Thoughts from CIFOR's Director General, Peter Holmgren

On Landscapes – Part 1: Why are landscapes important?

The Global Landscapes Forum is less than a month away, and it is time to prepare for lively debates on the what, why and how of landscapes. The landscape concept has stirred up lots of interest over the past year, but there have also been questions about what is meant by a landscape and how a landscape approach would actually work.

In a series of blogs over the coming days, I will recap some thoughts on landscapes that have emerged from my discussions with many different people. I am not aiming to be conclusive or even scientific in these blogs, but want to stimulate thoughts and comments ahead of the Forum.

To begin – Why is a “landscape” such an important concept?

The landscape approach is not new to development, conservation or research. Many, including CIFOR have emphasized the importance of working across sectors on the ground. What is new, however, is a broad, high-level interest in the approach. During the previous UNFCCC COP, we heard that the post-2015 climate agreement may integrate agriculture and forestry issues – a starting point for the Global Landscapes Forum. Furthermore, the work following Rio+20 on a post-2015 development agenda has frequently emphasized the need for cross-cutting solutions. It seems that the timing and awareness is ripe for new solutions and broader acceptance.

It is true that some comments have been less constructive, suggesting that the landscape debate is a temporary fad that will soon fade away while supposedly more robust and business-as-usual approaches persist. I am not so sure. Looking at the ongoing reform of the World Bank and FAO, as well as the CGIAR Research Programs, it is clear that cross-cutting and innovative approaches are being broadly promoted. We should see the landscape approach in this light.

Even if we limit the landscape to agriculture and forestry and the people involved in these activities, it is clear that we are talking about a major part of our common future. We depend on agriculture and forestry to:

At the same time, these sectors heavily pollute air, water and food chains – and cause one third of our greenhouse gas emissions.

Adding other components of the landscape such as renewable energy, mining, cities, and cultural uses, it becomes clear that landscapes are a very large part of our future.

So, what do we expect to improve through a landscape approach?

The main reason to explore a landscape approach is that existing land-based sectors have a poor record of seeking solutions across their institutional territories. Traditionally they are confined in boxes defined through history by economic activity, professional communities, geographic boundaries and government structures.

The basic landscape hypothesis is that we will find better solutions if we explore opportunities that cut across the disparate sector economies, disciplines and territories. That is, we will find combined solutions that are better than the sum of their sector-specific parts.

In economic terms, a landscape approach will seek to reduce or even remove externalities between the land-based sectors. In planning terms, it will look at a more complete set of options, avoiding solutions that are too narrow. It will also encourage a broader set of stakeholders to consider a wider set of landscape objectives. This is not to say that a landscape approach will always result in win-win opportunities, but rather that it can provide a way to help us find smarter trade-offs between objectives.

Conclusively, landscapes are important because they are a major part of sustainable development. To reiterate a point made by CIFOR scientist Terry Sunderland in a recent interview, efforts work on the ground and better outcomes are achieved when there are people talking to each other.

It is only through partnerships that the landscape approach can work. And I hope that some of these partnerships will be forged at next month’s Global Landscapes Forum.

In my next blog, I will explore what a landscape is, as many have expressed a wish for a clear definition. Stay tuned.


  • http://www.timberwatch.org Wally Menne

    In my opinion Peter Holmgren’s ‘landscape approach’ is really just a shallow ploy to justify the even greater exploitation of already stressed natural and people-modified habitats, in order to accommodate the unsustainable demands of the ‘green economy’ for biomass fuels and FSC certified toilet tissue produced from unsustainable and ecologically incompatible mono-culture tree plantations!

    Wally Menne