Business.2010 newsletter: Agribusiness

Volume 3, Issue 2 - February 2008: Agribusiness

Landscape auctions, a new financing tools for nature

“Welcome to the future!” — it is with these words that the first auction of a landscape was opened by the mayor of Ubbergen, The Netherlands, in September 2007. Launched by Knowledge Centre Triple E, in cooperation with the NGO ARK and the ViaNatura Trust Fund, landscape auctions represent a new instrument in the conservation finance toolbox.

In just over an hour, EUR 140,000 was raised for the conservation of a typical Dutch river delta landscape. Hedges, ponds, trees and a walking trail were ‘sold’ to the highest bidder. Companies, individual citizens and a high school participated in the auction, which received coverage from national television, radio and newspapers. So far, three landscape auctions have been held, raising over EUR 240,000. In this way, people got a chance to actively conserve the area they live and work in. This is direct, tangible, and fun.

Incentives for conservation
Farmers in The Netherlands play a key role in maintaining nature and landscape. Their land forms an integral part of important biodiversity corridors, protected areas and regional conservation areas. Central government has acknowledged this role by providing financial incentives for conservation to farmers in the form of subsidies. However, European Union regulations now make this more and more difficult as these subsidies are seen as income support.

The river Rhine enters The Netherlands through the nature area of the Ooijpolder which plays a key role in buffering high water volumes in times of need. This was amply demonstrated during the major flooding of the 1990s, when huge parts of the Dutch river delta were threatened. The Ooijpolder was flooded, protecting highly populated areas downstream. In the years following the flooding, ARK, WWF-NL and other NGOs managed to convince decision makers of the need for more river water buffering capacity by the re-creation of a dynamic river system. This proved the first case in The Netherlands — one of the most populous countries in the world — where nature was created, not just conserved. This exercise was undertaken in close cooperation with government, business and farmers.

The Ooijpolder attracts over 1 million visitors a year, making it one of the top attractions in the country. This, however, has not translated into the payments needed for biodiversity conservation. As with most nature areas in The Netherlands, entrance fees do not exist and parking is for free. Likewise, surrounding towns were unwilling to pay for its conservation even though most of their inhabitants use the area for recreational purposes. A new financing tool needed to be created.

How does it work?
Farmers in the Ooijpolder nature area approached Knowledge Centre Triple E with the task of creating a conservation finance tool which would be compatible with EU policies. This resulted in the concept of landscape auctions. A landscape is cut into tangible pieces called ‘landscape elements’, for instance a hedge, a pond or a group of trees. The farmers then determines the minimum price for each element by calculating how much it would cost them to maintain the ecological functions of these landscape elements for 10 years.

Before an auction is held, a catalogue is published listing all the landscape elements, the terms and conditions, and the ‘rules of the game’. In this way, buyers could base their bid on all relevant information. The catalogue is also published online and potential buyers are approached through the media and relevant networks.

On 15 September 2007, over 300 people (representing banks, accounting firms, a waste plant, a high school as well as many individual citizens) participated in the first landscape auction. Under a clear blue sky, set in the nature area, over EUR 140,000 was raised for the upcoming 10 years. When items proved too expensive for an individual bidder, the auctioneer then grouped bids in order to secure a winning bid. This created a feeling of unity: together we stand.

The landscape elements that were ‘sold’ through the auction did not actually change hands as they remained the property of the farmers. Participants only ‘bought’ the maintenance costs of the element, not the element itself. The money raised through the auction is managed by ViaNatura, a regional trust fund, which also monitors compliance. Contracts are thus between farmers and the trust fund, as well as between winning bidders and the trust fund.

All bids are clearly labelled, ensuring that the money paid for a particular landscape element is only spent on that element. This is key to the concept of landscape auctions: a direct link between payments and product. When the money paid for an element exceeds the cost, the auctioneer and the bidder determine on what additional element that extra money should be spent. This ensures transparent, tangible and direct influence. Successful bidders can go and ‘enjoy’ the elements they bought. Citizen participation The auctions help to showcase the value of our landscape and to break a barrier between those who can take care of it and those who value this service. Companies can show their commitment to the landscape in a tangible way and communicate that CSR can be turned into something real (conservation of landscape elements). A funeral home, for example, bought an area with an ancient funeral mount in a protected area as they saw it as their responsibility to take care of a heritage which is intimately linked to its business.

Donations though the auctions are also tax deductible, as the payments are done to an NGO, making it even more attractive to participate. Auctions have now been carried out at three different locations in The Netherlands: the Ooijpolder, the Heuvellandschap and the Gooij. The Gooij area is located in the most populous area of the country, showing that landscape conservation is possible not only in areas where relatively few people live.

Citizens can and do participate — by buying the tree under which they had their first kiss, the area they walk their dog, the hedge next to their house. A school adopted a hedge and its pupils helped maintain it as well, as an educational tool. A group of people who did not know each other joined hands and placed a bid to secure a landscape element they all felt connected to but could not afford alone. This clearly shows the power of this new tool: the direct link between what you pay and what you get.

We are looking into how to roll this concept internationally — not only by means of live auctions (as undertaken so far in The Netherlands) but also through the internet. Landscape elements from all over The Netherlands can already be bought online and, in a few weeks, elements from all over the world will be listed as well. Not only trees but also rhinos, the salary of a guard, a fire fighting squad, educational tours for schools,… One can buy the elements for oneself or as a gift to someone else. We will keep on developing the concept of landscape auctions — e.g. organizing auctions for business clubs — and are convinced that it will provide an attractive tool for the conservation of our landscape, here in The Netherlands and globally.

Daan Wensing is Coordinator, International Department, Triple E. Knowledge Centre. Triple E (Economy, Ecology and Experience) is a knowledge centre specialised in the relation between nature, economy and the experience people gain through and from nature.

  • United Nations
  • United Nations Environment Programme