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Landscapes: finding common ground between Wall Street and environmentalists

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This post is part of an online discussion on large-scale land interventions that runs through December 14, 2014. Can these initiatives fulfil their promises? Read more here and comment below.

It looks like the triple bottom line might be gaining headway in the development sector.  Despite the long-standing schism between Wall Street investors and environmental or social activists, the two sides are starting to find common ground at the increasingly popular landscape intersection.

Ivonne Lobos Alexander Muller Leslie Durschinger (Left to right) Ivonne Lobos Alva, Alexander Müller, Leslie Durschinger at the Global Landscapes Forum. Photo: Neil Palmer/IWMI

Landscape level interventions look at broader areas of land development to ensure socially, environmentally and financially sound results (Read more about landscape initiatives here). At the Global Landscapes Forum session, “Large Scale Land Restoration – Creating the conditions for success”, a side event of the COP 20 Climate Change Conference in Lima, panelists from a number of different sectors spoke about the challenges of implementing integrated, large-scale interventions that benefit a number of different actors.  Panelists included:

  • Alexander Müller, Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies
  • Leslie Durschinger, Terra Global Capital
  • Tefera Mengistu, Ministry of Environment and Forest in Ethiopia
  • Aloysius Kamperewera, Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Environment in Malawi,
  • Walter Vergara, World Resources Institute

Mind the gaps

Panelists identified one major concern in large-scale land interventions – an insufficient amount of information and understanding of the costs and benefits of such methods.  This is particularly the case around the success of large-scale land restoration and in the distribution of benefits among different actors, such as investors and smallholder farmers.

One participant with long-standing experience questioned the approach given the ability of land to recover.  It might make more sense to just conserve and maintain the land that is not already degraded.

For Müller, the question is how do we secure a return on investment for smallholder farmers? In landscapes, many of the tradeoffs experienced in large-scale initiatives are those of land use for commercialized food or crop production, energy, or conservation.  These are often implemented at the expense of surrounding communities who depend on natural resources for their livelihoods.

When it comes to smallholder farmers, “what do we have to do so that we ensure that they benefit from these large-scale investments?” asks Müller. “We need to make sure to monitor from the beginning that the right people are benefitting from restoration.”

“A big gap is also trust,” Kamperewera said. “Most programs are driven by governments and NGOs and communities are left out.” They don’t trust to invest themselves. And as Fred Pearce points out in a recent post – they often have little reason to believe in or trust many development projects.

“We need to build trust by integrating expert knowledge but also the indigenous knowledge to bring landscape restoration,” elaborated Kamperewera, a welcomed and insightful message from the Malawian Ministry.

Financial equity versus Social equity

While we have few resources and little knowledge on best practices, a recent study by the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative analyses a number of different landscape-level initiatives. In many initiatives they find that the private sector is the least involved while the government sector is the most.  What’s perhaps less encouraging to discover is that local stakeholders are involved in these initiatives only after investment decisions have been made, limiting their ability to influence investments.

Among private sector investors, Durschinger says “we need to generate enough knowledge to demonstrate that investing in land restoration is commercially viable.”  Such investments are highly risky without this knowledge.

Durschinger stated that the alignment of interest between communities and interventions is a critical subject. Social and financial equity have very different meanings but are both important in structuring these agreements.

Equity in investment means an investor’s ownership of part of the investment, which allows them to generate returns on the investment. This is imperative for private investments, while social equity, which refers to the fair sharing of benefits from interventions, is often what development donors are looking for.

Mother-nature always wins

While there have been decades of criticism around the notion of private investors making money off of social and environmental initiatives, there is finally a recognition that perhaps this is the way to create self sustaining initiatives, rather than depending on increasingly less reliable aid sources.

Progress was made during this year’s Global Landscapes Forum in analyzing and discussing the role of finance in implementing landscape-scale land restoration.  However, the concept of insurance was still absent from such discussions.

It seems the major barrier in investing in land or agriculture is the fact that “mother-nature ultimately wins,” said Don McCabe, a farmer from Canada and President of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, recently at the CGIAR Development Dialogues.

Land restoration, climate change mitigation and adaptation are all important measures to improve agricultural production, social benefits and environmental gains. However, no-one can ensure that the weather will cooperate each year, with or without climate change.

Will financing systems be able to jump one step furthering in offering not just the funds to kick start these initiatives but insurance so that investors and farmers or others living off the land are protected in case mother nature’s unpredictability weighs in?

More information on the Global Landscapes Forum.