Inside look into ‘ground-truthing’ holistic indicators for landscape restoration

GLF 2017 Blog Competition
Willemijn de Iongh

Diving into the deep on monitoring holistic landscape restoration in your new job. Eight months in, it is time to take stock of what monitoring, evaluation and learning for holistic landscape restoration in a fresh new organization entails. Sneak peek: it starts with connecting to people living and working in the landscapes.

This year I finally made the plunge to apply for a job as a Knowledge, Evaluation & Research officer for a Dutch organization active in holistic landscape restoration, called Commonland. And what a ride it has been. Moving from a big human rights organization to a smaller start-up that is fast growing was quite the switch. And to say I like my new job is an understatement, I love it.

Commonland is a young organization that works to accelerate large-scale landscape restoration by means of a holistic 4 returns framework. To achieve this, the organization orchestrates and co-creates large-scale landscape restoration projects and (business) initiatives that deliver on 4 returns, in 3 zones within a 20-year timeframe, also known as the ‘4 returns, 3 zones and 20 years framework’. This approach counterbalances the loss of biodiversity, soil health, vegetation, hope and livelihoods. The implementation of this approach provides the return of inspiration, social capital and natural capital, which in turn delivers sustainable financial capital.

Monitoring, Where Do I Start?

When I joined, I was given the task of pulling together the work that had been done on developing an overarching monitoring methodology and to start testing and implementing it with the landscape teams operating in Spain, South-Africa, Australia and the Netherlands, respectively. Considering these landscapes vary greatly, I knew this was not going to be easy.

When you’re operating within a holistic approach in distinctly different landscapes, how do you come to a credible monitoring and learning system that is both consistent but respects local diversity? You’re not only measuring vegetation cover and soil health, you are also looking at return of inspiration, farmer livelihoods, decent jobs and strengthened social networks.

Turns out, it starts with deeply listening to the experiences of the people living and working in the landscapes. This helps to get a) get to know the landscape and b) get a better sense of what is important in their landscapes.

Soon after I started, we came to the conclusion that in order to start measuring progress, we needed to form an Impact Team that creates a safe space for testing assumptions, sharing experiences on monitoring and finding common ground. All with the aim to better understand how we are achieving impact toward the 4 returns and what that means in terms of aligning indicators and how we measure progress.

Consistency versus Complexity

As it stands, the current 4 returns monitoring methodology is a great theoretical framework that can be used as a backbone to consistently navigate the complexity of a holistic landscape approach. For each of the 4 returns, outcomes, output and indicators have been developed. On return of natural capital, for example, we’re working with outcomes and indicators on soil health, biodiversity, improved land management and water. For return of inspiration, we’re looking at awareness, replication and participation. And so on.

But operationalizing indicators through on-the-ground implementation and monitoring, is a whole other story. It requires deep investigate dialogue on what we consider valuable progress. How do you comparatively measure soil health across landscapes with completely different soil types and soil management techniques? How do you effectively measure progress in 4 returns businesses that empower farmers while helping them transition to regenerative agriculture and, ultimately, wider landscape restoration? How do we best connect the research to our ongoing monitoring process? Those are some of the million-dollar questions that we’re tackling in the Impact team.

On-the-ground experience

The local landscape partners Commonland is working with are on the frontier of implementing holistic landscape restoration approaches on the ground. This includes innovative ways to monitor progress toward all four returns. The monitoring plans for natural capital, for example, consist of a combination of using existing data from other landscape actors (for example semi-public NRMs, public authorities, water authorities), field soil sampling and soil analysis together with a wider ecological/biodiversity assessment on the land.

To measure the return of inspiration, we’re looking into not only capturing the quantitative social outreach data within the landscape (e.g. 100 farmers joining workshops), but also capturing life stories of change. Farmer families actually moving back to a landscape that they left out because of loss of hope.

Reinventing the Wheel

To add to the complexity, we want to ensure we are syncing up and contributing to what is already happening in the world of monitoring and landscape restoration. If there are semi-public institutions already regularly measuring water quality and flow within your landscape, by all means let’s use each other’s data.

When the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) or EcoAgriculture Partners have developed clear guidelines for measuring progress on landscape restoration this is something that needs to be integrated into the overarching framework (which it is by the way). Ultimately, we want our efforts to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (15, 17) and this requires local to global calibration of what we’re measuring.

Looking out and in

We have made great progress collectively, and next year our focus and energy will be on getting to a place where we are confident that we’re measuring the right things to show the holistic impact of the 4 returns in the landscapes. The good news is that we are not alone and I look forward to working together on raising the bar for showing positive change through landscape restroration. And as for my relatively new job, I can’t even begin to imagine what the next months will bring.

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