Ecosystem Return Foundation

The Ecosystem Return Foundation seeks to restore 200 million hectares of degraded ecosystems worldwide in the next 20 years. They seek to achieve this goal by scaling-up and accelerating existing restoration efforts and by initiating new ones through making the right matches. Their aim for 2014 is to start with the development of projects. First projects could be in Spain and in the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador) and further projects will be identified in the Middle-East, Asia and Latin America. At the same time they will develop a business model with a dedicated roup of professionals from business, ecology, finance and agriculture. The model is based on restoring a selected area through a business partnership with four Returns: Return on Investment (ROI), Return of Natural Capital (ecosystem services), Return of Social Capital (employment) and Return of Inspirational Capital (Engagement and Innovation).

The Ecosystem Return Foundation is a recently established independent non-profit organization, which receives support from a range of international scientific institutions and non-governmental institutions[1]. The role of Ecosystem Return is to act as an independent broker or matchmaker: facilitating the creation and management of a partnership between various stakeholders (i.e., investors, local communities, governments, NGOs and companies) to restore ecologically degraded areas[2]. They are at the startup phase of this initiative and are in touch with a number of impact investors to sponsor the realization of our project portfolio. Benefits and opportunity for ecosystem restoration.

Benefits of Ecosystem Restoration on a large-scale

Ecosystems and the natural environment constitute the platform upon which all existence is based – including our own. All necessities such as food, air, fresh-water, the protection against pest and diseases, the buffering against risks from flooding or droughts is provided by functional earth systems. Human being obtained all these benefits for thousands of years.

A hyper-technical fast-paced world might conceal these life supporting principles to most of us and estranges us from the natural regeneration that enables all life to flourish. Be it soil microbial organism, be it plankton steams throughout the oceans, be it the oxygen expiration by an intact tropical forest cover: it is this tapestries of life that spans our planet and support, regenerates and enables all biological existence.

In 2013 according to the United Nations Environment Program, nearly two-thirds of the earth’s ecosystems have been degraded or destroyed. Biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate. Regenerative soil fertility is mimicked by the use of finite quantities of fossil-fertilizer. Most of the planet wetlands if not converted to agricultural fields are chronically contaminated. And the last remaining old growth forests are continued to be cut down on all continents. Not only do these conditions lead to increased costs of production over time through lowered productivity, declining water quality, increases in non-predictable climatic variations and food insecurity but also threaten sustainable development as a whole. It is high time to change.

Rising to meet these doomsday facts are the earth repairs. As forest fall and deserts enlarge, the active restoration of earth’s web of life has already began. These paradigm-breaking pioneers not only want to stop the damage to be done but start put the pieces back together. Restoration with its short time-span of its active implementation has proven that it is possible to bring back systemic resilience and productivity that has been lost over centuries. Water can be retained and purified, biodiversity can be reestablished, carbon be captured and productivity be increased.

Along with the first mostly centralized directed restoration initiatives comes the recognition and rise of a concept of scale within ecology. Whereby most of science investigations and policy advocacies focused on watershed-sized interventions it become obvious that there is more land beyond the landscape. Up-scaling holistic interventions became essential to mitigate against the earth-spanning impacts that human had on all systems. Interventions that were able to provide dynamic equilibrium on the micro or meso-scale would have to be applied at much greater scale – crossing watershed and national boundaries.

Watershed intervention that lead to the reappearance of creeks and streams applied at scale hold the potential to rejuvenate water bodies the size of Lake Aral, principles of biodynamic gardening hold the key for sustainable agro-business farming for entire global market sectors, the methods of rewetting a backyard biotope holds the same lessons for the restoration of the Everglades – likely on of the biggest natural fresh-water filter in North America.

Notwithstanding rapid advances in discovering the ecological principles and cornerstones for a successful rejuvenation of natural systems progress on applying them at scaling remains limited. As of today, despite international agreements, we are in a state where global degradation progress at higher rates than restoration. Destruction still outruns recovery. The oceans biodiversity continues declining, hazardous particles and climate changing gases increase their concentrations in the atmospheric, land degradation through extractive agro-industrial practices remain widespread.

The EEMP together with Ecosystem Return (ER) recognized that the traditional segmented approach, that would conserve species by species and  rehabilitate river segment by segment, on a piecemeal basis, would not be able regenerate natural systems at the scale needed. 200 million hectares of land are to be restored and 15 % of all oceans need to be set-aside as sanctuaries as this text is being written. We have no choice but to massively invest in rebuilding the systems that got lost. The science to accompany these processes exists. The political commitment has been given. What is needed is additional monetary support. Ecosystem Return and the EEMP have seen the need for business and investors to be involved as positive driver behind scaling up ecosystem restoration. A number of initiatives across the globes give practice-proven evidence that business investment is able to generate substantial revenues while conserving and protecting long-term values simultaneously. By working closely with business partners, we aim to leverage their entrepreneurial and financial power to boost the speed and scale of ecosystem restoration.

What is needed to make large-scale ecosystem restoration work?

An entrepreneurial matchmaker is needed, that:

■    is capable to realize the ambitious goal of catalyzing the restoration 200 million hectares of degraded lands in the next 20 years

■    works with straight and effective approach based on internationally recognized guidelines and science

■    speaks the language of business and investors, as well as of ecologists and farmers, and understands the needs of local people.

■    contributes to ecological awareness of the future generation of business leaders

■    makes the business case custom-made per location, and taps into new and old networks, participates in business opportunities and builds on locally available tools and expertise


Willem Ferwerda, Executive Fellow Business & Ecosystems,

Rotterdam School of Management-Erasmus University –

IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management –

Rotterdam School of Management-Erasmus University, Room T7-07, Burgemeester Oudlaan 50, 3062 PA Rotterdam, The Netherlands


[1] IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), UNCCD (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification), UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme), Society for Ecological Restoration, Wetlands International, Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration, Rotterdam School of Management-Erasmus University and FMO.

[2] See ‘Nature Resilience: ecological restoration by partners in business for next generations (2012). Willem Ferwerda. Published by IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management and Rotterdam School of Management – Erasmus University, Rotterdam (NL), Gland (CH). 93 pp.;

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