Agricultural landscape in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia

The landscape approach, 17,000 papers later – Talking ’bout an evolution

CIFOR, with several partners, published an exhaustive review of the integrated landscapes approach analyzing almost 17,000 publications (read that one again – 17,000!). Read an overview of their findings here.

Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest were initially derided and rejected, leading Darwin himself to delay the publication of his seminal text, On the Origin of Species. Yet today, his theories are commonly accepted as principles that explain the diversity of life on Earth as the product of millions of years of evolution.

To draw a modest comparison, it might be argued that the ‘landscape approach’ has undergone a process of evolution itself to become the guiding principle on multiple use management today. It might also be argued that, much like evolution, the process is still ongoing – while the landscape approach has been central to development discourse for many years, it has yet to fully realize its potential in practice.

In the grand scheme of evolutionary epochs, the development of the landscape approach over the past few decades has been but a relative drop in the ocean of time. However, it should be said that this drop has generated a veritable tsunami of rhetoric, literature and knowledge about how we can clothe, feed and house an ever-growing human population without degrading our natural environment.


The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), in collaboration with several of its partners, has recently completed an exhaustive review of the literature on the integrated landscape approach, scrolling through almost 17,000 documents (yes, read that again: 17,000!). Acknowledging a growing interest in the landscape approach in the literature and at international fora, we wanted to better understand exactly what it could offer in practice.

We wanted to determine whether the landscape approach could really make a difference in a world of ever-depleting natural resources, or whether it was just another fad for donors and development communities searching for the next best thing. We asked ourselves: “Is it just old wine in a new bottle?”

According to our extensive review, the landscape approach is more than just a new way of packaging old ideas. The evidence suggests that it has considerable potential to better balance societal and environmental objectives within both terrestrial and marine environments, as well as to act as a framework for implementing national commitments toward achieving the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The major findings of our review help to untangle a web of knowledge produced by previous attempts at reconciling pressing conservation and development challenges, primarily in the tropics. They illustrate that integrating conservation and development is a continually evolving process. Armed with the knowledge developed and shared over the past 30-plus years, we must now set about rectifying the mistakes of the past.

With a bit of creative tweaking, we were able to develop key recommendations for effectively facilitating a landscape approach, which we call the five Es: evaluate progress, establish good governance, evolve from panacea solutions, engage multiple stakeholders and embrace dynamic processes.

Meanwhile, our results suggest that the greatest hindrance to fulfilling integrated livelihood and environmental goals has been a tendency toward over-simplification and linear thinking.

SDG infographic
The newly agreed SDGs could benefit from a landscape perspective

Previous attempts at integration focused on single outcomes were constrained by project structures within strict logframes and concomitant short funding periods. Recent environmental and social history is replete with the broken promises of conservation and development organizations, as they failed to deliver the much vaunted ‘win-win’ outcomes of decoupling social development from environmental degradation.

Whether it be integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs), integrated natural resource management (INRM), integrated water resource management (IWRM), community-based conservation, or integrated rural development, few initiatives have escaped criticism for inadequately addressing one or other of the issues facing people, poverty, and the sustainable use of the environment across broader landscapes.

And herein lies another problem. The scientific community may also be culpable for the lack of real progress on implementing landscape approaches in practice. It may be argued that researchers, including us, have tended to muddy the waters with seemingly endless defining, refining and re-branding of landscape approaches to the point that confusion reigns.

This has not been helped by a lack of tangible reporting in the literature. Bridging the gap between science and practice remains a major constraint to real progress on landscape-scale interventions.

While we don’t expect to arrive at universally-accepted, broad-brush approaches to integrated conservation and development, past evidence suggests that engagement among researchers, policy makers and practitioners should be encouraged. And as the recent global embrace of the SDGs shows, engagement is also relevant and welcome.


A landscape approach does not explicitly set out to deliver win-win outcomes. The compelling nature of a landscape approach is the fact that ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ are recognized but, through compromise and negotiation, the underlying principle is that of ‘winning more and losing less’.

Indeed, a landscape approach may not even identify ultimate objectives, since the ultimate objective should always be the broader goal of sustainable development. But will this always be achieved? Probably not. Therefore, the value of a landscape approach is in recognizing the importance of progress toward outcome objectives. In terms of continued learning, the journey itself may in the end be more valuable than the ultimate destination.

Desired outcomes will likely depend on the context-specific characteristics of each landscape. As such, progress and success are subjective, and will be perceived differently by different stakeholders. Achieving consensus in many tropical landscapes will therefore require better integration across sectors and open, transparent dialogue to identify how trade-offs can be managed and synergies encouraged.


Not exactly. Despite some encouraging signs and the obvious potential that landscape approaches offer, we have identified a number of potential barriers to progress.

Not least of these, despite claims to the contrary, is a current lack of widespread real-world implementation. We speculate that this could be due to time lags – new approaches take time and frameworks for implementation of landscape approaches remain very much in the nascent stages of development.

One area that certainly needs to be further refined is that of monitoring and evaluation. Landscapes are large socio-ecological systems and present financial and technical challenges for monitoring – challenges that will best be confronted by overcoming institutional or intellectual silos (another challenge!).

Researchers, politicians, foresters, agriculturalists, the private sector, and others have too long operated within their disciplinary silos. Landscape-scale interventions can only become effective through a more holistic and integrated approach to land management.

This will not only involve increased negotiation between sectors but also across scales, in both space and time. Increased collaboration will be key, as Charles Darwin recognized, “in the long history of humankind (and animal kind) those that have learned to collaborate have prevailed”.

We acknowledge that landscape approaches are not the only means to address contemporary societal and environmental challenges in the tropics and, in some contexts, other approaches will likely be equally effective. However, we feel that the evolution of the landscape approach has reached a point where we can achieve the multiple benefits we all, as a collective society, aspire to. If you don’t believe us, just ask Darwin!



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