A landscape picture from Cameroon

Cameroon’s ‘Technical Operation Units’ may provide a foundation for adopting a landscape approach to development.
Improved communication among all sectors in Cameroon is key for achieving sustainable land use. Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

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It’s a daunting challenge whose complexity only continues to intensify: How can we manage the land so that it can provide the food, timber, minerals and other natural resources we need, while also conserving carbon stocks and biodiversity?

Enter the landscape approach, designed to manage these trade-offs—but in itself intricate, multifaceted and challenging to apply.

The conundrum gave Eugene Loh Chia, a research officer with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), an idea.

In Cameroon, where Chia is based, the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife has broken up parts of the country that are used in multiple ways into what they call “Technical Operation Units,” or TOUs for short. To Chia, the TOUs seemed like a potential starting point to begin the complex and challenging process of applying the landscape approach in Cameroon.

He thought, “Let me see if we can apply this approach in Cameroon using these principles.” So he and fellow CIFOR researcher Richard Kankeu Sufo set out to examine the feasibility of putting a broad landscape approach in place employing the TOUs as the foundation.

“Theoretically, it looks very attractive,” Chia said—and indeed, other sectors have expressed interest in using TOUs as management tools. “But so much research is required.”

Chia and Sufo embarked on the research. In the resulting paper, they assess how Cameroon’s five TOUs might support efforts to satisfy multiple demands on a single area, such as food security, economic growth and biodiversity conservation.


At small scales, such as the community level, it could be possible to come up with meaningful solutions, Chia said, by bringing together people who have a stake in what happens to the land—smallholder farmers sitting down at the same table with conservationists and representatives from agroindustry, for example.

“But the moment that it is connected to this huge global economy, it becomes complicated and very difficult,” Chia said. The demands and expectations for a landscape swell, he said: “It has to provide food, it has to conserve carbon, it has to preserve biodiversity.”

Chia predicts that scaling up comes with “frightful” increases in complexity.

To bring Cameroon in line with the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals and achieve the goal of becoming an emerging country by 2035, the connection to international policies will be more important than ever.

Similarly, climate change vulnerability and carbon conservation are not yet TOU-wide priorities, which are among the gaps that Chia and Sufo identified as part of their research.


For an integrated landscape approach to succeed, Chia said, communication is paramount.

“We need to speak with the actors face to face,” he said, with an emphasis on “asking the appropriate questions”.

Denis Sonwa agrees. Sonwa is a CIFOR Senior Scientist based in Cameroon who studies the role forests play in meeting the socioeconomic and ecological needs of smallholder farmers in Central Africa.

“The TOUs can be a good platform to bring in other sectors to build a platform of discussion and negotiation over land use and land allocation, synergies and trade-offs,” Sonwa said.

The moment that it is connected to this huge global economy, it becomes complicated and very difficult.

Eugene Loh Chia

“The main issue is that when you have overlapping activity in the same geographic area, you really need to make sure you bring together the different sectors and discuss in a transparent way any synergies or trade-offs,” he added.

But to ensure all of the groups involved are on equal footing and are “speaking the same language,” Chia said, it will also be important to invest in building capacity.

“Communities often don’t understand all of these complicated dynamics,” he added. “They might have developed unrealistic expectations about how long a specific project may take to unfold, what their contributions will be, or how their community members will benefit.”

For everyone involved to have an opportunity to make “informed decisions,” Sonwa said, “We really need to make sure that all the stakeholders have the same information.”

The importance of communication extends up to the ministries themselves. Chia and Sufo point out in the paper that the “overlapping nature of some ministerial functions” can make it difficult to determine which authority is in charge. And the ubiquitous problem of independent ministries that don’t necessarily cooperate on policies or decision-making is also an issue in Cameroon, they found.


As a complement to the TOUs, Sonwa advocates the creation of a single tool that clearly lays out all of the different planned uses for a particular area.

“If they want to develop the country, they need to have a map so that all of the objectives are planned in advance,” he said. “Then those working for the ministry of forestry or agriculture or environment or mines can work in a coordinated manner to avoid conflict as much as possible.”

What is clear from Chia’s work is that this analysis of TOUs through the lens of the landscape approach is only the beginning of the research necessary to implement such a complex strategy in Cameroon and elsewhere. In fact, a deep understanding the varying cast of stakeholders, resources and uses of the land is a critical element for the success of landscape-wide planning.

That also means that no two solutions are apt to be alike, whether moving from landscape to landscape in a place like Cameroon, or to another country altogether.

“The landscape approach will vary from one country to another,” Chia said. “Each country needs to do research to understand its own dynamics.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Denis Sonwa at
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