On ‘landscape approach’, scientists search for meaning

Integrating with UN Sustainable Development Goals will require a more unified concept.
Paisaje agrícola de Huasahuasi en los Andes peruanos. Foto cortesía Faviola Torres.

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BOGOR, Indonesia—It’s an increasingly prominent way of thinking about land use that has yet, somewhat usefully, defied easy definition.

Now, it’s beginning to come into sharper focus, as scientists are beginning to lift the veil on the “landscape approach” to land management.

This phrase has a wide variety of definitions, but can be broadly termed as a holistic way of looking at often competing land uses within a given area. Landscape approaches are designed to break down barriers between ecological, agricultural and social fields of land-use research and policy. The term has been batted around in development circles for years but avoided broader popularity in part due to a lack of universal agreement on what exactly the term means—and also because its putative meaning overlaps (or encompasses) that of other existing land-use terms.

Is it an “ecosystem approach,” or is it closer to “integrated watershed management”? Does it matter?

“It’s important to look beyond labels to try to understand where overlaps exist between the various approaches and learn from the successes and failures of prior interventions,” said James Reed, an associate researcher with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

To that end, research from EcoAgriculture Partners compiled a list of 78 different terms that could be broadly interpreted to be about the same idea as “landscape approach.”

“I recently came across a reference to a ‘nexus approach’ and realized it was clearly a landscape approach, but branded differently – which can be a problem for scientists when trying to deliver a coherent and unified message to policy makers and landscape practitioners,” Reed said.

So far, as part of a CIFOR systematic review, 14,000 articles of peer-reviewed literature have been studied at title, abstract and full text and narrowed down to approximately 100 relevant ones. Next comes the review of gray (that is, informally published) academic literature. Reed is still inviting submissions of these unpublished or non-peer-reviewed articles and project documents on landscape approaches anywhere in the tropics for inclusion in the study.

Given that at least five of the key objectives of the SDGs display clear overlap with landscape approach desired outputs, there is a timely need to synthesize the current evidence base on landscape approaches

Project Protocol

In their effort to establish the state of the art in landscape-scale studies, the researchers could have restricted their scope to the material that matches their preferred definition of this new field. But they say they preferred a systematic review, discussing their plans with other scientists and practitioners at international conferences in order to set objective criteria for the screening of material.

Of course, to avoid confusion, they had to check each other’s work to ensure they have consistently applied the same rules.

Some constraints are inevitable: As they only have the time resources to assess English-language material, Reed and his colleagues are missing Spanish-language publications from Latin America and French-speaking ones from West and Central Africa, for example.

This is evident in a map they have created that references publications that focus on a particular geographical area: A preponderance of dots appears in English-speaking East Africa.

But the map also indicates how the scientific community has been looking at the landscape approach so far. “We have found only around 30 case studies in peer-reviewed literature, and we are waiting to see whether the gray literature will reveal more,” Reed said. “Peer-reviewed material is more theoretical, and projects may be more widely documented in field reports, etc.”

In addition to the geographical map, the CIFOR team will produce a conceptual map of landscape approaches. It will include an online database of all the material they have recorded and an analysis of aspects that have been explored, and which ones have been missed.

“It may take a similar form to that of a social network analysis, with small and big circles on paper: the bigger the circles, the more likely they are to overlap, while smaller circles leave gaps,” Reed added.

The result of the systematic review will be published in June to feed into the debate on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will replace the Millennium Development Goals to guide international development policy in the coming years.

The protocol governing the project notes: “Given that at least five of the key objectives of the SDGs (end hunger; secure water; promote strong, inclusive and sustainable economic growth; tackle climate change; protect and promote terrestrial resources) display clear overlap with landscape approach desired outputs, there is a timely need to synthesize the current evidence base on landscape approaches.”

The work, however, won’t end there. The research team plans to make the tools they design accessible to other researchers involved in landscape approaches—including speakers of other languages.

For more information on this systematic review, please contact James Reed at or Terry Sunderland at

CIFOR’s research on landscapes forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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