Willem Ferwerda

Activities:Landscape restoration

Founder:Willem Ferwerda


Location:Everywhere around the world

Author Nadine Maarhuis Photographer Gabriela Hengeveld & Diane van der Marel Published 31 January 2024 Read time 9 minutes
Willem Ferwerda


One-third of the Earth’s land surface is so degraded that local economies are collapsing and people are moving away. With Commonland, Willem Ferwerda aims to reverse this trend. In 23 countries around the globe, the organization restores landscapes of over 100,000 hectares together with local organizations, conservationists, farmers, entrepreneurs and other land users. “Our goal is to create a global industry for landscape restoration”, Ferwerda says.

landscape restoration One of the landscapes in Spain that Commonland restores. Photographer: Gabriela Hengeveld for Commonland

Throughout his youth, tropical ecologist Willem Ferwerda experiences several moments of profound connection with nature, one of them occurring during a holiday in Italy, where, as an eight-year-old boy, he sees a group of men beat a snake to death. “The snake looked at me and I asked myself: what are they doing? The answer came to me immediately: they are striking themselves. This sense of unity with the natural world has remained with me ever since.”

After two decades of working in international conservation, in 2012 Willem decides that the principles of ecosystem restoration – as formulated in the Convention of Biological Diversity – need to be made more practical, so everyone can use them. He quits his job and gives himself a year to figure out how, whilst interviewing farmers and investors. “We need to learn how we can collaborate with nature in everything we do, from agriculture to industry”, he says. “But we need to do this in such a way that it doesn’t only restore our soils and biodiversity, but also brings perspective and jobs back to a region. This requires an approach that unifies everyone within a landscape, from farmers to government officials.”

This lies at the core of what Commonland does, for example in Spain, where the organization has brought together local conservationists, entrepreneurs, farmers and municipalities to restore an area of over 1 million hectares, roughly a quarter the size of the Netherlands. And in western Australia, they’ve created a consortium to restore over 500,000 hectares. “Even the indigenous Aboriginal population has joined us”, says Willem.

Forest Landscape restoration starts with the ‘return of inspiration’: the belief a better future is possible. Photographer: Gabriela Hengeveld
Willem Ferwerda Willem Ferwerda in his element. Photographer: Gabriela Hengeveld

Four returns

Wherever Commonland operates, the organization always aims to generate four returns. “It all begins with the return of inspiration; the belief a better future is possible”, Willem explains, “because it’s the people on the ground who need to make it happen.” The other three returns focus on the ecological, social and economic dimension. “They revolve around things like restoring soil fertility and water cycles, fostering strong community bonds and generating sustainable income streams for local people.”

To embed these returns into a landscape, together with local stakeholders, Commonland creates a roadmap for each area, on which different zones are distinguished:
  Natural zones: this zone is all about ecology, including (protected) forests, rivers and ecological corridors that link different natural zones together.
  Combined zones: these consist of areas where people and nature collaborate, like regenerative farms.
  Economic zones: the areas where people live and work – like towns, cities and factories – but also infrastructure such as ports and roads.   

Each zone is vital, including the economic zone, Ferwerda emphasizes. Because without a robust processing industry for local products, there aren’t enough jobs to sustain the people in the area. For this reason, Commonland also helps to establish factories in the landscapes they restore, like distilleries for aromatic oils or almond processing plants.

Uitgelichte quote

To restore a river basin and mitigate the effects of climate change, we must operate at a landscape level
Photographer: Diane van der Marel

Over 100,000 hectares

To create a landscape with a healthy natural, combined and economic zone requires patience, Willem knows from experience. “For example, in Spain, we’re trying to establish a 42-kilometer-long ecological corridor, cutting straight through public and private lands. This is incredibly complex and time-consuming”, he says. Nevertheless, these ecological connections are crucial, Ferwerda asserts. “Without them we’re left with isolated ecological islands instead of a holistic and connected whole.”  

This is also why Commonland exclusively focuses on areas of over 100,000 hectares. “To restore a river basin or mitigate climate change, we must operate at a landscape level”, the ecologist explains. He compares his vision for Commonland to large-scale infrastructure projects like the Eurotunnel. “We’re not there yet, but our goal is to create a global industry for landscape restoration.”

forest Photographer: Gabriela Hengeveld
forest Willem Ferwerda: “We don’t expect farmers to become fully regenerative overnight.” Photographer: Diane van der Marel

From plan to practice

To connect the right people in vast landscapes, Commonland always starts by forming a core group of farmers, entrepreneurs and NGOs who are already engaged in nature conservation and regenerative agriculture, who are united in a so-called landscape partnership.

“Together, we formulate a shared vision for the next 20 years: how are we going to implement the four returns in the region? What will our actions entail? And where do we start?”, Willem explains. “This can be anything from paying park rangers to protect the forests against deforestation to uniting farmers in an agricultural cooperative, so that they can help each other to reduce their reliance on pesticides and artificial fertilizers”, he says. “In addition, we continuously monitor and evaluate the results, to ensure that our work is creating the desired outcomes.”

Willem Ferwerda
Willem Ferwerda: “We shouldn’t see ourselves as separate entities, but as an integral part of the Earth.” Photographer: Gabriela Hengeveld

Less chemicals, more regeneration

“Some large-scale farms in Australia, with monocultures of up to 10,000 hectares, have switched to regenerative oat production thanks to these collaborations”, Willem says. “These farmers now use soil-restoring techniques like composting and minimal tillage, and are reducing or have already fully reduced their chemical inputs.”

Together with these pioneers, Commonland founded Wide Open Agriculture; a publicly traded company that continuously attracts new regional farmers. “Such partnerships are crucial, especially in Australia, where the chemical agroindustry is dominant and farmers risk being ostracized when they adopt more ecological practices”, Willem explains. Similarly in Spain, with the help of a Dutch philanthropist, the organization has created a special ‘equipment library’, where farmers who commit to the regenerative transition can borrow expensive machinery at a minimal cost. “We don’t expect them to become fully regenerative overnight”, he says. “But partnerships like these get the ball rolling.”

Uitgelichte quote

We need to make an inner shift, so that we no longer see ourselves as separate entities, but as an integral part of the Earth
Willem Ferwerda Willem Ferwerda: “Nature is incredibly resilient and that resilience exists in all of us, because we are nature.” Photographer: Gabriela Hengeveld
forest Photographer: Diane van der Marel

Ecology economy

Willem realizes that creating an economy that’s centered around ecology requires more than landscape restoration alone. Such as governments that invest in large-scale regeneration and true prices that promote regenerative agriculture. In addition, an international focus on conservation is needed, he asserts, to protect the last pristine areas. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic about the future: “Nature is incredibly resilient and that resilience exists in all of us, because we are nature”, he says. “We need to undergo an inner shift, so that we no longer see ourselves as separate entities, but as an integral part of the Earth. That’s the next step in the evolution of humankind.”

Want to learn more? Read our interview with ecologist and ecosystem restoration expert John D. Liu.

Originally published on the 29th of November 2023. Translated on the 25th of June 2024 by Nadine Maarhuis.