February 1, 2012

Taking a Landscapes Approach

Trees transform degraded land in Cameroon and Tanzania

By Dr. Tony Simons, Director General
World Agroforestry Centre, Nairobi, Kenya

The answer to the question “what is a landscape?” differs tremendously depending on the respondent. To a landscape ecologist it is a cluster of interacting ecosystems; wildlife experts may consider it as a set of habitats; to a farmer it is about how adjacent land interacts with his/her farm; and to a politician it is an aggregated governance body of area. Yet regardless of who is responding, their definition of a landscape refers to an area of land composed of a mosaic of heterogeneous elements.

Etymologically speaking, the word “landscape” was first recorded in Dutch over 400 years ago in 1598, as a painters’ term to describe the scenery of a canvas. Essentially, a landscape was the panorama that could be seen through a single scan of the horizon. The lack of hills in Holland probably confined its meaning to a few square kilometers at that time. Go higher up the terrain and the expanse of scenery could have a radius as large as 330km, assuming you were on top of Mount Everest. Go 27,000 km up to the height of the first satellite photograph taken in August 1959, and you can see the whole of Mexico. As early as 1759, landscapes were given human and ecological contexts with the incorporation of the word “satoyama” into the Japanese language. Today more than 500 million internet addresses use the word landscapes, albeit with varying degrees of clarity. Fundamentally, though, landscapes are about scale, and how it affects the different patterns of occurrence of land features, organisms, and natural habitat.

The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), with its tagline of “Transforming Lives and Landscapes,” embodies the dual environment-development landscape approach. Agroforestry simply put is about the integration of trees on farms for economic, environmental and social benefits. Our units of interest span across individuals, genders, communities, associations, local governance, tonnes of production, quality of produce, diversification indices, stability of yield, cubic metres of water use, milligrams of daily nutrients, percent of soil organic matter, carbon stocks, kilograms of fertiliser, currencies of income, hectares of land, prevalence of title deeds, and floral and faunal taxa. To cope with this complexity we organize our landscape work around seven themes:

  1. tree planting materials
  2. tree-based farming systems
  3. tree products
  4. land health
  5. climate change
  6. environmental services/policies, and
  7. farm-forest margins

Within this broad research-development agenda we play the roles of (1) providing robust evidence for better decision making on policies and investments; (2) producing actionable knowledge for farmers, NGOs, extensionists, and others; (3) capacity development; (4) proof of application to investigate ways to accelerate impact; and (5) convening role to link across partners, disciplines, sectors, and landscapes.

With the developing world beset with perennial problems, we see an increasing role for perennial solutions, and suggest trees as suitable candidates provided we have the right tree for the right place for the right reason. ICRAF is proud to be one of the eight co-organisers of the Landscapes for People Food and Nature Initiative. We are committed to raising global awareness, understanding, and recognition of the link between better land management and human development, through this initiative. Together with other co-organisers we call on stakeholders, partners, agencies, and investors to give it the attention and resources it requires and deserves.

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