Story at a glance

  • In the growing rewilding movement, damaged land is restored to a more natural state and wildlife is encouraged to return.
  • To help pay for these conservation efforts, nonprofits are increasingly working with businesses for ecotourism and climate-mitigation efforts.
  • Partnering with some companies can be controversial.

In Portugal’s Greater Côa Valley, a transformation is underway. Once degraded and overgrown, thousands of hectares of this remote ecosystem are being restored and rewilded. Plans are afoot to reintroduce wild horses, roe deer and Iberian ibex. This restoration will improve the connection between the Malcata mountain range and the Douro Valley. It is an all-round win for Portuguese wildlife.

But if this grand vision is to be sustainable, it needs to be profitable. The valley has suffered one of the highest rates of land abandonment in Europe, which has contributed to the decline of the landscape — the area became overgrown in the absence of grazing farm animals, and that in turn has harmed biodiversity and increased the risk of wildfire.

Tony Conway believes he has the answer. He is the co-founder of Vale das Lobas, a business that aims to revitalize the region’s nature-based tourism. The organization is constructing a nature spa hotel that includes the restoration of a 17th century chapel, a camping park, a restaurant and an ecovillage. This sanctuary is surrounded by other tourist attractions, including medicinal, botanical and vegetable gardens using regenerative organic farming.

In bringing tourists to the area and providing employment opportunities in the Valley — more than 40 people will be employed by 2026 — Conway hopes that Vale das Lobas will support the wider rewilding efforts underway in this part of Portugal, creating a vibrant community in this currently deserted area.

“Abandoned districts, where farmland has no further use and is now often ravaged by fire, we’re going to be using agroecology mixed with rewilding to restore those landscapes by planting key species of trees and then introducing wildlife,” says Conway. “We’re hoping to help influence people to turn the tide on this abandonment of the landscape and move the economy in a way that we can derive sensible livings in a way that is in balance with nature.”

Controversial role?

The role of business in rewilding landscapes is controversial. Profit-driven corporations and agriculture have been responsible for much of the degradation of climate and nature that we are witnessing today. Yet there are many businesses that could be natural allies in the attempt to bring biodiversity and wildness back to the Earth’s degraded landscapes — industries like forestry and tourism, that are closely connected to the natural world.

Indeed, argues Belinda Bell, a social entrepreneur at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School, the enormousness of the task means that it may not be possible without them. “We have to find ways to allow these two things to coexist. Although to some true believers that can be an anathema, I can’t see how we can enable the rewilding movement to move to scale unless we enable this sort of thing,” she says.

Rewilding Europe, the nongovernmental organization leading much of the rewilding efforts across the continent, is actively promoting the role of business through its Rewilding Europe Capital loan facility, which is backed by the European Investment Bank and the European Commission. It was a loan from this facility, to the tune of 600,000 euros, which has allowed Vale das Lobas to embark upon its mission.

Funding businesses in this way will increase the economic value of wildlife and nature and thus provide incentives to conserve it, while also redirecting potentially threatening business activities towards rewilding-friendly endeavors, according to Rewilding Europe.

“If you want to do rewilding on a large scale in Europe, you cannot just rely on grant money,” says Timon Rutten, head of enterprise at Rewilding Europe. “Rewilding mostly takes place in very rural abandoned areas that are in need of jobs and a future vision. You cannot do that without the local businesses. If you don’t incorporate local society, local people, employment, then I think you cannot speak of a sustainable situation.”

Avoiding greenwashing?

Concerns about greenwashing have inevitably followed, as large corporations have started to seize opportunities to improve their images by jumping on the rewilding bandwagon. The criticism has been levied particularly at companies that have sought to offset their emissions (or generate an income by selling offsets to other businesses) by planting trees, for instance — an intervention commonly known as “natural climate solutions.”

Often, these efforts take the form of large monocultures of trees that have little benefit for the ecology of the region, let alone contribute to rewilding. “It’s a way to pretend trees are going to solve this problem rather than stopping the fossil fuel industry,” says Collin Rees, a campaigner at Oil Change International.

Oil major Shell is one company that has launched itself wholeheartedly into the industry of natural climate solutions. This includes a project alongside the Scottish government to preserve and extend native woodland in Glengarry forest, which they hope will encourage wildlife such as pine martens, ospreys, black grouse and red squirrel back to the area. The trees will essentially act as sponges, drawing down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, allowing Shell to generate carbon credits that can be sold to customers to effectively neutralize the emissions from other areas of their lives.

But campaign groups have been suspicious of Shell’s endeavors, given that the company continues to invest heavily in fossil fuel extraction. “Natural climate solutions are great, but best used for the last few percent of CO2 emissions which are really hard to deal with,” tweeted Doug Parr, Greenpeace U.K.’s chief scientist, in response to Shell’s plans to invest in forest offsets. “They should not be used as a prop to continue with business that is fundamentally unsustainable.”

Yet there will always be some kind of moral reckoning for nongovernmental organizations that decide to collaborate with large corporations on rewilding efforts, says Rutten.

“If you look at local entrepreneurs, greenwashing is not a risk. But if you look at banks or oil companies or really big corporations, you have to be aware of this risk. It is a balance between trying to influence a larger corporation from the inside, the impacts you can have on the ground with the money,” he explains. “If you are honest, always a part of it is a little bit greenwashing, and it depends on how much you can accept.”

Published on Jan 14, 2020