How are trees good for us? ‘Sentinels’ may hold the answer

By Joan Baxter, originally published at Forests News

It’s a unique, massive—and massively ambitious—research initiative, spanning nine landscapes across 20 countries on three continents. It involves scores of scientists and practitioners from 60 organizations, and employs a panoply of research methods from household surveys to soil sampling, from vegetation inventories to satellite imagery. And it’s all to answer an unusual, perhaps counterintuitive question:

Are trees “good” for landscapes—and “good” for us? (And if so, how much?)

“What we hope to achieve is to find out when trees in landscapes lead to better livelihoods, better nutrition, better income, happier people,” said Anja Gassner, a researcher with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Gassner leads the Sentinel Landscape initiative, a component of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). “Can we quantify their contributions to a healthier environment, a more sustainable environment?”

The purpose of looking at “landscapes” for such analysis, according to Gassner, is to move beyond the limitations of the ecosystem approach, which emerged around conservation and biodiversity work. “We use the term ‘landscapes’ because people can relate to that,” she said. “It’s where we as humans interact with the environment, where we shape the environment and the environment shapes us.”

The “landscape approach,” experts contend, can help achieve the right balance between conservation needs in the landscape, oriented primarily to nature, and the development needs of people. It can help bring to the discussion different groups with competing interests to find common ground and complementary interests in a landscape.

The landscape approach is, as CIFOR Director General Peter Holmgren recently wrote, “not about achieving pre-defined biophysical performance targets, but rather about negotiating multiple values.”

As for the term “sentinel landscape”—that’s what makes the initiative unique.

FROM MEDICINE TO FORESTRY

A “sentinel landscape” is one that is monitored over time for changes—and for the effects of those changes on the environment and on local people’s livelihoods. Gassner explained that the term “sentinel” is borrowed from medical science, where it refers to clinical indicators used to monitor health over time.

Launched in 2011, the Sentinel Landscapes initiative is intended to test the hypothesis that there is a measurable relationship between environmental and rural livelihood outcomes independent of the environmental and cultural context. But it also responds to calls for broader-based research: In order for findings to be useful for policymakers, particularly at regional and global levels, site-specific case studies were not nearly as useful as ones showing global patterns, a 2009 review of social science in the CGIAR found.

Thus, lessons from one sentinel landscape could help to inform development projects in other places, with high-resolution global and long-term datasets.

FTA and its work on landscapes is a truly collaborative effort, engaging six international research organizations: CIFOR, ICRAF, Bioversity, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the French research center CIRAD, and the Costa Rican institute CATIE.

During the first phase of FTA, the Sentinel Landscapes initiative established interdisciplinary research teams that tackled the process of selecting seven priority landscapes with geographical boundaries, two each in Latin America and Africa and three in Asia. For practical purposes, they then identified four specific “sentinel sites” in each landscape, where data is collected. They also developed a standardized methodology and set to work collecting livelihood, environmental and institutional data across the network of seven landscapes.

Regional sentinel landscapes

  1. Borneo – Sumatra
  2. Central Africa Humid Tropic Transect
  3. Mekong
  4. Nicaragua – Honduras
  5. West Africa (includes Niger Basin in southeast Mali and Volta Basin in Burkina Faso, northern Ghana and northern Togo)
  6. Western Ghats in India
  7. Western Amazon (Peru, Bolivia and Brazil)

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