Turning research into practice: landscape approach takes off

18 Feb 2019

Although the term “landscape approach” initially left some people scratching their heads, over the past six years it has gelled into a much-lauded concept for sustainable land management in the agroforestry sector and beyond.

The Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) movement was born out of conversations on sustainable forest management techniques, which are revolutionizing the way the international development community tackles poverty, food insecurity, climate change and biodiversity in the sector.

The GLF aims to ensure social, environmental and economic balance by aligning land use goals traditionally construed as competitive.  In essence, both the GLF and the approach confront pressures posed by population growth and human demand, which increase agricultural expansion and commodities extraction, including wood, vegetable oils and biofuels.

At the recent GLF conference in Bonn, Germany, scientists discussed putting theory into practice during a panel discussion titled “Looking at the Past to Shape the Landscape Approach of the Future” moderated by Terry Sunderland, senior associate with CIFOR and a professor at Canada’s University of British Columbia.

The findings of a research paper led by CIFOR scientist James Reed, titled “Integrated Landscape Approaches to Managing Social and Environmental Issues in the Tropics: Learning from the Past to Guide the Future” inspired the session.

New funding from Germany’s Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) to set up and study landscape initiatives in Burkina Faso, Indonesia and Zambia also formed the basis for discussions.  With financial backing, now CIFOR and partners can move beyond theoretical discussions toward implementation.

“Moving from commitment to action is critical,” said Sunderland, who played a key role in forming the GLF, which is jointly coordinated by CIFOR, UN Environment and the World Bank, and funded by BMU and Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. Sunderland was also a lead author on the seminal research paper “Ten principles for a landscape approach to reconciling agriculture, conservation and other competing land uses,” which established the basis for ongoing conversations.

“We need to start moving beyond the talking, beyond the rhetoric and actually moving towards implementation,” Sunderland said. “We need to shift away from the theoretical, away from the political, away from the development speak and into much more pragmatic understandings of how landscape approaches play out on the ground.”

Panelists shared their experiences from various initiatives in the global south that have embraced the landscape approach.


Musonda Mumba, chief of the Terrestrial Ecosystems Unit at UN Environment, illustrated the importance of understanding how different landscapes connect. By observing glacier activity in the Rwenzori Mountains on the border between Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, she learned about the scale of the impact activities could have downstream and across national borders.

“Look at the Rwenzori system – if you go on the world map and the Africa map in particular, you’re going to see that most of the rivers that emanate from this region flow down into Lake Victoria, and eventually into the Nile River system,” she said. “And how many people live in the Nile basin? It’s millions, right? It’s a lot of people.”

She made a similar discovery through research in Peru. Lima, the capital, is a desert, and its 10 million residents rely on the maintenance of upstream sources for hydroelectricity and fresh water, Mumba said.

Crucial international pacts were sealed in 2015, including the U.N. Paris Agreement on climate change, the Sendai Agreement on Disaster Risk Reduction and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Mumba said. These formal agreements provide vital frameworks formalizing the interconnectivity of landscapes, she added.

“We cannot exist without the land and our food systems are based on the land — You cannot slice up the landscape. A landscape is so intricately and complexly interwoven together,” she said, referring to SDG 15, Life on Land, as the mother of all SDGs.


Mirjam Ros-Tonen, associate professor at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, worked on local level, small scale initiatives to see if they were suited to become larger scale landscape projects.

Agroforestry cocoa projects in Ghana involving reforestation and landscape restoration, which provided income for smallholder farmers were contained within farm boundaries, she said.

“Partnerships are needed to extend the activities to landscape level and partnerships are needed to give farmers a voice and offer them opportunities for self-organization and autonomous change,” Ros-Tonen said. “See if you can build on local initiatives and from there build partnerships with other actors in the landscape.”

Sara Scherr, president and chief executive of EcoAgriculture Partners, worked on at least 50 large-scale integrated landscape initiatives. Similar patterns emerged, showing the need for multi-stakeholder platforms that can plan and conceptualize a long-term joint vision over a number of decades, she said, adding that the process can take anything from six months to three years.

Implementation involves adhering to five key steps, including expansion of the stakeholder network, securing financial backing and an assessment process. Collaborative planning projects need a long-term vision.

“You need a cadre of people champions in the landscape from pharma organizations, agribusiness, local governments, national governments, cultural leaders, the people who were committed to the vision of the transformed landscape who will work together,” Scherr said.

Look beyond labels in use and focus to assess progress over the longer term, she said, observing that such approaches ought to be thinking far beyond the usual cycles projects follow, she added.

External input is a vital part of achieving success in integrated landscape initiatives, said Roderick Zagt, program coordinator at Tropenbos International. While people he worked with understood the problems they faced and the consequences of various activities, they can benefit from other perspectives.

“We aren’t in the driving seat,” Zagt said.  “We can’t impose that vision, but I think as an outsider you should try to set the conditions by which this vision will be reached through a structured dialogue process.”

While the effectiveness of landscape approaches are often dependent on external sources of support, panelists agreed that they must be long term, locally owned efforts, Reed said.

“The general consensus was that the GLF should provide a clearing house mechanism to consolidate experiences and knowledge,” he added.  “Its future mission could serve to enhance and clarify the evidence base, providing guidance on implementation strategies and lessons learned in the quest for truly sustainable landscapes.” — Julie Mollins

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