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Taking a landscape approach to the world’s biggest challenges

CIFOR’s Robert Nasi at the Global Landscapes Forum

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In 2018, action around the world is in full swing to meet global goals on climate change, sustainable development and restoration of forest landscapes. These big goals address even bigger problems, making it difficult to know where to start in addressing them.

A landscape approach could be the best starting point, says Robert Nasi, Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), who spoke at the opening of the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) at the end of 2017 in Bonn, Germany.

“The landscape is the right unit of management,” Nasi said at the event. “We cannot solve problems sector by sector; we need to look at the whole picture.”

Taking an ecological view of scale, Nasi recommended defining different ‘landscapes’ based on the problems at hand, and conducting research that considers these landscapes in their entirety, taking into account social, economic, cultural and environmental aspects, to inform better targeted action.

For example, forest landscape restoration requires an informed understanding of an entire forest landscape and all of its stakeholders – from the trees in the ground, to the clean air and water they produce, the people and animals who depend on forest products, the cultural values attached to place and the resources needed by government and industry for social and economic development.

On the sidelines of the Forum, Forests News caught up with Nasi to hear more about his views on how taking a landscape approach can help address some of the world’s biggest challenges.

We’re here at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn. Why should we care about landscapes?

Well, because if we don’t care about landscapes, then who is going to care about it? And because if we don’t care about landscapes, and everybody’s living in the landscape, then we are going to have a serious problem in 20-30 years from now: Where are we going to live when the landscape is depleted?

Let’s talk about some CIFOR research on landscapes. Can you discuss some highlights that are informing this Forum? 

Well, when we started this research at CIFOR on landscapes — really you want to go back, back into something we called ‘multidisciplinary landscape assessment’, and it was fundamentally trying to answer a very simple question: What matters in the landscape for local people? When you start to ask this question you may be surprised by the answers, and the complexity, and how much people are using in the landscape, or how much they are depending on things that are not substitutable.

And so what CIFOR is doing is trying to develop a framework for people to understand what it means to manage at the landscape level, and also trying to operationalize that.

What about indigenous peoples and their rights? What is CIFOR working on there?

Well, CIFOR’s research into indigenous groups or local communities started with the whole idea that if people don’t have control over their own land, they will have no interest whatsoever to preserve it in the long term.

It becomes what we call the ‘tragedy of the commons’, with the thinking that: ‘If I don’t harvest this resource, eventually someone else from outside my community will harvest it, and it will be lost. So I’d rather take it for myself and eventually use the income to invest in something else.’

Here at GLF, we are going to sign an MoU with an indigenous group this afternoon, and that’s basically because I think we need to bring them to the table. As [indigenous leader] Roberto Borrero said yesterday — I like the quote — ‘If you don’t sit at the table, you end up on the menu’. I quite like this quote, and I think it’s true for everybody.

We’ve also looked at other issues like, is it the case that local people always manage [resources] better than states do? And the answer is complex, it’s not the same thing in Latin America, in Africa. But overall, what seems to appear as a general pattern is that a mixed system with a state creating an enabling environment and a local community having rights over some of the resources and being able to exercise their rights is the best combination.

Youth are also major presence here at GLF. Why do you think that is important?

The way the youth communicate and are involved in the Global Landscapes Forum, I think is evolving from youth as volunteers who come and work with us because they are interested in the topic, to some real involvement, a real seat at the table together with the indigenous groups and the scientists and the policymakers, and having a voice.

So that’s where we are moving, and we have made a lot of progress, and I hope that we are going to go further. In a sense, in the same way that we want to give indigenous peoples the right to their land, we want to give to the youth control over their future.

Speaking about the future, the Global Landscapes Forum is launching into a new chapter over the next five years. What are your hopes for GLF and what it can achieve?

First, we really need to see if we can create a movement around this idea of sustainable landscape management.

If we want to have some action on the ground that we can say has been the result of the Global Landscapes Forum, if we want to see new partnerships forged as a result of people participating in these conferences, if we can see more youth interested in pursuing this type of work when they grow up, instead of trying to be a banker in the city or something, I think the answer will be that.

I think the key will be to judge success on whether something can happen on the ground.

Let’s talk about this ‘on the ground’ action. Can you give some examples of how you envision that taking place?

We need to address the problem of restoration, now. But also we need to ask, ‘Why is it degraded in the first instance?’ Because if we don’t stop the degradation, then we will be running ‘til the end of the time after this problem.

What would be a huge success for the Global Landscapes Forum is if thanks to this collaboration, thanks to this discussion, people really manage to tackle this and at the same time say, ‘Let’s stop degradation and let’s restore what is degraded’.

That’s one example. How it is going to be done? Is it going to be thousands of initiatives here and there, or one global goal? I have no idea. That’s not for me to decide, it’s for the people who participate in the Global Landscapes Forum.

A final question: In this current global climate, why is science-based, evidence-based work so important to working toward a better planet?

Why do we need science to inform the debate? I mean, because that’s the purpose of science. The purpose of science is discovering, but that’s not enough on its own. And so we ask, ‘What do you do with this discovery?’

In fact, the whole idea is progress. And you can translate progress in terms of technological progress, or in terms of people being better off, having better livelihoods, better lives, living in a friendlier environment, and so on. In the end, we are living on one planet and we need to keep this planet healthy.

But as for why science matters, well, it’s because knowledge matters. And without knowledge there is ignorance, and with ignorance there is intolerance and with intolerance we have all the fanaticism that you could want in the world.

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