Theory to practice for landscape approach

A new paper lays out the necessary conditions for the landscape approach to succeed.
Research participants have agreed upon 10 pre-conditions that must be fulfilled for landscape approaches on the ground to succeed.

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A new research paper lays out conditions for “landscape approaches” to work on the ground—an important step in translating the vaunted sustainable development framework from theory to practice.

By no means a new concept, the landscape approach—billed as an inclusive and equitable way to balance competing land-use demands—has gained broader currency in recent years to address increasingly complex environmental, social and political challenges.

Discussion of the landscape approach has been largely confined to academia, which has spilled much ink seeking to define a purposefully fungible concept. Meanwhile, on-the-ground implementation of verifiable and measurable landscape approaches remains somewhat elusive.

“There is no [problem] related to the concept of the landscape approach,” said Terry Sunderland, a principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and a co-author of the paper. “But the implementation is very limited. We’ve got very few actual case studies of real integration of function on the ground. Or it may be that such initiatives are not being adequately reported. So we’re trying to bridge that gap.”


The paper came out of a recent workshop in Cairns, Australia, organized by James Cook University and attended by Sunderland and a multi-disciplinary group of participants ranging from high-level experts to graduate students, from civil society activists to land-use practitioners. The meeting “clicked,” Sunderland said, with participants sharing their broad range of experiences.

The participants compared projects in seven distinct tropical landscapes—five in Indonesia, one in Central Africa and another in Australia—to determine what led to more successful outcomes.

“We have instances on the ground that we can say that a landscape approach here was successful because of X, or that it was unsuccessful there because of Y,” Sunderland said.

Every circumstance is different, and that’s the big message here

Terry Sunderland

Patterns and commonalities emerged among the seven landscapes, with the participants ultimately agreeing on 10 pre-conditions that must be fulfilled for landscape approaches on the ground to succeed: strong leadership; long-term commitment; some level of facilitation; value-driven engagement; frank discussion of conflicts; strong governance; private-sector involvement; budgets and implementation commitments; formalized and monitored agreements; and established metrics.


The 10 preconditions, Sunderland said, are a starting point.

“You can pick and choose which ones you think are important for your particular landscape. Some people expect a prescriptive approach, but it’s not like that. It’s very much tailored to each individual landscape.

“Every circumstance is different, and that’s the big message here.”

Sunderland gave an example in Cameroon, where landscape approaches have been formalized into a legal land-use planning process. The country has created what are called Technical Operation Units (TOUs), which ensure communication and collaboration among all stakeholders in a given landscape.

In Cameroon, TOUs balance protected area with farming with logging and mining concessions, among other land uses. It has led to increased local involvement in forest management as a broader range of stakeholders are encouraged to come together and negotiate for better overall outcomes, Sunderland said.

“Although, this is a relatively new initiative, it seems to be working in Cameroon. Everyone’s got to talk to each other. They all use the same roads, resources and so all have responsibility to watch out for illegal timber [and] wildlife trafficking, for example,” he said.


Pointing to a publication released last year that laid out 10 principles for a landscape approach, Sunderland said that the new paper takes it a step further.

“The ‘10 principles’ paper resonated with a lot of people,” he said. “People are not only reading it, but they’re saying, ‘OK, this has some interesting stuff in here.’ And I think that we’re under no illusion that it’s the end of the road, as in, ‘Here are your 10 principles, off you go, implement your landscape approach.’ It’s a sequential process—it provides a very useful framework, but on the ground, what does it represent?”

Sunderland said he hopes that the new paper, coinciding with the upcoming Global Landscapes Forum (6-7 December in Lima), could take the issue out of the ivory tower and help to “put some meat on the bones” of the landscape approach framework for practitioners and policy makers to take forward.

“It’s all very well to be standing on the mountain giving a sermon,” Sunderland said. “We need to actually translate that into something more broadly understood and then operational.”

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

For more information on this topic, please contact Terry Sunderland at
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