November 10, 2015

The Great Balancing Act of the 21st Century necessitates the Landscape Approach

Amanda Grossi, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University

As the curtains rise on the global development stage, the scene is set: A population swelling upwards of 7.3 billion people is occupying a world with finite space.

These are the 7.3 billion actors who must choose what part to play in what might be titled The Great Balancing Act of the 21st century, where competing interests for limited land must be balanced. Agriculture, mining, pastoralism, and more all vie for space and demand our attention.

Changing the narrative can bring contested ideas into agreement

What if these land uses weren’t competing interests but were instead integrated and could work synergistically (where possible) as part of a holistic approach to land management? The “landscape approach” reconciles this new narrative with the approach of land use management common around the world today. This strategy for managing natural resources and human systems strives to equip people with the tools and concepts to effectively allocate and manage land to balance environmental, economic, and social goals.

The concept is not new, but the attention that it is now receiving arguably is. In a recent assessment of the knowledge needs of the outreach partners of the CGIAR program on Forests, Trees, and Agroforestry (FTA) carried out this summer, over one fourth (26%) of the outreach partners interviewed identified land use research as one of their knowledge needs.


More work that considers the context of a specific place is needed to effectively adapt rural communities to modern environmental challenges. Featured here is a farm in western Kenya that is operating under an integrated framework. Photo by C. Schubert (CCAFS), from CGIAR Climate on Flickr.

Of these partners identifying land use research as a priority, 71% requested more research regarding the landscape approach in their unique contexts. While some of the outreach partners specifically mentioned the landscape approach by name, others referenced principles consistent with the landscape approach.

The requests for such research came alongside other commonly expressed needs. These included more well-rounded impact evaluations for not only environmental impacts, but for social and economic ones as well. This feedback came in addition to general appeals by almost one-third of participants for context-driven research that is tailored regionally and sub-regionally that can easily be applied.

A call for more contextual research to support on-the-ground action

These responses by the outreach partners spanning multiple continents and the gamut of organizational types (i.e. NGOs, government ministries, private businesses) suggest a couple of things. For starters, it demonstrates the clear presence of organizations, operating on-the-ground, that are thinking more holistically about their work and its impacts. Conversely, it diagnoses current research as deficient in addressing the complexities unique to different geographic locations and the distinct economic, social, and political situations that characterize each locality.

In the Great Balancing Act of land interests, communities must walk a line of sustainability that might be described as a tight rope, where the risks and perils of missing a step in this age of climate change and environmental degradation are great.

Motivating sustainable land use starts in the details

However, the contextual “rope” that each country walks is not the same, and even within a single country there is inter- and intra-state variation. The foundations upon which sustainable solutions must be built and the components that must be manipulated and leveraged toward this end can be quite different in various situations.

Yet, scientific research that is generated with good intention and the concomitant recommendations thereof are often not adapted to unique contexts, and a clear roadmap for actualizing good use of new knowledge is often not set forth. There is a distinct research-policy-action gap, to which another approximately one-fourth (26%) of participants called attention to during the same assessment.


Within each country and place, there are distinct  conditions that must be considered in development projects to address integrated challenges, such as agricultural development for addressing the Sustainable Development Goals. Photo by Sajal Sthapit, from EcoAgriculture Partners on Flickr.

Multiple land uses within a landscape are interconnected, and should be researched and managed as such

Therefore, moving forward, if the global research community is to appropriately respond to the needs of the organizations putting in the footwork on-the-ground, it will have to acknowledge not only the call for additional research on topics like the landscape approach, but also the type of research that was called for—contextually driven research that still takes into account systemic linkages.  In the case of research on land management, this necessitates an appreciation of the various geographic idiosyncrasies of land use management issues integrated within a larger framework of social, economic, and political factors.

To truly address the Great Balancing Act of our century, this type of interdisciplinary, holistic research is necessary to demonstrate the importance of sustainability measures in land use as a vehicle for integrated social change. In terms of the Sustainable Development Goals, no single objective can be actualized without consideration of at least one or more of the other 16 goals; the Age of Sustainable Development is defined by acknowledging linkages. Therefore, if we are to move Sustainable Development to center stage in The Great Balancing Act of the 21st century, the global research community must evolve its approaches to incorporate the linkages that were always inherent, but finally being acknowledged, in its work.

Read More

FTA Needs Assessment Executive Summary

FTA Needs Assessment Report

The Sleeping Giant of the Research-Policy-Action Chain of Development

Amanda Grossi is a Masters student with the School of International and Public Affairs of Columbia University. For her degree in Public Administration in Development Practice, she worked with the World Agroforestry Center in Nairobi, Kenya to assist in the development of Phase II of the CGIAR Program on Forests, Trees, and Agroforestry via a knowledge needs assessment of its outreach partners. Her academic and professional interest in food security, nutrition and rural development was fostered during her time with the Peace Corps, where she served as an agroforestry extension agent in Senegal.
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