Integrating local knowledge into policy is vital to sustainable livelihoods

Landscape research highlighted during COLANDS event at forestry conference
Consultations to understand relationships key in landscape approaches. Photo by Freddie Siangulube, CIFOR.

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Communities in southern Zambia rely on local knowledge to manage resources including land, forests and water. They are an example of why it’s essential to understand the role of this knowledge and how local practices contribute to sustainable natural resource management, according to preliminary research outlined at a global forestry and livelihoods conference.

Evidence-based policy that incorporates such local knowledge and ensures community voices are integrated within decision-making processes is also vital to successful integrated landscapes approaches (ILAs), said Malaika Yanou, a University of Amsterdam PhD candidate working with the Collaborating to Operationalize Landscape Approaches for Nature, Development and Sustainability (COLANDS) initiative.

“Women are especially important knowledge-holders for land management, agriculture practices, and tree conservation,” Yanou said in her presentation on 9 October 2022 during a COLANDS session at the Forests & Livelihoods: Assessment, Research, and Engagement (FLARE) network annual conference in Rome. Researchers, scientists and practitioners met during three days for over 35 sessions, plenaries and workshops during FLARE.

In Zambia’s Kalomo District, Yanou used ‘photovoice’ research methods – recording voices and images during walking interviews with smallholder farmers and villagers – to examine how local knowledge and practices contribute to conservation practices in and around Kalomo Hills Forest Reserve. These methods also revealed practices relevant to ILAs, including conservation strategies, taboos and beliefs, sacred landscapes, livelihood traditions, and climate indicators.

For some in the Kalomo District landscape, social networks offer a sense of empowerment,

said Alida O’Connor, a PhD candidate with COLANDS who conducted over 40 interviews and 9 focus group discussions on collaborative resource management.

“Power can help to explain the link between institutions and action – or inaction,” said O’Connor, who studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and is now researching leverage points for improved collaboration. Whether people followed rules often depended on the level of respect they held for whoever made the rules, said some interviewees. For others, adhesion to the rules depended on whether it would affect their access to familiar markets (i.e., for charcoal production) and an opportunity to earn quick cash in times of need.

During the COLANDS session, participants emphasized the need to recognize who are the powerful actors within a landscape – from government to business to large organizations – and how they behave, as well as their implications for and impacts on other stakeholders. The initiative has been working towards implementation of ILAs in three study areas: Zambia, Ghana and Indonesia.

   The COLANDS event at FLARE. Photo by Sandra Cordon
   The COLANDS event at FLARE. Photo by Sandra Cordon

Failure to understand the politics of human-nature relationships and how these are negotiated could restrict the implementation of a landscape approach, which might otherwise help manage resources among stakeholders, said Mirjam Ros-Tonen, Associate Professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and International Development Studies, University of Amsterdam.

“What is required is a political ecology of landscapes to unravel power differences, discourses, and the politics of knowledge prior to ILA implementation,” said Ros-Tonen.

Landscape approaches have emerged as one of the most widely advocated means to address growing pressures on land, water, and other resources, as well as to accommodate the needs of present and future generations, facilitate the framing of development and conservation needs, simultaneously, and steer the evolution of landscapes towards desirable futures.

COLANDS aims to address gaps between ILA theory and weak implementation by facilitating dialogue across multiple actors, sectors, and decision-making scales, raising awareness of the value of biological diversity in complex landscapes and empowering participation of marginalized groups in decision-making, explained team leader James Reed, a CIFOR scientist.

One popular tool used to address issues of equity and counter-power are multistakeholder platforms (MSPs) – but merely having seat at the table isn’t enough to ensure counter-power. Instead, a critical mass of Indigenous and local peoples is essential, according to research presented by CIFOR scientist Anne Larson, during one of several sessions featuring CIFOR-ICRAF researchers. Her team’s study, presented with co-author Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti, a scientist based in Peru, included interviews with participants of 13 subnational MSPs (and one national) in four countries: Brazil, Ethiopia, Indonesia and Peru.

It may be that MSPs should evolve from a process of consultations to become more innovative forums for negotiations that encourage stakeholders to genuinely engage in seeking inclusive and acceptable outcomes, said Freddie Siangulube, a University of Amsterdam PhD candidate also with COLANDs working in Zambia. “MSPs are not necessarily an end in themselves but rather aim to uncover issues and seek more methods of ensuring inclusivity and acceptable decisions,” he said.

Through focus group discussions with farmers, herders, forest product operators, women, elders, and youth in Ghana, researchers collected feedback on the role of MSPs, as well other information concerning landscape governance problems/challenges, types of stakeholders, and perceptions of different stakeholders concerning landscape governance. PhD candidate Eric Bayala explained how MSPs and relationships between actors and decision-making bodies – and the inclusiveness of these – were all being analysed now through the COLANDS initiative.

The FLARE event reviewed a range of topics, such as agroforestry, which was discussed in the presentation Forests Sustaining Agriculture: New evidence of the role of forests and trees in food production by Terry Sunderland, professor of Tropical Forestry at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and CIFOR-ICRAF senior associate.

Interpretations of local responses to oil palm promises in Kalimantan, Indonesia were discussed by Linda Yuliani, a CIFOR-ICRAF scientist and COLANDS team member in a session on data and methods for understanding and promoting forests and human wellbeing. Puzzling out integrated watershed management in Indonesia’s Kapuas Hulu was described by CIFOR-ICRAF’s Moira Moeliono, and CIFOR-ICRAF scientist Amy Ickowitz, COLANDS team leader, presented findings on mangroves’ contribution to food security and nutrition in Indonesia.

During another session, CIFOR-ICRAF scientist Houria Djoudi did a presentation on leveraging the power of forests and trees for adaptation of people and ecosystems.

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).

 PhD research that is part of COLANDS is hosted at the Institute for Social Science Research of the University of Amsterdam and the University of British Columbia.

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

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Topic(s) :   Blue carbon, mangroves and peatlands Food security Community forestry Wetlands Rights Gender