Landscape approaches

For several years, the signposts marking the professional path that I was on were labelled with terms such as community-based natural resource management, community-based conservation, and land tenure. Recently though I turned onto a path marked “landscape approaches”. The signposts on this path promised that it would help those who chose it to look beyond administrative boundaries and to bring together land owners, government agencies from various sectors, community organizations, and other stakeholders to manage shared ecosystems and spaces collectively. The need for working in this way, bringing people together to talk across disciplinary, sectoral and geographic boundaries, seemed to me to be self-evident.

And it still does. Now, however, I am feeling the need to step back and reflect on what landscape approaches at their core are all about. What is the spirit of this thing called “a landscape approach”?

The Global Landscapes Forum describes the landscape approach as an approach to balancing competing land use demands and integrating considerations related to food and livelihoods, finance, rights, restoration, and progress towards climate and development goals. The Center for International Forestry Research, one of the champions of the landscape approach, refers to it as an approach to addressing, in an integrated way, the complexity of social, political and environmental challenges that transcend boundaries.

There is some variation in how the term is used and applied—enough variation that it is probably more accurate to speak of landscape approaches than a singular landscape approach. Nevertheless, there is a strong consensus on key principles. Negotiation, consensus-building, and working from a point of common concerns are central to landscape approaches. Landscape approaches involve stakeholders engaging in dialogue to seek out solutions together for a given geographic space, giving particular attention to ecosystem function.

In seeking out solutions, integration is key. Landscape approaches are about integrating different sectors and disciplines. They are about integrating multiple uses of the land and resources on the land. And they are about integrating the diverse, and sometimes competing, interests of diverse stakeholders.

Landscape approaches do not inherently assume that win-win solutions can always be found, but they do assume that through negotiation, deliberation and other forms of dialogue, stakeholders can often reach consensus on how to manage tradeoffs. Inherent in the landscape approach is an assumption that it is often possible to achieve these three kinds of integration—integration across sectors and disciplines, integration of diverse land and resource uses, and integration of diverse stakeholders.

The spirit of landscape approaches: Harmony in diversity

With that in mind, to answer to my question “What is the spirit of the thing?”, I want to propose the following: landscape approaches are about finding and creating harmony in the diversity of people, land uses, ecosystems, and resources that are connected to any landscape.

However, this leads me to I wonder if there is an inherent contradiction in how we think of landscape approaches. Landscape approaches are usually described as something that involves “stakeholders”. People have interests—stakes—in the land, its resources, and how the land and resources are used. When people are conceived of as stakeholders, the challenge of landscape approaches becomes one of negotiating tradeoffs between competing interests. In multi-stakeholder approaches, the interests themselves are seldom questioned; instead, the action revolves around finding common ground to accommodate the interests. Multi-stakeholder approaches are not typically concerned with seeing if people’s interests might change.

If my goal as a landscape approach practitioner is to find and create harmony in the diversity of people connected to the landscape, but my conceptualization of what human beings are reduces them to being bundles of fixed interests in competition with other bundles of different and opposing interests, and all dialogue and participation are reduced to negotiation, then I’ve created an uphill battle for myself.

Multi-stakeholder negotiation, however, is only one way to conceive of participation and dialogue. For instance, participation can instead be based on the idea of citizenship: each individual is a citizen with the right to participate in deliberation and decision-making around issues that affect them. He or she participates not as a stakeholder but as an individual citizen.

Alternatively, participation can be based on communities: people participate based on being part of one or more communities. Any landscape may have several communities within it, and a landscape approach can structure its dialogue as dialogue amongst the communities. In such an approach, the primary agents are the communities: Community A is in dialogue with Community B. When participation is based on communities, the individual participates not as a “stakeholder”, but as a member of a community.

What seems to be more common in landscape approaches, however, is participation in which people are treated as stakeholders. People are seen as belonging to particular stakeholder groups which have bundles of commons interests. Dialogue takes the form of negotiation aimed at agreeing on tradeoffs amongst the competing interests. This may be an overgeneralization that doesn’t reflect the diversity of how landscape approaches are being implemented, but it does seem to be the predominant way of describing and thinking about participation and dialogue in landscape approaches. The assumptions inherent in this predominant conceptualization concern me. The words we use affect how we think about things, and how we think about things affects what we do.

As a human being, I am not simply a bundle of material interests. I have connections to other people in the landscape which go beyond the happenstance of shared interests. As a human being, my connection to the landscape where I live and work is not only material; it is also emotional, cultural and spiritual. Presumably all the other people connected to this landscape—the people we call “stakeholders”—also have their own emotional, cultural and spiritual connections. There may be some commonality in these emotional, cultural, and spiritual connections, but there might also be a great deal of diversity. So, if the aim of a landscape approach is to find and create harmony in this diversity, then it behooves us to look beyond the material interests.

Concepts to consider

Don’t get me wrong—the material interests are important. But they are not the only thing. Another way to look at and understand these issues relates to the concept of community. Community is the idea that a group of people who have some shared values and understandings can constitute a collective that is something more than the sum of the parts. Engaging with community—or communities, plural—can be part of achieving the sought-after harmony in a way that goes deeper than merely negotiating tradeoffs.

Another concept that sheds light on the landscape approaches is values. Here I am not talking so much about the kinds of values that people assign to some external object—I value that landscape because I like to go hiking there, or that landscape is valuable to me because it’s where I earn my livelihood. These can be important, but I’m talking more about the kinds of values that people hold—values in the sense of principles and ideas that people hold dear. Engaging with held values is vital to achieving the aims of landscape approaches.

Lest you accuse me of wearing rose colored glasses, let me make it clear that I do not believe that it’s easy to just bring together diverse groups of people, settle all their competing issues, differing interests, and old grievances and, by identifying some common held values, create a community of communities. So here is another concept that can shed light on what is important in landscape approaches and can help take them beyond simple multi-stakeholder negotiation: justice.

An approach based on negotiation amongst stakeholders is not one that will necessarily conduce to justice. Some people and groups are more powerful than others, have more resources than others, and have advantages that others do not have. Some groups are not able to enter a multi-stakeholder process with a strong negotiating position. Where injustice characterizes some of the relationships within a landscape, a multi-stakeholder approach will not necessarily help to achieve the goal of creating harmony. To be effective, a landscape approach sometimes needs to focus squarely on justice and must involve action that changes power relations and helps disadvantaged groups claim a voice.

Wander with me

The issues and concepts that I’ve touched on here are what this blog is about. I decided to start it in part to help myself—to force myself to devote time to think about some issues that have been bouncing around in the back of my mind for quite some time. As I make connections wandering from topic to topic, landscape approaches and landscape governance will never be more than a couple of nodes away, but I’ll also touch on practices such as community-based natural resource management, community-based conservation, landscape restoration and land use planning. I’ll explore where community, values, justice and deliberation fit in these kinds of approaches. I have a particular interest in pastoralist rangelands, so I will probably talk about these kinds of systems a little more than any other. From post to post, this blog is not likely to follow a well-planned path. I intend to wander around in these topics and try to make sense of it all as I connect some dots. As I do this, I hope that from time to time you, dear reader, will encounter an idea or two that you find helpful.