I am generally optimistic about approaches for environmental management and governance that are based on dialogue and deliberation, bringing together diverse stakeholders, and searching for common ground.  And I am, obviously enough, a believer in the potential of landscape approaches for contributing to sustainability.

However, now that landscape approaches have a growing number of proponents and are attracting interest and even a little bit of funding, it seems a good time to step back, play devil’s advocate for a moment, and ask “When is a landscape approach not appropriate?”


Unwilling stakeholders

First, it is important to remember that landscape approaches are built around the willing participation of the communities and stakeholders connected to a landscape.  They are built around bringing diverse stakeholders together for dialogue, deliberation and negotiation on shared problems.  Of the ten principles of landscape approaches identified in the seminal paper by Sayer and co-authors[i], at least three directly reflect this kind of consensual, negotiated methodology:

  • having a common concern as the entry point;
  • the involvement of multiple stakeholders; and
  • pursuit of a change logic that is negotiated and transparent.

Sometimes key stakeholders will not see the need for this work, or the benefit, or simply do not have the time or resources to participate.  In these kinds of situations, it can sometimes be possible for an external party to carry a process forward, particularly if they are well-resourced.  Doing so, however, is almost never a good idea.  There is little point in creating an externally driven process that does not have local stakeholders in the driver’s seat.Now that landscape approaches have a growing number of proponents and are attracting interest and even a little bit of funding, it seems a good time to step back, play devil’s advocate for a moment, and ask “When is a landscape… Click To Tweet

I suggested in an earlier post that the spirit of landscape approaches is an attempt to find and create harmony in the diversity of people, land uses, ecosystems, and resources that are connected to any landscape.  Recognizing this diversity means recognizing that in any landscape there will be a diversity of interests.  And one of the reasons that problems persist is that often it is in someone’s interest that they persist.  In the right circumstances, dialogue among different groups can illuminate their interconnectedness and help them to identify pathways to finding and creating the desired harmony in their interests.  As external facilitators, we should not be quick to shy away from engaging stakeholders in difficult discussions about complicated tradeoffs and differing interests.  However, a danger that landscape approaches sometimes face is that powerful groups who are benefiting from the status quo may simply choose to not to participate.


Hijacked deliberation

On the other hand, a landscape approach facilitator needs to be even more careful when powerful groups do participate.  It would be a mistake to assume that deliberation and negotiation processes are necessarily level playing fields.  Merely having less powerful groups at the table doesn’t guarantee that their interests will be protected.  The danger, however, is not simply that the interests of disadvantaged groups will be inadequately represented; the greater concern is that multistakeholder deliberative processes could be actively mobilized by powerful groups to maintain the status quo or even to strengthen their positions of privilege.

One stage in the process when these considerations of position and power manifest is in deciding what the “landscape” in the landscape approach will be.  There is an assumption in the sustainable landscapes movement that meaningful landscapes—whether they are conceived as ecosystems, watersheds, or problemsheds—will seldom, if ever, correspond to administrative jurisdictions.  In fact, bringing stakeholders together from across jurisdictional boundaries is a common thread in landscape approaches.  At the same time, a focus is needed—a landscape approach does not target everywhere and everyone.  There are decisions to be made about just what landscape you’re dealing with.

This, in itself, is not a problem—in fact, it is one of the questions that stakeholders should deliberate on.  The challenge arises, however, from the fact that decisions about what constitutes the “landscape” are inextricably linked to decisions about who gets to have a seat at the table.   Insofar as activities that are a part of the landscape approach will involve decisions about access to and use of natural resources and sometimes about allocation of financial resources, they carry with them the possibility of exclusion, marginalization, and perpetuation of existing power dynamics.  Decisions about what is and is not included in the “landscape”, are also potentially decisions about who gets a seat the table, and thus also have a bearing on whose access to resources may change and whose interests will be served.

The upshot for a facilitator of landscape approaches is this:  if you can’t be reasonably sure that the activities you are supporting will not be mobilized to marginalize vulnerable groups or to perpetuate unjust power relations, then step back.

When should you not use a landscape approach?  Answer:  When there is a good chance that powerful interests will use the landscape approach activities to maintain their own position of privilege and continue the marginalization of already marginalized groups.


What to do instead?

This raises the question of what a change agent can, could and should do when she determines that the time is not right for different stakeholders to be brought together to deliberate on environmental problems and possible solutions.  One answer to that question is to help the most vulnerable and marginalized communities and groups to build their capacity so that they are more prepared to hold their own when eventually they do sit down at the multi-stakeholder table.  Capacity building in a vacuum is never as effective as capacity building in the context of actual action.  So rather than starting with a multi-stakeholder landscape approach, in some situations a more appropriate starting point is for these groups and communities to work among themselves, to seek out what room they have to maneuver, and to take action within their own sphere of influence.

Power dynamics, marginalization, and sustainability are also influenced by larger social processes, including policies, legislation, and government funding, so these can be another target for action by change agents.

Each of these two types of actions are valuable in their own right and when carried out together can be understood as a strategy of working from above and from below to create an enabling environment, a foundation on which landscape approaches can later be built.

I’ll mention one more.  Sometimes, the communities and other stakeholders have found the need to create their own process, are figuring things out their own, and don’t need your help, and that’s also okay.



[i] Sayer, J. A., T Sunderland, Jaboury Ghazoul, Jean-Laurent Pfund, Douglas Sheil, Erik Meijaard, Michelle Venter, et al. 2013. “Ten Principles for a Landscape Approach to Reconciling Agriculture, Conservation, and Other Competing Land Uses.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110 (21): 8349–8356. http://www.pnas.org/content/110/21/8349.