In defining the landscape approach, ‘don’t fence us in,’ scientists say

Avoiding top-down definitions at the Global Landscapes Forum
A community in Papua works on maps during a multidisciplinary landscape approach exercise. CIFOR Photo/ Manuel Boissière

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As the global population rises and the resources that support it come under increasing pressure, the search for complementary solutions to environmental and development goals is more urgent than ever.

So it’s no surprise that the landscape approach to land allocation and management has gained prominence in recent years. The approach, according to a definitive research paper, seeks to provide “tools and concepts for allocating and managing land to achieve social, economic, and environmental objectives in areas where agriculture, mining, and other productive land uses compete with environmental and biodiversity goals.”

Titled Ten principles for a landscape approach to reconciling agriculture, conservation and other competing land uses, the paper offers a framework that is intentionally loose and broad. But as the approach gains traction, those who specialize in it are “being badgered” to be more specific, says Terry Sunderland, a principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), and a co-author of the paper. “People are asking: What is the landscape approach? What does it represent? And why don’t we define it?”

At the latest Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) event, which just wrapped up this month in Bonn, Germany, these questions re-surfaced with intensity within the sector, but Sunderland says that defining the approach more rigidly is “something we’ve deliberately avoided doing.” While the questions are valid, he says, attempts to answer them would land the scientists “back in the same holes as we’ve been in with other processes.”

Frameworks like the landscape approach can help scientists and policymakers to look at land in similar, more holistic and integrative ways, and evidence is mounting around the benefits of working in this way.

At the GLF, Sunderland participated in a two-part discussion titled ‘Landscape restoration for food security and resilient livelihoods’ and delivered a Landscape Talk on ‘Integrated landscapes approaches: From theory to practice’ to add to the growing evidence base by sharing findings from CIFOR’s research into ecosystem services supporting agriculture.

   Terry Sunderland, right, joins a discussion panel on restoration for food security at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany. CIFOR Photo/Pilar Valbuena Perez


As Sunderland explains, stiff definitions and categories can perpetuate just the kind of “silo mentality” that the landscape approach seeks to transcend. “Of course, we’re all scientists and logical people,” he acknowledges – so the urge to order and categorize is understandable. “But it really is constraining.”

“Out there in the world beyond our research institutions, landscape approaches are anything but orderly,” he says. “It is more a case of muddling through and being flexible enough to adapt to change, and integrating multiple objectives for the best possible benefits.”

Sunderland likens the process to that of a band playing improvisational jazz: “From A to B everyone does their own thing, but at the very outset, there is agreement on how to achieve the end product by following a basic structure.”

So any proposed frameworks must be necessarily loose, he says. Otherwise, we risk imposing systems and processes “from above” at the expense of listening to those who know the landscapes in question more intimately.

“I think that people’s understandings of landscapes at the intrinsic level is far greater than us at the so-called high level. And I think that we should be promoting the bottom-up understanding of this approach rather than the top-down imposition of it.”

   A farmer from Yangambi, Democratic Republic of Congo. Sunderland says in many places, farmers inherently understand their landscapes. CIFOR Photo/Axel Fassio


After all, says Sunderland, the approach of looking at a landscape in its entirety, rather than its composite parts, is really nothing new. Having spent a lot of his career in the field, he firmly believes that the farmers and hunters he worked with “actually inherently understand what landscapes are,” in ways that agricultural and forestry scientists likely do not.

He evokes the image of a smallholder farmer in one of his research sites setting out on the daily journey from home to farm, and walking through a very diverse set of land systems to get there. “And they don’t think of it as separate entities, they don’t think of it as this is this bit, this is that bit – they think of these landscapes in their entirety.”

Revisiting his appearances at the GLF, Sunderland points out that the GLF aspires to spark a movement to make one billion people aware of sustainable landscapes. “But I suspect that a billion people already understand the concept of landscapes far better than we do.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Terry Sunderland at
This research was supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), World Bank, World Resources Institute (WRI), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and CGIAR Fund donors.
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Topic(s) :   Food security Community forestry Landscapes Food & diets Rights