DG’s Column

‘We are all stakeholders in the problems we address’

Reflections from CIFOR’s Director General, Robert Nasi, ahead of the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn
A landscape view of Panengahan village in Lampung, Indonesia. What constitutes a ‘landscape’ depends on perspective, according to Robert Nasi, Director General of CIFOR. CIFOR Photo/Nanang Sujana

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As the world ramps up commitments to address climate change, restore degraded lands and achieve sustainable development for all, a great many actors have emerged as stakeholders from the local to the global level.

Mediating the viewpoints and demands of these stakeholders is no easy task – but some solutions can be found in the ‘landscape approach’, a concept originating from landscape ecology that aims to accommodate multiple voices in a single discussion.

This is the approach taken by the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF), a movement led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), which aims to provide a platform for diverse actors to find common ground in addressing some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Robert Nasi, CIFOR’s Director General, sat down with Forests News ahead of the upcoming Forum in Bonn, Germany, this week to discuss the evolving concept of the ‘landscape approach’ and how it may be able to foster more sustainable and equitable solutions.

In Bonn this week you’ll be opening the GLF, a growing global movement led by CIFOR. Why the focus on landscapes?

Well, I think the landscape is the right unit of management. We have problems that are global in nature and wicked in their essence, and fundamentally if we look at only sectors like forests or cities, then we are not going to solve these problems. We have a chance to solve the problems, or at least mitigate the consequences, only if we look at the whole picture — and that whole picture is what we call the landscape.

You say that the landscape is the right unit for management. So what constitutes a landscape?

We can get bogged down for the next 45 years trying to define what a landscape is. I’ve seen ongoing discussions on the definition of ‘forests’ since I started working in this field in 1981. And so far, nobody has agreed on a universal definition of forests.

It’s the same for landscapes. What defines a ‘landscape’ is really in the eye of the beholder. An ant will see a totally different landscape than an elephant. For a farmer, the landscape is his farm, what surrounds his farm, and his neighbors if he has any. For the governor of Aceh, his landscape is the Aceh province. It depends what you are looking for, and for what purpose you want to use this concept of a landscape.

I guess it’s the correct unit to try to solve a given problem, but it’s not something that can be reduced to a simple definition. You can have an operational definition of a landscape if you like – we have many, in fact. But I don’t think it’s very useful to try to squeeze that into a very narrow definition.

So perhaps more important than defining a landscape is to define a ‘landscape approach’?

Yes, exactly. This whole issue of ‘landscapes’ came from landscape ecology originally, and in that field it was very much a biophysical concept. So people were looking at certain areas, and they were looking at connectivity across areas.

Now we are moving beyond a simple ecological, or distributional, or structural pattern. We see that in the landscape there are people, there are institutions, there are a lot of things that make a certain unit a landscape. In a sense, I see a landscape to be defined more by the question you are asking than by the actual geographic or administrative boundaries.

At the GLF we involve different stakeholders who have different uses, values or meanings attached to landscapes. So what we’re dealing with is actually a patchwork of different, overlapping landscapes.

That’s why it’s so complicated, and why there is no classic management structure or administrative unit that really fits at a landscape level. That doesn’t mean that you cannot have a working definition of a landscape, but it requires an acknowledgement that depending on your interests, you will see every landscape from a different perspective.

At the GLF, what kinds of questions are being asked of landscapes, and at what scale?

To me, the GLF is aiming to offer a platform for people to address wicked questions – such as, about sustainable development, or climate change – at various scales. So some would be global, but some would be local, or national. And that’s why we have this idea of the GLF working at various scales.

In a sense it’s a platform related to forests, trees and agriculture, but why not also have a focus on seascapes? A lot of what is happening in seascapes very much influenced by what is happening upstream. Something like 60 percent of the world’s population lives in coastal areas. And they are the ones who are going to be impacted by climate change, sea level rise, tsunamis and so on. If we want to address these kinds of problems, then we need to consider the landscape, what it means from somewhere upstream down to 200 meters deep in the water.

There is no platform that really handles this type of discussion. So where can people talk about these issues in terms of policy and change? I think this is something the GLF provides.

Where does science fit in all of this? What kind of role would research have in these discussions?

The role of research is to inform the debate. That is, to provide the best evidence available at one point of time and say ‘OK, this is what we know and these are the consequences of various actions’. Then ultimately others will take that information and choose which path to follow. As an individual, you can have an opinion that one path is better than another. But as a researcher, if you want to be unbiased you must provide the various paths based on evidence. Research is never truly unbiased, as we are all stakeholders in the problems we address, but we have to do our best to find the most appropriate solutions.

That’s why it’s important to understand that what we do as a research center is not only research but also capacity development, so that people can understand the consequences of their decisions, and also translating our research results into policy guidance documents, so that policymakers have the information they need to guide their eventual decisions.

And what will CIFOR researchers be bringing to discussions at the GLF?

In terms of what CIFOR does, we focus mainly on the contribution of forests and forestry to climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals, and try to demonstrate that forests are an integral part of the solution. But the GLF ideally will bring a lot of different ideas from a lot of different people.

We will definitely continue making the point that forests matter, and that trees matter. But we also understand that many other things matter, and that’s what will ultimately bring about possible solutions, if we take into account all of these elements to solve a given problem.

The opening plenary that you’ll be part of will launch the next five-year phase of GLF, which will address the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Can you tell us some more about that?

CIFOR will be leading the GLF, but not necessarily imposing the contents. Of course, we have some ideas of our own about topics that we want to bring forward – such as the issue of restoring degraded land, or the issues of tenure and indigenous rights. But ultimately, the GLF is a platform and a scaling mechanism that can hopefully also accelerate sustainable action, and optimal practices at the landscape level. Because we bring everyone to the table.

The next five years is the current lifespan of what we have, but the idea is that the GLF is not something that would stop in five years, but something that we hope to do for the next 20 years.

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