading practices and can be a policy tool. Types of PES include proxy payments, carbon credits, ecological services payments, biodiversity offset payments, water services payments, and ecosystem restoration payments. Each of these targets one or more environmental services and is funded by public money or by private sector action.

Stakeholders must be involved in planning PES. Often the price is based on opportunity cost. Farmers and land managers can support environmental preservation through PES, extending their impact and diversifying their income opportunities. An example is carbon farming, which aims to preserve and enrich agricultural soils to provide multiple environmental services to society.

Is it relevant to you?

PES is relevant in the context of landscape restoration when you have identified projects with the potential to generate financial returns while enhancing ecosystem services. It is particularly beneficial if you are engaging with farmers or land managers to support environmental preservation efforts.

Consider these approaches when negotiating prices based on opportunity cost and use PES and carbon finance to secure sustainable funding for your landscape restoration initiatives.

Carbon finance

A type of PES, carbon finance operates through carbon markets. The mandatory carbon market, established under the Kyoto Protocol, includes regulated systems, such as the EU emissions trading system. The voluntary carbon market allows organisations to purchase carbon credits to offset their emissions, following the greenhouse gas mitigation hierarchy. These markets offer credits for both emission reduction and removal and are essential in funding landscape restoration, but they require diverse income streams and time for effective implementation.

Learn more

For additional information about PES and carbon finance, please refer to the chapter, Carbon finance, which provides a guide on how to develop a 4 returns carbon project using the 4 Returns carbon finance framework.

Landscape story: community-led local carbon mechanism

Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG) led the development of a local carbon mechanism to channel payments for ecosystem services to smallholders at Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve in Mexico. The payments are in exchange for improved land management practices, such as allowing natural regeneration of the forest floor by removing free-grazing livestock. The financial resources are generated by the state government through a simple but effective annual tax on private vehicles.

The reserve covers 33% of the state of Querétaro, approximately 385,000 hectares. GESG creates community-based models to regenerate and conserve old-growth forests while providing diverse income for communities. More than 30 years of work are now resulting in community benefits and the protection of Mexico’s beautiful natural heritage.

According to Laura Pérez-Arce, coordinator at GESG, the biodiverse carbon model is effective in regenerating forests while creating incentives for local landowners. She said: “We have developed a voluntary framework to offset carbon emissions, verified under the Initiative for Climate Action Transparency guidelines, involving viable protocols and procedures, to quantify the amount of carbon in local oak forests. This framework has produced palpable economic benefits that override the opportunity costs.”

GESG is supporting other local civil society organisations and state governments to replicate the model elsewhere and unlock this source of financing. Read more in the story ‘Biodiverse carbon: a practical framework for regenerating natural heritage’.

Taking action

You now have an overview of the different types of funding for your landscape, and which are most suitable for the various phases of your initiative. From this, you can get started on strategic financing. Here are some steps to get started on your financing journey.

Develop a shared landscape finance strategy.

Transformation needs transformative finance. As we’ve learned in this chapter, long-term, trust-based funding is needed. Funders are more likely to support an established landscape partnership than a single organisation. You’ll need to work together with various partners in your landscape to develop a shared strategy, which should be adaptive and change over time. It needs the full support of all partners. Find tools to support this process in the Integrated landscape management tool guide – section 3.4.

Include a ‘blended landscape investment portfolio’ in your landscape plan, so that the landscape plan can be used by potential investors to see the opportunities for investment in the landscape.

This includes providing a description of all investable opportunities, whether new or established companies, projects, finance for farmers directly, or others. Each opportunity should specify what type of funding or other support is needed. It could be process funding, project-specific grant funding, investments, government subsidies, or other kinds of support. Learn more in the chapter, Developing a landscape plan and find tools to support a blended landscape investment portfolio in the Integrated landscape management tool guide – section 4.4. The landscape investment and finance toolkit might also be helpful. It comprises a process and materials for defining, developing, and financing priorities.

Learn more

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