Evidence base still weak, despite popularity of integrated landscape approaches

Important to identify key stakeholders and ascertain their common concerns
Abonesh Adisu sells firewood for a living to support her family in Entoto, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. CIFOR/Natasha Elkington

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As the concept and principles of integrated landscape approaches (ILA) become increasingly popular, researchers and practitioners must consider not only their considerable potential to address socio-economic and environmental trade-offs facing people and nature, but also how to monitor and report on ILA outcomes to construct an evidence base that shows us what works and what doesn’t when such approaches are implemented in real life.

Key conclusions from a newly published paper highlight the lack of evidence in the scientific literature concerning the effectiveness of ILA, making it difficult to demonstrate where, and under what conditions, landscape approaches are successful in achieving multiple objectives – or whether such approaches are even feasible.

“In particular this leaves us with an incomplete understanding of the governance and functioning of such initiatives in practice,” concludes the paper, titled: “Integrated landscape approaches in the tropics: A brief stock-take.” Published in the journal Land Use Policy and released in June 2020, the paper is based on a broad review of existing literature, findings, principles and guidelines developed from research into and implementation of landscape uses and approaches.

The paper focuses primarily on the tropics, which represent a “unique geography of concern” because much of the tropics has not achieved the same degree of development as in more temperate regions and concentrations of extreme poverty and malnutrition persist.

At the same time, the tropics are subject to unprecedented levels of environmental degradation. That is due primarily to rapid land-use change associated with clearing forests for agriculture, resource extraction and speculation. Furthermore, a disproportionately large share of global biodiversity is found in the tropics, which raises the stakes in terms of the necessity to sustainably manage these regions.

In the paper, we characterize landscape approaches as involving a governance strategy that “engages multiple stakeholders in attempts to reconcile societal and environmental objectives at the landscape scale to identify trade-offs and potential synergies for more sustainable and equitable land management.” Such work is at the core of our ongoing work in Ghana, Indonesia and Zambia: Collaborating to Operationalise Landscape Approaches for Nature, Development and Sustainability (COLANDS). 

To work effectively in a landscape, a breadth of understanding and knowledge is required and context is always very important. But we find some consistency in recent attempts to develop principles for integrated landscape management: It is important to identify the key stakeholders within the landscape, ascertain what their common concerns might be and attempt to bring them together to negotiate future landscape trajectories in some kind of multi-stakeholder platform.

The stakeholder groups should represent the diversity of interests and sectors in each landscape that are independently facilitated to iteratively consider and re-evaluate needs and objectives. Finally, the entire process should be supported with appropriate monitoring and evaluation frameworks. 

The paper then highlights four key challenges that must be overcome in implementation of a landscape approach: persistent science-practice-policy gaps in environmental governance; challenges regarding private-sector engagement; the limited evidence with regard to the implementation and effectiveness; and challenges related to monitoring and evaluation.

Understanding the complex political history of land tenure is crucial, and landscape approaches should take into account the rights and responsibilities of all stakeholders as well as complex institutional circumstances, the paper adds. Considering the effects that clarifying or enhancing the tenure rights of local stakeholders will have on natural resource management is also important.

As well, the “politics of knowledge” that prioritizes expert over local knowledge and sustains mainstream thinking in social networks still tends to be ignored in academic literature on ILA, despite evidence of the value of local knowledge on agricultural and environmental interventions, says the paper.

Encouraging greater financial support from the private sector should be carefully considered. Landscape approaches need to be long-term processes that engage a wide variety of actors but donors traditionally support project cycles of two to three years; the result is a mismatch with local requirements.

The paper thus concludes that despite considerable enthusiasm for landscape approaches, we need more concerted transdisciplinary actions to address complex political economies in contested tropical landscapes.

Future endeavors need to work with local people, decision-makers and bridging organizations to overcome current barriers and be implemented in varied contexts with robust monitoring, evaluating and reporting systems. In doing so, a greater understanding of what works, why, and under what conditions can be established.


COLANDS is part of the International Climate Initiative (IKI) and is funded by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU).

Ph.D. research is hosted at the Faculty of Forestry of the University of British Columbia and the Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR) of the University of Amsterdam.

For more information on this topic, please contact James Reed at j.reed@cgiar.org.
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