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Introduction

In a world on the brink of ecological collapse – with the intertwined threats of climate change, biodiversity loss, and rising socio-economic inequality – we need to rethink our relationship with nature urgently. Nature is the foundation upon which societies are built and it provides the basis of our survival and that of all other species. To bring us back from the brink, we must revive and regenerate the natural world.

When people pull together, we can regenerate ecosystems at scale to enhance livelihoods, counteract climate change, and stop biodiversity loss. We need to act now, which is why The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, launched in 2021, is a rallying call for the protection and revival of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean.

To make this happen, now more than ever, we need new models to drive people to restore and protect the natural ecosystems they inhabit. Since 2014, a growing movement of local and international organizations across the world have been implementing one such model – the 4 Returns framework.

This guidebook shares the lessons learned from more than a decade of testing the 4 Returns framework, to help you get started, move faster, overcome common hurdles, and create greater impact with your landscape initiative. Because we need all hands on deck to help transform societies away from degrading towards restoring nature.

What does holistic landscape restoration mean?

Holistic landscape restoration is an approach to restoring landscapes which offers more than just ecological benefits. Landscapes become more climate-resilient, as well as more socially and economically prosperous. By bringing people together to restore their landscape, it can build social cohesion and capital among and between communities, as well as serving as the backbone of thriving local and regional economies. And because it benefits multiple sectors and stakeholder groups, holistic landscape restoration can contribute to a more resilient and sustainable future in line with global climate and nature targets.

What is the 4 Returns framework?

An approach to restoring landscapes holistically, the 4 Returns framework enables anyone – no matter their background – to understand how to go about restoring their local ecosystem with other people. By giving everyone a seat at the table, the 4 Returns framework aims to generate benefits for all stakeholders in a landscape, whether they are individual people, the communities they are part of, the natural ecosystems they inhabit, or the businesses that rely upon the ecosystems for raw materials. These benefits to all stakeholders can be monitored with the indicators of the 4 Returns framework, tailored to the landscape specific monitoring needs, to show progress to actors inside and outside the landscape, such as local businesses and farmers, or policy makers, financiers, governments.

The 4 Returns framework: how did it start and where are we now?

Willem Ferwerda, a former IUCN Netherlands Director and an experienced tropical ecologist, developed the 4 Returns in 2012 out of a realisation that to achieve sustainable, on-the-ground change, a long-term, large-scale, and community-driven approach to nature restoration was needed. He was inspired by the Ecosystem Approach – a strategy endorsed by the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP5) in 2000 for managing land, water, and living resources in an integrated, sustainable, and fair way. Inspiration also came from a meeting in 2009 with John D Liu, a Chinese American filmmaker who documented the rehabilitation programme on the Chinese Loess plateau in his documentary Hope in a Changing Climate (2009). Willem worked with Liu on the documentary series Green Gold 1 (2012) and Green Gold 2(2014). The 4 Returns framework was first published by the IUCN Commission Ecosystem and Erasmus University in 2012 and updated in 2015. One of the first lectures on the 4 Returns framework was held in Qatar in 2014, on the second international forum of the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management. Find it here.

In 2013, Willem founded Commonland with the aim to test and use the 4 Returns framework at scale through local landscape partnerships. Our first long-term partnerships were established in Spain, South Africa, the Netherlands, and Australia between 2014-2016. In 2019, a partnership was set up in India. Through these partnerships, we’ve learnt many lessons, gained inspiration, and accumulated evidence. We now support partners in more than 20 countries worldwide to restore landscapes – and we keep learning with them every day! The 4 Returns framework has been developed further based on implementation and experimentation in all these landscapes. You can find out more about our landscape partnerships on our website.

The 4 Returns framework is now being adopted by a growing movement of local and international organisations. Since 2021, Wetlands International has embraced this approach, emphasising the role of wetlands as connectors between different zones in any landscape. Landscape Finance Lab has also adopted the approach and, in partnership with Commonland and Wetlands International, has developed and tested the 4 Returns framework further. Since 2022, the 1000 Landscapes for 1 Billion People (1000L initiative) – convened by EcoAgriculture Partners and co-led with Rainforest Alliance, Commonland, Conservation International, the United Nations Development Programme, and Tech Matters – has been working to accelerate integrated landscape management using the 4 Returns framework, with tools, finance, and connections. Commonland also has a longstanding relationship with the Presencing Institute, which supports people all over the world to use Theory U for awareness-based systems change.

In recent years, we set up regional learning networks that offer people restoring landscapes the opportunity to find support, learn together and mutually share their on-the-ground experience. The Bioregional Weaving Labs Collective and Ubuntu Labs combine Theory U and the 4 Returns framework into one integrated learning programme for local changemakers. The effort and commitment of all these communities and partnerships have allowed the 4 Returns framework and knowledge base to be what it is today.

The 5 Elements of holistic landscape management were first identified in the Little Sustainable Landscape Book, based on the practical experience of five organisations (the Global Canopy Programme (GCP), EcoAgriculture Partners, the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)) and endorsed by 15 organisations*, in 2015. These are now an integral part of the 4 Returns framework, as mentioned in the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration publication in 2021 created by Wetlands International, Landscape Finance Lab, and Commonland. They were later named the ‘5 Elements’ for the sake of consistency. Since 2022, the 1000 Landscapes initiative has also adopted the 5 Elements as part of the 4 Returns framework, as laid out in the Integrated Landscape Management Practical Guide published in 2022.

Who is this guidebook for? 

Everyone can be a changemaker, with the right knowledge, skills, and attitude! So, if you want to get involved in holistic landscape restoration using the 4 Returns framework – and take others along on the journey – this guidebook is for you. Perhaps you work at a landscape restoration project, or on climate or nature finance at a local, national, or international NGO or government, or you might be a community activist or social entrepreneur. In this guidebook, ‘restoration practitioner’ refers to any individual or organisation that works on (holistic) landscape restoration and is usually based in the landscape. It may also be relevant to those who fund or invest in holistic landscape restoration and are interested in learning more about the practical side. And, finally, if you’re not engaged in an established landscape initiative, but are interested to learn about it, this guidebook is also for you!

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