Who’s actually implementing landscape approaches? Study seeks to find out

Despite growing support for the landscape approach, relatively few case studies have been documented.
A new paper highlight the gap between research and practice in the landscapes arena.

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LIMA, Peru—Although land managers and policy makers increasingly talk about the use of landscapes for conserving biodiversity, and for reducing poverty and deforestation while ensuring an adequate food supply, preliminary results from a new study have turned up little hard evidence about whether that approach is effective.

“Despite the wealth of literature on landscape approaches, there are very few case-study examples in the peer-reviewed literature,” said Terry Sunderland, principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“That doesn’t mean they’re not out there,” he added, “but they’re not being reported.”

He presented the results, which highlight the gap between research and practice, at the 2014 Global Landscapes Forum, organized by CIFOR, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on the sidelines of the annual UN climate change conference. The event drew more than 1,700 people from 90 countries, including country climate negotiators, ministers, CEOs, indigenous leaders, civil society leaders and researchers.

In research that grew out of conversations with colleagues, Sunderland set out to study what a landscape approach involves and how the understanding of it has evolved, and to find case studies that highlight how and why it is used, and where it is effective and where it is not.

He set some ground rules for the case studies, which had to use a clear and repeatable methodology, involve at least two land uses and stakeholders from at least two different sectors, and have results that were measured accurately and reliably.

Sunderland’s goal was to conduct a rigorous, unbiased, systematic literature review that could be updated in the future by other researchers and disseminated more broadly than only through peer-reviewed journals.

Information about the project is on line, along with a map ( that enables policy makers and landscape managers to express their views and see how they compare with others.


Sunderland’s first hurdle was terminology—scores of terms are used to describe integrated landscape management, from mosaics to green growth to climate-smart agriculture.

The word “landscape” is also widely used in other fields, from art to philosophy, as the researcher realized when an initial query of academic databases turned up a whopping 271,974 papers.

Narrowing the search to titles of papers reduced the hits to 13,290. Searching for the terms in the abstracts got the list down to 1,171, and searching in the text yielded a set of 382 that the researchers considered relevant.

By the time they had finished reading the papers, they were left with only 47 that described cases that met the study’s criteria.

Most of the studies began by focusing on a single resource, Sunderland said. Forests and livelihoods led the list, each representing 27 percent of the cases, followed by water at 19 percent, soil and biodiversity with 13 percent each, and agriculture, in 4 percent of the cases.

As custodians of land, a landscape approach is part and parcel of what a farmer does in a community

Daniel Gad

One third of the papers explicitly referred to the need for a landscape approach, he said. More than 80 percent of all the cases claimed positive results, although none included long-term monitoring and evaluation.

Nearly half the cases were in central Africa, while about one-fifth were in South Asia. Southern Africa, Asia and Southeast Asia had 9 percent each, while just 4 percent of the cases were from North America.

“That does not mean more don’t exist, both there and in other places,” Sunderland said. “Intuitively, we know that landscape-approach projects are being undertaken throughout the tropics.”

Experience supports that view, but also highlights the need bring research closer to policy makers, land-use managers and farmers who can use it.


Brazil has taken a landscape approach in public policy for years, especially with watershed management committees and territorial land-use planning involving various government ministries said Muriel Saragoussi, scientific manager for the Large-Scale Biosphere Atmosphere Experiment (LBA), in Amazonia.

“We have very practical examples,” Saragoussi said, but few scientific papers have been written about them, and there has been little long-range monitoring and evaluation.

The approach faces obstacles, she said, partly because government commitments do not always last beyond the next election, and partly because landscapes cross federal, state and local boundaries, forcing different jurisdictions to work together, while “nature does not follow those kinds of rules.”

The concept of integrated landscapes has also filtered into finance, although bankers do not use that term, said Jane Feehan, a natural resources specialist at the European Investment Bank.

Investors are willing to back landscape-management projects that are robust and diversified, she said. Combining forest carbon with sustainable commodities and agrotourism, for example, “can be mutually reinforcing and can help address both deforestation and the drivers of deforestation.”


A landscape approach is essential because of competing land uses, particularly for food security and biodiversity conservation, said David Cooper, science director for the Assessments and Monitoring Branch of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

“The landscape approach provides space to negotiate and a framework for how to make the case, not just for conservation and sustainable use, but also for the value that biodiversity brings to other users,” such as pollination, pest control, water supplies, climate regulation and carbon storage, he said.

Programs to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) also require landscape-scale analysis “to make sure that carbon-based incentives do not drive out the other major ecosystem services that the landscape provides,” he said.

In some countries, laws do not keep pace with practice, Cooper said. While most countries have forestry legislation, many lack adequate regulations for managing those landscapes when forests are gone.


Small farmers and indigenous people have used and managed landscapes for millennia, even if they never used the term.

“As custodians of land, a landscape approach is part and parcel of what a farmer does in a community,” said Ethiopian farmer Daniel Gad of the World Farmers’ Organization.

He urged researchers to seek solutions to the production hurdles faced by small farmers who still plow with oxen and tend their fields using hoes.

“We need research in a form that is understandable and usable,” especially information directly related to crop production.

A landscape approach also “resonates very well with indigenous world views and practices,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Peer-reviewed papers are probably in short supply because indigenous people often are not able to do research and outside researchers do not always understand indigenous water and land management, she said.

Tauli-Corpuz suggested helping researchers understand those practices and setting up centers of excellence for traditional knowledge.

Sunderland said his study was just a first step toward gaining a deeper understanding of how integrated landscape management is used. Further review of “gray literature,” such as project documents, which are not peer-reviewed, should yield more data.

For more information on the topics of this article, please contact Terry Sunderland at

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