DG’s Column

Rights, returns and restoration: 3Rs for landscapes

Key topics to be discussed at Global Landscapes Forum: The Investment Case.
CIFOR will move forward with solutions for scaling-up investments in sustainable landscapes, with particular attention to the needs of the world’s smallholders.

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As we look to the Sustainable Development Goals and the new climate deal as mechanisms to secure our future on the planet, it is obvious that many of the pressing challenges facing humanity are found in the world’s rural landscapes—which are therefore where many of the solutions must also be found.

To help find some of these solutions, 200 colleagues, comprising many leaders from the finance sector and development organizations, will meet in London on 10 June for the Global Landscapes Forum: The Investment Case. CIFOR, the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and UNEP are the lead coordinators of this event.

The task we have set ourselves is to move forward with solutions for scaling-up investments in sustainable landscapes, with particular attention to the needs of the world’s smallholders.

This will be no small feat.


Consider some of the points underpinning our ambitions and aspirations:

  • We seek to ensure there is sufficient, nutritious and sustainable food for a growing population.
  • Several billion people, most of them smallholders or engaged in product value chains, will continue to derive their incomes and well-being from landscapes.
  • Rural renewable energy, whether from biomass or other sources, is essential to keep lights on and kettles boiling, particularly for poor people.
  • Conserving and using sustainably our terrestrial biodiversity is a long-term survival strategy, which must obviously play out in rural landscapes.
  • Our need for fresh water must be met through wise watershed management and irrigation.
  • We depend on landscapes for climate change mitigation, for regulating regional and local conditions, and for ensuring the resilience of livelihoods and food systems to climate variability.

All of these and more must be addressed through sustainable landscapes, which should therefore sit at the top of the agenda for the future, alongside improved nutrition and health, equitable opportunities, and shared prosperity.

And critically, these topics are also highly interdependent.

There is nothing particularly new here.

Ultimately, the top agenda item must concern the needs and aspirations of the billions of people that are the custodians of our landscapes

Peter Holmgren

We have been talking at the highest political level about the intertwined environment and development agendas for the past 43 years, and the urgency to deal with climate change for the past 21 years.

Yet during these decades, we have also seen persistent increases in the world’s population, our use of natural resources, overall economic development, and greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, poverty, food insecurity and environmental degradation have continued, without convincing signs of improvements at a fast enough pace.

Against this sobering backdrop, how do we expect our gathering in London to make a difference?


I’d like to highlight three factors that together represent a potential paradigm shift where we may start talking not only about halting destructive trends but actually reversing them.

The first factor is rights. It is fair to say that the rights of Indigenous and local peoples have come to be well recognized, as illustrated by, for example, the Rights and Resources Initiative (in which CIFOR is a partner) and also by the attention given in negotiations and piloting of REDD+ in recent years.

“Rights” of course covers a very broad field, and could include fair access to capital and markets for currently disadvantaged stakeholders. Keeping issues related to rights high on the agenda is a critical success factor.

Participants at The Investment Case will discuss tenure and governance in one of the sessions—an important part of the rights agenda and also a priority research area at CIFOR (see, for example, here and here).

Second, the private finance sector seems to be catching on to the notion that financial returns from landscapes may actually offer quite an attractive way to make money. After all, we are talking about long-term businesses that can potentially generate higher returns than many alternative large-scale investments.

In addition, if sustainability gains become part of the mix, consumers may offer their support on ethical grounds, over less sustainable products, now increasingly the subject of calls for divestments.

The major obstacles in this regard seem to be related to scaling-up and risk management, coupled with the challenge of keeping transaction and verification costs down.

This field—also a CIFOR research priority—is of major interest to the participants at The Investment Case, where it will be covered in several sessions.

The third factor is the growing interest in restoration. This is a more positively expressed target than those focused on reducing, stopping or changing undesirable behaviors, be it deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions from land use, abuse of human rights or losses/waste of food.

Rather, we are talking about investments designed to generate more social, environmental and economic benefits from landscapes and forests.

It seems a given that the interests and incentives from everyone involved will then be easier to mobilize.

Several important restoration initiatives will be represented at the event next week, with one of the four solutions sessions dedicated to the topic. Again, this is a field with great research needs, where CIFOR and many partners are engaged.


So is scaling up investment really the way forward for the world’s landscapes? Could one not argue that this is what caused all these problems in the first place, including deforestation, degradation of water and soils, marginalization of poor people, corruption, illegal trade, land grabs, and so on?

Shouldn’t we be very cautious before we let loose large-scale investors in agriculture and forestry?

Of course caution is needed. But we must also not allow ourselves to be caught up in historical, political or ideological paradigms on these crucial challenges.

We are increasingly hearing that the private finance sector must engage in the quest for sustainable development, for, while the public sector may be willing, it simply does not have enough financial muscle.

Engaging large-scale capital to produce returns in the right ways through restoring landscapes and providing opportunities for rural people appears to be a challenge worth embarking on.

In doing this, it is clear to me that research and development have a huge role to play in getting the “Rights, Returns and Restoration” package right.

But apart from all this, ultimately the top agenda item must concern the needs and aspirations of the billions of people that are the custodians of our landscapes—many of whom are often among the most disadvantaged.

If they have a better chance to invest in their family farming or related businesses, then we will all have a better chance to achieve sustainable development.

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