How Commonland, the Presencing Institute, and Partners are Supporting Restoration of Ecosystems and Communities
Imagine being in a village in Southern Spain. You are driving down the main road, leaving the houses behind and entering a long valley with hills to your right and left. It is a valley that the community depends on for their livelihood. Yet, only on your left side of the road you see almond trees in full bloom. On your right side, there is no green as far as your eye can see. Everything is brown. The dusty road is so dry that your car is encased in a cloud of dirt. You have to cough. There are no animals, and you cannot see a single drop of water, only cracks in the soil and a dried-out riverbank.
The contrast between regenerative olive and almond production (left) and a conventional olive farm (right), Spain. Credits: Tom Lovett.
In the image above, degradation sits alongside a thriving nature hub. The degraded fields to your right are the outcome of a system in which the maximization of profit per hectare determines how we deal with land, soil and food production. A visualization of how disconnected we are from nature. Immediate gain is more important to us than long-term flourishing. The fields to your left are using a different method, one that works in tandem with nature and integration with the wider community. However, this approach is not widely-spread yet, and landscapes and ecosystems are degrading at an unprecedented pace worldwide. According to the Global Environment Facility (GEF), about 25 percent of total land area has been degraded globally. Scientists have warned that, largely due to unsustainable agriculture practices, 24 billion tons of fertile soils are lost per year. If this trend continues, 95 percent of the Earth’s land areas could become degraded by 2050. The consequences: loss of soil fertility, destruction of biodiversity, increased poverty, and local people unable to sustain their livelihood.
Now imagine driving through that same valley 20 years later. The hills are covered with green plants. You can see blossoming almond trees and smaller plants of all colors in between. Through the trees you can see water-filled ponds. Animals are drinking from them. Take a breath through your nose. You smell the fresh air and a hint of fresh grass.
But how do we get from the degraded landscape to the flourishing one?
The Presencing Institute is trying to address this issue of landscape degradation in partnership with Commonland. Commonland is an “initiator, catalyst, and enabler of large-scale and long-term restoration initiatives” on a mission to “transform degraded landscapes into thriving ecosystems and communities”. The Presencing Institute and Commonland have the target of supporting restoration efforts in 1000 landscapes — across 100 million hectares — by 2040. With several examples to show, Commonland and PI are partnering to create a structure of labs to scale up. Commonland provides extensive knowledge of landscape restoration and the Presencing Institute can connect stakeholders with what matters most to them, and mobilize their intrinsic motivations to deliver systemic change.
Señor Gomez inspecting the ground cover in his regenerative almond grove in Ferreria. Credits: Tom Lovett.
A Case Study: ‘AlVelAl’ in Southern Spain
To understand how Commonland and PI can do this, I had a conversation with Elvira Irigaray, a Coordinator at AlVelAl, an association working with Commonland on landscape restoration in Southern Spain. AlVelAl stands for the three regions that initially formed the territory: Almanzora, Vélez and Altiplano, to which Guadix and northwest Murcia were added, but not integrated into the name. The semi-arid steppe of those regions is home to the largest concentration of almond trees in the world but is facing extreme climate conditions. Soil erosion and loss of fertile soil is prevalent due to monocultural farming methods and lack of green cover.
In 2015 AlVelAl signed a partnership agreement with Commonland to apply the “4 Returns framework, an approach that aims to produce 4 key returns over the course of 20 years: natural, social, financial, and inspirational returns,” benefiting communities, businesses and nature too. Dieter van den Broek, who is Labs Manager at the “4 Returns” Labs, as well as Design Strategist and Facilitator at Commonland, explains that this approach is different from a conventional conservation organization: “we look more at the integration of landscape and people as a whole.”
In the South of Spain, this integration hasn’t been there. “It’s really sad to see how people are increasingly leaving rural areas because there are no opportunities and no hope,” Elvira tells me. This issue is close to her heart: “I have two daughters and I want them to be able to decide whether they want to live here or not in the future.” For now, even farmers are saying that they don’t want their children to become farmers. They want them to go to school and get out of this profession. Dieter sees the problem: “You feel the emptiness. Schools and shops are closing down and there is a lot of isolation in these areas.”
Focusing on engaging all generations, ensuring everyone is inspired to contribute to a
regenerative landscape for many generations to come. Credits: AlVelAl
Starting by Building Trust
“We didn’t start by saying ‘we are Commonland, and we want to do x y z,’” Dieter reflects, “rather we brought the farmers together and asked them about their dreams for the area and what they would like to accomplish.” The first six months to a year after signing a new partnership, Commonland’s main focus is to bring people together and to listen to what excites farmers and the wider community. “When people feel listened to and excited about the mission, because it is actually their own dream, there is more trust,” Dieter explains. Trust in the goals, trust in the community, and trust in Commonland. “If you restore trust, hope and resilience in people, then their actions become an intrinsic thing. They start to farm a certain way because it feels right, not because they have a financial incentive through a temporary project. So, it is way more sustainable.” However, this trust is also something that you constantly need to work on and thus, the “4 Returns” framework is not about “ticking a box” but about a new mentality of working together. This collaborative framework is characterized by the quality of the relationship with oneself, others and nature.
In Spain, landscape team AlVelAl is implementing the 4 Returns framework. During a workshop in 2016, the different zones in the landscape were mapped and interventions to restore the landscape were identified.
For AlVelAl, this approach translates into activities in three different areas: the natural — restoring the ecosystem for biodiversity; working with farms — using regenerative agriculture as a tool for landscape restoration; the economic — promoting regenerative business cases. “With this vision of three areas we can restore the landscape with a holistic view,” Elvira explains.
Farmers inspiring Farmers
Elvira remembers the first steps after partnering with Commonland: “In the beginning we started with some workshops with key stakeholders and farmers. Then, we developed a big workshop with around 50 people about the 20-year vision of the landscape. I think that this was really the seed of something.” The AlVelAl team saw how inspired the participants felt and how effective the workshop was in initiating actions. So much so that the association turned this into a strategy: “From that moment on, we selected some key farmers who could inspire other farmers. They talk at meetings to bring other farmers onboard and encourage them to use regenerative agriculture as a tool for landscape restoration”, Elvira explains. “We also organize day visits through which farmers go to other farms. The owner of the farm that has already adopted the regenerative approach talks about the challenges and opportunities and other farmers can ask him questions”, she continues, “we have seen that this has really inspired farmers.”
“Puertas abiertas” — farmers visiting other regenerative farms. Credits: Gabriela Hengveld.
This solution is extremely valuable in an area where most of the farmers have an established idea about what agriculture is and how it should be done. Elvira explains that “it is very difficult to change the mindset of farmers, because it is a cultural norm to ‘till’ a lot of soil, or not to have any green cover.” Dieter agrees and recognizes how challenging it is to change a farmer’s mindset. He asks me to put myself in the shoes of a farmer:
“Your whole life you’ve worked very hard to survive and to expand. Your farm is your pride, not only your work. Now you are 60 and are handing over your farm to your son. From him you start hearing how bad your farm is, how degraded it is and how your practices have caused harm to the community. What is your reaction? Denial! I would be the same. I think a lot of people are in denial, because emotionally they can’t carry it. It’s their pride. So we should be more compassionate.”
And this is exactly what the AlVelAl’s approach of “farmers inspiring other farmers” is doing. Elvira gives me a concrete example of how one of the farmers in the area changed his mind:
“There is a farmer in our area whose son is an agronomist engineer, who actually works in our team. He started to say to his father that he had to change his management, but the father said “no, no, no I am not going to change”. So his son asked him if he could use a corner of the farm to implement a regenerative approach. The father said yes, so the son started to put some green cover and some aromatic plants in a very small corner of the land. After three years, the father saw that the almond trees were really green and productive, and he noticed that his son could sell the almonds for a higher price than him. And so, in the end, this father converted the entire farm into a regenerative practice.”
Antonio Maurandi Cortijo Nuevo. Credits: Gabriela Hengeveld.
With each farmer like this one shifting their mindset, AlVelAl is one step closer to realizing the dream of a restored and healthy landscape, with opportunities for people to continue to live and work there. In this process, Dieter sees the fourth return of inspiration as the most important one and it plays an essential role throughout Commonland’s partnerships and its processes. It is also where the connection with Theory U lies, a process model for the renewal and transformation of people and organizations developed by Otto Scharmer and the Presencing Institute. This process involves tackling the complex issues of our time as springboards of opportunity to foster substantial change, based on a connection with self, and others. Focusing on compassion and personal transformation as a prerequisite for external, wider-world change, Commonland’s use of Theory U processes sets its approach apart from traditional landscape restoration projects, which typically focus on biodiversity alone.
Spreading the seeds
Those small changes brought about by farmers lay the essential groundwork for wider systems change. However, another layer of work is needed in order to widen the scale of impact: a shift in current policies.
“Right now, the government in Spain doesn’t recognize regenerative agriculture and landscape restoration”, Elvira explains. However, it is important that they do so and create a certification for it, so that farmers who use regenerative practices can receive subsidies, as, for example, organic farms do. “If they could recognize this certification, it would be the biggest breakthrough and transition towards regenerative agriculture for farmers. I think more and more farmers would start to use these practices”, she adds.
A biodiversity workshop at Finca Cortijico Nuevo. Credits: Tom Lovett.
So far, the government hasn’t been willing to enter into a conversation with AlVelAl. To change this, the association is participating in a Bioregional Weaving Lab, a multi-stakeholder partnership process that weaves together people and solutions, organized by Commonland in collaboration with Ashoka and the Presencing Institute. This lab consists of a series of workshops following the U process and brings together different stakeholders from Southern Spain. For Elvira, this process is the activity that struck her most: “Wow, we learned a lot of things. The lab was so important for us in understanding how to connect with the government.” The main avenue to connect with the government that AlVelAl and the other stakeholders co-created during the lab is the writing of a manifesto for a regenerative area that 79 local governments are going to sign. “With that much support, the regional and national government cannot ignore us anymore,” Elvria hopes.
Working through labs to reach policymakers is a new layer of work that Commonland is currently developing. Dieter explains: “The first layer of Commonland’s work is working with farmers on the ground, to initiate small changes on the level of individual farmers.” For example, the partnership with AlVelAl to implement the 4 Returns Framework in the area in Southern Spain. “The second layer is working in labs with policymakers — which involves collaborating not only with governments, but also businesses and NGOs, as their role in and influence on policymaking is substantial,” Dieter continues. The goal of this is to shift the leadership to an ecosystem leadership that influences policymaking toward supporting regenerative agriculture. “This second layer of work is only possible if the first one is already happening”. In other words: it is more effective to talk about changing policies when you have examples that show your approach is working.
Now that Commonland and Presencing Institute have several of these examples, they are partnering to create a structure of labs to scale up this second policy-focused layer. Both organizations complement each other: Commonland provides extensive knowledge of landscape restoration and the Presencing Institute can connect stakeholders with what matters most to them and mobilize their intrinsic motivations to deliver systemic change. Together, they can realize their shared dream to regenerate more landscapes and support thriving communities, such as the one that Elvira is stewarding.
AlVelAl’s manifesto hopes that the government will open their doors and initiate a conversation about the importance of landscape restoration and the value of AlVelAl’s tools and ideas for achieving this. How wonderful would it be for Elvira’s daughters to have the possibility to stay in their hometown, develop their careers in a thriving community, and raise children who could inherit a healthier landscape? Imagine again being in the valley 20 years from now, their children are running through a field of blossoming almond trees. You can hear their laughter when one of them stumbles and falls into the green grass covering up the earth in between the trees. The older ones help her up. They pause. You see them picking grasses spread as far as your eye can reach.
Thank you to Elvira Irigaray & Dieter van den Broek for the compelling interviews and sharing your stories!