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Is simplicity always best?

Scientists debate if a complex landscapes approach should be embraced
james reed, landscape approach
“Embrace the complexity,” says CIFOR researcher James Reed at GLF Bonn 2019 GLF/Pilar Valbuena

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“We humans want to see everything as simple,  little and ‘square’,” says Chris Martius, principal climate scientist of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), as he shows a picture of a boxfish in his presentation at Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn. But cuteness can hide danger. Some boxfish species invented MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, long before the US and the Soviet Union: if their lives are threatened, they release a powerful toxin that is guaranteed to kill their enemy – and themselves.

The simple boxfish are cute, but can be deadly. Reality, Martius points out, is a lot more like a jellyfish, comprised of ever-changing shapes of surprising complexity. With its many tentacles and slippery body, the jellyfish is a fitting analogy for the landscape approach, a theory that aims to make land use more sustainable by integrating human and environmental needs.

Things get messy with different stakeholders living in landscapes, managing parts of them, using them or benefiting from them, Martius added. Farmers and ranchers, companies and governments at various levels, even international norms and regulations. These stakeholders interact in hugely complex, often surprising, ways – and are likely to be mostly working in ‘silos’, i.e., isolated, “sectoral” approaches.

That reality explains why, while the literature on the landscape approach is rich, implementation lags far behind, says CIFOR researcher James Reed.: “That is why we need to move from project to process.”

It is thus crucial, in his assessment, that researchers boost the evidence for landscape approaches with good science that honestly reports mistakes and challenges, “A landscape approach is one about trial and error,” Reed added.

Martius applied these lessons in his water and land-use work in Uzbekistan. He took the interdisciplinary ‘jellyfish’ reality of a complex landscape historically managed in an outright top-down approach and developed sets of ‘boxfish-compatible’ answers tailored to each government department, for example those tasked with mapping soil salinity, afforestation, salt-affected croplands and so on.

Reed and Martius both argued that context is key: while the temptation to provide simple answers  has to be resisted, some situations will require going to extreme measures to work with local constituents and reflect the specific conditions under  which they work. However, Reed emphasized how important it is in most cases to move beyond simplifying complicated scenarios, citing previously unsuccessful integrated conservation and development projects that failed to address broader social-ecological dynamics.

“Landscape approaches fail when they become too narrow,” Reed said. “One of the most important factors is to decide who the landscape belongs to, and who is going to manage the landscape process”.

“The landscape approach is effectively a governance strategy. What we find is that different levels of governance are often disconnected and disengaged.”

Eike Luedeling of Bonn University is collaborating with World Agroforestry (ICRAF) to understand why landscape approaches fail. “Often”, he says, “failure happens because people didn’t behave as the planners expected.”

“Decision making under uncertainty requires a much better assessment of risks using simulation models”, he said. Focusing on decision making, Luedeling claims, has made him become a better researcher.

ICRAF Director-General Tony Simons concurred. “In the landscape approach there is as much a role for intuition as there is for formal decision making. It’s not either or.”

Simons believes that it is not a case of simplifying landscapes, or celebrating their complexity, but just treating everything case by case.

“I think we’re trying to do something, but fundamentally, we don’t know what we’re trying to do,” says CIFOR principal scientist Steve Lawry. He believes the central theory is to understand context in the landscape approach.

“We’ve got a problem in the natural world and how we relate to it.”

Social media is the perfect example, he says, where information is exchanged in the absence of context. This, he believes, is played out in landscapes, as “we are unable to see them holistically.”

The mention of a project lifecycle is often met with a disgruntled hum in the science community. The three-year standard is often considered not long enough to impact real change, especially in agroforestry and restoration, where trees take time to grow. Reed’s team however, has had success in convincing donors that landscapes are complicated enough for more ambiguous funding proposals.

Reed believes that stronger networks with bigger engagement processes need to be built, and this includes more meaningful, long-term dialogue with donors, policymakers and practitioners.. “We need to embrace the complexity,” he says.

Integrated landscape approaches are undoubtedly part of the solutions needed to address global poverty, biodiversity and climate challenges. The presenters and panellists agreed that this requires to understand human and environmental interrelations as complex adaptive systems. “We need to get to grips with such complexity”, says Dietmar Stoian, Lead Scientist, Value Chains, Private Sector Engagement and Investments of ICRAF who co-hosted the session. “At the same time, we need to ensure the operation of such approaches and this requires some middle-ground between addressing all the ramifications of a complex system – reflected by the jellyfish – and a reductionist approach exemplified by the boxfish,” he concludes.


Read: Integrating tenure and governance into assessments of forest landscape restoration opportunities


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