How the Ecosystem Approach supports “Cooperation in a Fragmented World”

Willem Ferwerda
7 min readJan 17, 2023


After a wave of protests in Brazil over an election where the fate of the Amazon — and the wider world — hangs in the balance, world leaders convening at the World Economic Forum this week should have one thing on their mind when discussing “Cooperation in a Fragmented World”: implementing the learnings and targets from the recent UN Climate COP27 and UN Biodiversity COP15.

Climate change and biodiversity loss underpin the so-called “permacrisis” we face today: a permanent state of crises on water, food, weather, biodiversity and health, leading to an increasingly polarized world. Indeed, the WEF Global Risk Report 2023 shows that most severe risks facing society are environmental. Addressing this complexity, we need leaders to demonstrate unity around one goal: rewiring our economic systems to respect, restore and conserve our life support system, the natural world.

The historic Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), signed at COP15 in Montreal just last month, provides insights to draw upon for decision-making around environmental issues at the WEF Annual meeting. The result of 3 decades of negotiation, the GBF features targets agreed by 196 nations to safeguard and regenerate biodiversity by 2030 — including the ambitious goal to protect 30% of all land and sea.

Last month, delegates met in Montreal to discuss the historic accord. Ahead of meetings, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, stressed that “it’s time to forge a peace pact with nature” (Image credit: UN Biodiversity).

The Global Biodiversity Framework is rooted in the principles of the Ecosystem Approach: a strategy for integrated management of land, water and living resources in a sustainable and equitable way. The Ecosystem Approach can help us think about how to implement the GBF; however, its 12 guiding principles remain theoretical — we need still need to implement the targets agreed upon by almost 200 countries.

So, what key insights from COP15 can leaders at WEF take on board to ensure we can heal our ecosystems, safeguard biodiversity and build a more equitable and collaborative world?

1. Think long-term

Ecosystems evolved over millions of years. Repairing the damage done to our natural environment therefore takes time. A key principle of the Ecosystem Approach is to recognise that ecosystem management objectives must be long-term. This is challenging as it “inherently conflicts with the tendency of humans to favour short-term gains”.

We need long-term commitments across sectors to drive restoration over many decades. The long-term approach is not only important when it comes to repairing damage done to ecosystems, but also for creating synergies between stakeholders and establishing stable management.

A lone Spanish juniper, known locally as the “Sabina Milenaria”, grows in a mountain valley in Almeria. The tree is believed to be up to 1000 years old and is testament to a valley that, now denuded, was once covered in vegetation. Regenerating this valley will take decades. (Image credit: Tom Lovett, Commonland).

Financing from both private and philanthropic sources is critical to delivering on the Global Biodiversity Framework. However, to fully achieve the targets, financing also needs to transition to a long-term mindset. It’s important to exit the 5-year project-based cycle — thinking about financial returns in a short-time frame — and extend the horizon to decades.

The approach we take at Commonland, using the 4 Returns Framework: a holistic approach to landscape restoration, is to work on at least a twenty years timetable within landscapes. When we build and stick to long-term commitments, we see the impact. Just last week it was announced that 35-years since the Montreal Protocol — banning certain emissions — the Ozone layer is showing significant signs of healing.

2. Cooperation with communities — not just other leaders — is fundamental

Ecosystems are based on rich interrelations and interconnectivity. Developing sustainable economies, resilient food systems and healing ecosystems means building trust between local communities, indigenous peoples, funders, entrepreneurs and governments. Working together is critical for breaking down barriers. Cooperation not only between leaders — but with those working on the ground to build a better world — is absolutely crucial.

Kim Beazley, Former Governor of Western Australia meets with Oral McGuire, Noongar leader and Deputy Chair of Noongar Land Enterprise. Ecosystem restoration is most effective when trust is nurtured: building trust takes time, and can easily be undone (Image credit: NLE).

As shown by a recent study, ecosystem restoration is only successful when initiatives are implemented through inclusive governance, such that the desires and wishes of local people and indigenous communities are at the core of the approach. The 4 Returns Framework is one approach that tries to bring everyone together — from farmers, conservationists and indigenous people to policymakers, to business leaders — to restore and conserve the ecological foundation of landscapes.

3. Biodiversity is the foundation

Biodiversity is the foundation of life on Earth. It underpins all human systems — including the global economy. And yet, we have been terrible caretakers of the world’s biodiversity: in 2022, WWF reported a 69% decline in wildlife since 1970. Meanwhile, we are witnessing the collapse of insects, the importance of which cannot be overstated: more than 75% of our global food crops rely on pollinations. The disappearance of insects would be catastrophic.

Bees, wasps, butterflies, flies — to name a just a few insects — are essential to the food we eat each day, like this pollinator busy supporting almond production in Southern Spain (Image credit: AlVelAl).

Eradicating biodiversity for short-term economic gains will ultimately destroy the very economic systems this profit serves. We all know this. But to protect nature — and humanity’s continued existence on planet Earth — world leaders urgently need to translate this knowledge into action. The Dasgupta Review and WEF’s Investing in a Biodiversity-Integrated Manner White Paper offer clear reasons why our economies need to support and maintain biodiversity.

We must go beyond net-zero nature loss and aim our sights on more ambitious, nature-positive targets. This is in everyone’s interest: thriving and healthy ecosystems full of biodiversity mean safer communities and more sustainable and resilient economies.

4. We are part of ecosystems

The Global Biodiversity Framework and the Ecosystem Approach recognise humans as playing an integral role in shaping ecosystems. Indeed, we have long impacted our landscapes: archaeologists demonstrated that 12,000 years ago, humans had already transformed 70% of the planet’s lands. Most of this impact was positive, with human communities around the world nurturing biodiversity hotspots. But the last few centuries have bucked this trend: over-exploitation and manipulation of the world’s natural resources have resulted in the widespread degradation of ecosystems.

An indigenous Kogi leader explains an agroforestry site in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, Colombia. We can harness tremendous regenerative power by recognising ourselves as part of nature and as (perhaps) the only species that can create recovery on a planetary scale (Image credit: Willem Ferwerda, Commonland).

By recognising our role as an influential but integral part of the natural world — not apart from it, but part of it — we can re-gear our economic and political systems towards regenerating and healing, rather than destroying and extracting. Understanding ourselves within nature’s rich tapestry opens us up to the core of who we really are: inherently part of nature and (perhaps) the only species that can create recovery on a planetary scale.

5. Local economies have to work for people as well as planet

We need to build economic systems from the ground up. This will ensure the economy serves the common good, benefitting local communities — and the ecosystems they are a part of — before profits arrive to shareholders. Decentralized systems are a core part of the Ecosystem Approach because “the closer management is to the ecosystem, the greater the responsibility, ownership, accountability, participation, and use of local knowledge.”

Samerth community mobilisers learn from a local villager during a forest walk. When economics work for local people while creating thriving ecosystems, we have the foundation for a sustainable global economy. (Image credit: Harma Rademaker, Commonland).

Governments, international organisations and corporates cannot jump into tree planting, nature conservation, regenerative agriculture or ecosystem restoration, if they ignore the people living there. The history, their traditions, their deep connection and profound understanding of the ecology related to those landscapes. When we root the global economy and ecosystem recovery into the local communities that live in a place, we can build a managing system that works for all.

Opening up the heart to listen

When we look at the Ecosystem Approach and think about cooperation in a fragmented world, we see that — deep down — we are not in a fragmented world. The diversity and interconnectivity of life that we are part of, and that we depend on, binds us all. We struggle to see this because we mainly use our rational minds — and that’s when things become fragmented. When we observe with the heart, and truly listen to nature — and to each other, we find out how connected we all really are.

As part of the Bioregional Weaving Lab, a team of changemakers hosts a workshop for stakeholders in Sweden to map out the opportunities and challenges, listen to each other and to collectively restore their landscape (Image credit: Commonland).

The next step is to make the Ecosystem Approach practical, so it becomes a tool for action for people on the ground — a way to create bonds and reduce polarisation. That is the aim of the 4 Returns Framework: supporting recovery processes on the ground while building cooperation between groups to collectively restore landscapes.

As Ms. Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, stated at the beginning of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration:

“The adoption of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will require innovative tools that cut across disciplines to deliver on the multiple benefits from conservation, sustainable use and sharing of the benefits of biodiversity. The 4 Returns Framework provides a way for holistic large-scale ecosystem restoration to realize benefits for biodiversity, people and climate, and I hope that interested countries can be supported to take full advantage of it.”

Acknowledgement goes to my colleagues Tom Lovett and Lily Maxwell-Lwin for their support in writing this article.



Willem Ferwerda

CEO @Commonland Enabling people to restore landscapes that deliver 4 Returns. Fellow Business & Ecosystems @RSMErasmus Univ. @IUCN_CEM