Think of a place, a landscape, that is important to you in some way.


Seriously.  Don’t read on until you’ve thought of that place.

Ready?  Okay…

For me, the first place that comes to mind is a landscape in the Canadian prairies.  Although I grew up in the city, I could still step out of my front door, turn left, and out past the end of the street look across the open prairie.  If you’re not familiar with it, some places in the prairies are among the flattest places on earth.  From the street in front of my house I could look west across the wheat fields to the horizon, miles off in the distance.

The slogan of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan is “Land of the living skies”, and for a good reason.  Under a clear blue sky, dotted with the occasional wisps of cloud, you can look to the horizon—look ten kilometers beyond the horizon—and watch a thunderstorm build up for an hour or more as it slowly comes your way.  I love watching the gathering turmoil of the churning thunderclouds.  I also love lying on my back at night on a hilltop (yes, there are a few hills here and there), and looking up at the endless expanse of stars, the wispy cloud of the milky way and, on some nights, the glowing dance of the northern lights.

Another feature of that landscape is the winding valleys etched into the flat skin of the land.  These valleys are where I went canoeing with my friends, tobogganing with my brother, and fishing with my uncle.  But when I think about that landscape today, sitting at my desk in a big city 13,000 kilometers away, I don’t picture myself in the valley, but standing at the edge of it: the prairie stretching out to the horizon on one side of me and the rippling hills descending down to Long Lake on the other.

But let’s get back to the landscape that you chose to think of.  Bring up a picture of that landscape in your mind.  Now ask yourself this: Why is this landscape important to me?

If you thought of a very practical reason—“I earn my livelihood from this landscape”, or “It provides clean water for me and other people who live downstream from it”, or some other tangible, material reason, then ask yourself a second set of questions.  What if I was provided with some other solution to that tangible need?  What if I started to earn my livelihood some other way that doesn’t need this place and its resources?  What if I and the other the people downstream found a sustainable and inexpensive way to pipe in the water we need from a different place and we no longer needed the water from this landscape?

Would this landscape still be important to me?  Would I still care about it?

Connections to Nature

When people have a connection to a place, to a landscape, to nature, it usually goes far beyond tangible practicalities.  Even those people whose job is to extract resources from a place will tend to eventually develop a connection that is emotional, even spiritual, and that transcends the material benefits they get from that landscape. In fact, for someone who passes their days out on the land, developing that kind of connection is almost inevitable.  Nature gets under your skin.

Understanding people’s connections to nature is crucial for people working to facilitate sustainable resource management, conservation, landscape approaches and the like.  When you ask someone, “Why is this landscape important to you?”, and then you ask them, “Why is it really important to you?”, the answers will often come in the form of stories—stories of the first time they herded the family goats without an adult present, stories of how their father took them camping, stories of about the times they really felt the beauty of the place.  These kinds of historical, emotional and spiritual connections often have little to do with material interests.  Instead they are about values.

In research that I’ve done in rural communities in Africa living adjacent to parks or other kinds of conservation areas, especially communities who have seen their access to those places restricted, I repeatedly encountered strong environmental values.  These communities are often seen by the conservation industry as a problem, or even an enemy.  Yet, the rural people I’ve met and interviewed love talking about the land and nature.  They would talk about the days when antelope would walk through their village “just like sheep and goats”.  They would speak wistfully about the early days of the national park when the park authorities used to send a bus to collect the children of the village and take them on a game drive (no budget for that any more – now the budget is needed for paying rangers to keep them out of the park).  They would talk about the awe of their first time ever seeing a leopard.  I met so many people who loved talking about the beauty of their land.  These are values that call out to be mobilized in natural resource management, in conservation and in landscape approaches.


Positions.  Interests.  Values.

In the first post of this blog, I mused about the concept of “stakeholders” and how landscape approaches tend to be thought of as a way of helping diverse stakeholders to reconcile their interests around a shared landscape.  Values are different than interests.  That difference is captured in the difference between “Why is this place important to you?” and “Why is it really important to you?”

Taking values seriously has implications for how we promote participation, decision-making, dialogue and deliberation in landscape approaches and natural resource management. Years ago, when I was studying everything I could on participatory development, group facilitation, and conflict resolution, Fisher and Ury’s famous book on mediation, Getting to Yes, influenced me deeply.  Getting to Yes advocates a strategy of shifting conflict resolution from negotiating over positions to negotiating over interests.  The authors observed how conflicts are often in deadlock because the two sides have irreconcilable positions.  Positions can take on a life of their own distinct from people’s actual interests.  Fisher and Ury advocate an approach based on directing attention to the parties’ interests, and unpacking, articulating and dialoguing on those interests.  It’s easier to find common ground and discover creative solutions for reconciling differing interests than it is for differing positions.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to go one step further:  we need to move away from focusing on interests to focusing on values.  Landscape approaches are about finding and creating harmony in the diversity of people, land uses, ecosystems, and resources that are connected to any landscape.  It is in establishing common ground across people’s values that we have the best shot at a lasting movement toward the goal of finding and creating that harmony.

I’m not suggesting that you simply assume that every stakeholder has positive environmental values and noble intentions.  Sometimes the person on the other side of the negotiating table will not have a connection to the landscape beyond short-term, material interest.  But sometimes they will.  The driving motivation of the forest company executive may be short-term profit maximization; but if they have had a chance to pay attention in the landscape where they’re working, to observe and listen, to spend any time being in that landscape, then it’s quite likely that they too have started to grow such connections, and to have such values also come into their thinking.

More importantly, the very act of bringing values out into the open by making them part of the deliberation amongst diverse stakeholders can help to awaken these values.  And if these values become part of the dialogue, the willingness to find solutions that respect those values is increased.

Sometimes in a landscape approach, the key negotiation is not between the powerless locals and some powerful outside interest (the dam-builder, the logging company, etc.); sometimes it’s between two different local perspectives.  Disagreements between farmers and herders is the classical example, one that goes back to the Book of Genesis and that, in some countries, continues to this day.  Where farmer-herder conflict has gone on for a long time without resolution, the positions of the two sides are often entrenched.  And the interests are distinct: they want different things.  But explore the values of the two sides—they will tend to not be very different.  If the parties involved can see the common ground in their values, their real interests can become clearer.  The farmers and the herders may still want different things, but with a common ground based on values it will become easier to find solutions that accommodate everyone’s interests.

For those of us facilitating landscape approaches, engaging with values should be a key ingredient in our task of finding and creating harmony in the diversity of people connected to a landscape.  Negotiations over how many hectares to set aside for conservation, how many trees to plant where, what the rules will be for the pieces of land that the farmers and the herders share, and other practical details will need to happen.  But don’t start there.  Let the “stakeholders” talk about their values, tell stories, and explain why the landscape is important to them.  The common ground of values will make it easier for people to articulate their real interests and make it easier for all of them to find creative solutions that accommodate differing interests.  Suddenly, “positions” will start to seem much less important.

*   *   *

If you’re interested in further reading, here are some of my publications on values in environmental governance:

The Role of Values in a Community-Based Conservation Initiative in Northern Ghana The Role of Values in a Community-Based Conservation Initiative in Northern Ghana

“We Want Our Children to Grow Up to See These Animals:” Values and Protected Areas Governance in Canada, Ghana and Tanzania