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Landscapes for sustainable development

How can we combine high conservation and high development approaches?

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The evolution of Forest Day into a proposed Landscape Day at future UNFCCC COPs, involving agriculture and rural development stakeholders, has triggered a number of comments and questions. Will forest issues stay visible? Will agriculture issues stay visible? Who will set the agenda? And what is meant by a ‘landscape’ anyway?

This blog entry addresses the latter question and suggests an analytical rather than administrative approach to landscapes. It also suggests that working at a landscape level does not challenge the traditional sectors, but rather helps combine their efforts to achieve an overall better result.

‘Landscape’ certainly has a different meaning to different constituencies. Ecologists talk about landscape ecology (Turner 1989), geographers focus on land forms, land use planners work with polygons and buffer zones, hydrologists consider the catchment, there is a convention on landscapes, and—as perhaps the most appreciated group—landscape painters view the world through an artistic lens. Fundamentally, a landscape is simply a ‘spatially heterogeneous area’ that can be large or small in size. It then depends on the perspectives and objectives we apply to the landscape.

Let’s assume that the application we want is sustainable development, and that we therefore need to talk about ‘landscapes for sustainable development’. As generally agreed, sustainable development has social, environmental and economic dimensions. We must consider how landscapes can contribute to all these dimensions, and how landscapes are impacted by such development. Basics in landscape approaches tell us that these benefits and impacts come from different sectors (forestry, agriculture, etc.), and also that these sectors strongly influence each other. Further, the benefits and impacts are not limited to the physical landscape; they may also accrue to people and environments far away. So we are looking for solutions in multi-scale, multi-stakeholder, multi-sector landscapes. Doesn’t this sound awfully complicated? Shouldn’t we stick to our well-known sectors and deal with them one by one in an orderly fashion?

The problem is that we will not find the better solutions this way. Boundaries between sectors and in the landscape will obstruct us. Removing boundaries and taking on the more complex analysis will help us better meet the overall multiple goals (see Holmgren and Thuresson 1997).

To stimulate discussion, I suggest a simplified analytical framework with two desired dimensions. The first is ‘development’: we want economic growth, better equity, improved health and appropriate nutrition, and we want these over both the short and long term. The second is ‘resilience’: we want environmental conservation, low climate impact, maintained land productivity and managed livelihood risks. These dimensions encapsulate, in my view, the sustainable development aspiration. And, as an added advantage, it is easier to illustrate two dimensions rather than three (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Simplified framework for analysing landscapes in the context of sustainable development, and how selected land uses may contribute.

Figure 1 also illustrates some applications of natural resources management in the landscape. Environmental conservation provides high resilience but low development. Conversely, crop and tree monocultures can give us high development but with lower resilience. At the landscape level we can, if we are smart enough, combine these and other approaches and achieve high development and high resilience at the same time.

While that may sound fine in a simplified way, there are some potential pitfalls. Approaching landscapes through an analytical framework is abstract and complex. Wherever our expertise lies, we may end up outside our comfort zones and there can be a strong urge to apply traditional thinking. The following descriptions are to help resist that urge:

Pitfall 1 is to assume that the landscape as a whole needs to be administered and planned. As a consequence, it is assumed that a landscape needs governance structures and policies that provide carrots and sticks. Because if we don’t have these arrangements, how can we control what is happening in the landscape? But as soon as the landscape is turned into an administrative unit with a boundary, rules and regulations, we are likely to lose the dynamic analysis leading to new solutions. By emulating power structures, the landscape instead becomes an object that is subject to interventions, negotiations and regulations. Analysis of landscape solutions must instead lead to improved governance and policies at the individual sector level, as these are the building blocks of policies. We should not confuse sector policies and landscape approaches.

Pitfall 2 is that we sometimes view the landscape primarily from a biophysical perspective and take an engineering approach to find the optimal combination of land uses. Many times, institutional history in the fields of agriculture and forestry makes us focus on the tangible and manageable properties in the landscape. It can be about biodiversity, soil fertility, hydrology, carbon storage, climate regulation, agricultural productivity, infrastructure or forest management schemes. These are all important topics, but we also need to focus on socio-economics, culture, gender, democracy and power structures, finance and banking, institutions, private sector, migration, nutrition, education and health—in short, the ‘people’ aspects. Without a holistic perspective, landscape analysis will not be meaningful.

Pitfall 3 is to limit the landscape approaches to the ‘commons’. There are a lot of initiatives and literature that deal with the very important issue of governing common resources (Ostrom 1990), and it is often addressed at a landscape level. Particularly when it comes to forests, it is often assumed that we are primarily dealing with common, or at least public sector-controlled, resources (which is not quite true). However, taking a commons-only approach would severely limit the landscape analysis. Instead, including and facilitating responsible entrepreneurship and private sector ventures is an essential part of the approach. Billions of people are the custodians of the world’s natural resources, and they are all making a living as ‘landscape entrepreneurs’. Agribusinesses and forest industry play a major role and must be considered in the equation. The decisions of all these stakeholders are what will shape how landscapes contribute to sustainable development.

As a conclusion, landscapes for sustainable development should be approached analytically and holistically, and should primarily be subjects for dialogue towards improved policies that could be applied within a range of sectors. We should not try to apply administration or planning to landscapes as such, as we may end up in the same fragmented situation we wanted to avoid in the first place. What we want is wise management of natural resources that lead to development and resilience. Analysing how this can be achieved, and how to inform policy-making, appears to be a very appropriate use of time and resources for agriculture and forestry institutions.

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Further reading

Holmgren, P. and T. Thuresson. 1997. Applying Objectively Estimated and Spatially Continuous Forest Parameters in Tactical Planning to Obtain Dynamic Treatment Units. Forest Science 43(3): 317-326.

Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press.

Turner, M.G. 1989. Landscape Ecology: The effect of Pattern on Process. Ann. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 20: 171-197. 

Topic(s) :   Landscapes Climate talks