Pooling knowledge in tropical landscapes key to resilience

Unlocking opportunities for equitable, sustainable development
Aerial view of the landscape around Halimun Salak National Park, West Java, Indonesia. CIFOR/Kate Evans

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The active involvement of everyone living and working in a tropical landscape – from local communities and governments to the private sector and researchers – may be the only way to ensure equitable, sustainable development and landscape resilience, says a new research paper.

This integrated approach should include the pooling of indigenous and locally based knowledge, scientific research and policy imperatives, as well as an understanding of associated tradeoffs – a process at the heart of building stronger networks and improving governance. That, in turn, is needed to harmonize conflicting interests and facilitate engagement in tropical landscape decision-making processes, according to the paper published in the journal Biological Conservation.

“Locally relevant, people-based strategies are crucial to secure meaningful and long-term engagement,” says the paper. Its public release comes as an in-depth, innovative research project is delving into understanding what works – and what doesn’t work – in tropical landscape governance.

The five-year project, Collaborating to  Operationalise Landscape Approaches for Nature, Development and Sustainability (COLANDS), involves a multi-country comparison of landscape approaches. The ultimate goal is to better understand what tools stakeholders need to better manage land, resolve land-use disagreements, support productive land uses as well as achieve development, environment and biodiversity goals.

Applying a landscape approach, “essentially means using a governance strategy that brings together many stakeholders representing multiple sectors to identify land-use synergies, such as engaging local community members in sustainable supply chain initiatives; while balancing trade-offs – for example, land for food or land for conservation,” says the paper’s lead author James Reed, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“The goal would be to better understand and influence governance systems that seek to reconcile climate, conservation and development agendas while avoiding biodiversity loss. But to do so, we must first reconcile persistent disconnects across scales, sectors, and disciplines,” says Reed.

Ultimately, multi-stakeholder engagement can contribute towards countries meeting their international commitments in confronting climate change, achieving targets for climate change mitigation and improving conservation and development.

Country efforts will be influenced not only by the actions of national governments and international trading companies, but also the decisions of tropical communities and smallholders, says the paper. However, engaging stakeholders and “navigating” such a complexity of actors and actions will require moving beyond traditional and often contradictory sectoral land management approaches.

Sectoral thinking, or focusing on just one aspect of a problem or system, is a serious obstacle to reconciling challenges facing climate mitigation, conservation and development strategies.

Such a focus, according to the paper, is increasingly seen as inadequate to address linked social-ecological challenges. Instead, a more integrated approach is appealing although challenges and mismatches between institutions and objectives are widespread — whether addressing leading environmental issues such as peatland management and fire in Indonesia, bush-meat extraction in Cameroon or rates of deforestation in the Amazon.

Enhancing coherence between landscape actors and decision-makers, and finding incentives to change behaviors at multiple scales can improve the sustainability of landscape approaches. The paper identifies a number of tools and strategies to support such processes; for example, using models and scenario-building tools is considered important to help attract stakeholders and inform them about the implications of their decisions concerning landscape dynamics and responses.

Forecasting-scenario exercises also enhance knowledge, capacity and empathy by exposing stakeholders to diverse perspectives and could therefore be part of a tool kit to increase equity and sustainability in landscape governance.

“The process of developing models and alternative future scenarios—particularly when performed in a participatory manner—can help engage stakeholders to recognize and respond to social and biophysical fluctuations, trade-offs and synergies,” the authors suggest.

Meanwhile, independently facilitated, multi-stakeholder fora that utilize boundary partners that enable links between research, policy and practice can further enhance actor engagement. Such fora should aim to co-develop inclusive and transparent theories of change with clearly identified objectives and process indicators. While such engagement can be expensive, convening regularly can help everyone involved to re-visit and re-consider land-use decisions over time.

As well, including local communities and policy makers in the stages of design, implementation and monitoring of landscape-scale management helps bring to light trade-offs and synergies early in the process, which can enable adaptation in order to secure better outcomes. However, the paper concludes that in order to fully evaluate the processes and impacts of integrated multi-stakeholder engagement, more research is needed.

For more information on this topic, please contact James Reed at
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