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Business could have a role in reversing desertification and restoring the landscape


Keith BowersKeith Bowers, FASLA, RLA, PWS - For three decades, Keith Bowers has been at the forefront of applied ecology, green infrastructure, and place-based design.  Keith founded Biohabitats, a multidisciplinary organization focused on conservation planning, ecological restoration and regenerative design. Biohabitats’ approach blends sound science, place-based design, and ecological democracy.  It is rooted in deep ecology and the ethical obligation to ensure that our actions do not interfere with other species’ evolutionary potential. It is ingrained with the intent to design with place and infused with a sense of compassion, fairness and equity. He is a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects and is a Professional Wetland Scientist. 

“It is my experience that ecological restoration creates jobs, spurs innovation, and offers new opportunities in the green economy.”

Lizzard Hill before and after

Ecological restoration of the abandoned Lizard Hill Sand Mine near Ocean City, in Maryland, United States, created a 32-acre mosaic of seepage wetlands (image before and after).

The recent Nobel prizes in economics awarded to William Nordhaus and Paul Romer for their work on climate-change economies encourage us to reflect on the future economics of ecological restoration in a warming world. As initiatives to achieve Land Degradation Neutrality spread and decision-makers grasp the long-term economic returns of halting degradation or implementing restoration, worldwide restoration efforts are destined to grow. Globally, there are clear signs that society needs to move in the direction of improved ecological stewardship. This impetus translates directly to the business world.

As the founder and president of a successful ecological restoration business in the United States, let me offer a few reflections on the emerging market for companies that specialize in ecological restoration.

It is my experience that ecological restoration creates jobs, spurs innovation, and offers new opportunities in the green economy. The bulk of my experience is in the United States where the exceptionalism of the United States in regulation and restoration policy is diminishing just when global actors are increasingly held responsible for safeguarding ecosystem function or mitigating the impacts of natural resource extraction. The growing recognition worldwide that there is a connection between healthy robust ecological processes and a healthy robust economy will continue to spur the demand for ecological restoration, which demand businesses are poised to meet.

The key driver of the international restoration market is the widening recognition that humans rely on natural resources and the services they offer as well as the functions they protect. Supporting the science and outreach that is required to spread this understanding has obviously motivated much of the work of the UNCCD. As policies to support natural resources increasingly follow from that awareness, there will be more opportunities to create businesses that offer restoration services. Once ecological restoration businesses become successful, they, in turn, help spur the ecological restoration market through business advocacy, education and policy support.

This reciprocal growth of the market sector helped to expand the restoration sector in the US. Successful restoration projects then become their own best advocate. Over and over, we have seen the beneficiaries of restoration work become the public that advocates for more restoration work.

Lizzard Hill
Ecological restoration of the abandoned Lizard Hill Sand Mine near Ocean City, in Maryland, United States, created a 32-acre mosaic of seepage wetlands (image before and after).

Several strong sources of market growth in the US ecological restoration sector have begun to develop on a global front. Mitigation banking, public private partnerships (P3s), impact investing and green bonds all offer intriguing examples of how a greener economy could develop around our preparation for climate change and the restoration of degraded lands.

When public agencies partner with private companies, businesses can expand their leadership in implementing ecological restoration initiatives that address climate change, loss of biodiversity and water scarcity. This can also be a chance to scale up a business model, which can result in employing more people, investing in more resources and facilitating the long-term viability of an ecological restoration marketplace. 

Generally, the strong role for private restoration business and opportunities for entrepreneurs has emerged well after the original impetus towards restoration by governments and scholars.  Strong restoration markets, whether characterized by particular geographies or specific industries, are created where clients are highly motivated by a combination of regulations, financial interests, and values. Restoration business opportunities increase where there is an organized oversight of regulatory compliance and where there is a stable source of financing for restoration activities.

Under these conditions, the restoration industry is relatively low risk for competent practitioners, since the clients are simply compensating the contractors for the services provided. Visionary leadership that builds on the restoration economies around water and biodiversity can create these conditions where vulnerable populations also need local sources of employment.

Internationally, the US and Australia are hot spots of restoration in the private market. Europe’s active restoration community counts many fewer private firms among its practitioners, perhaps because of deep-seated cultural differences in business practice. While the restoration business sector in Europe is growing, more often, academic, government institutions and NGOs are pioneering the restoration projects. Likewise, little of the restoration being performed in Africa and South America is led by business.

The incentives and demand for restoration are different when there is no business leadership or for-profit constituency for restoration action. However, there is room and a need for both approaches if we are to move into an economic system that can offer capitalism’s rewards to restoration entrepreneurs. There is room for both public and private actors in the field, and the presence of both makes our discipline more robust, broadening its appeal to investors and decision-makers alike.


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