An aerial view of a village in Indonesia, one of the three COLANDS project countries. Aris Sanjaya, CIFOR

Our lands are COLANDS

Confronting common challenges in the field in Ghana, Indonesia and Zambia

Although the COLANDS (Collaborating to Operationalize Landscape Approaches for Nature, Development and Sustainability) initiative was officially launched in 2018, our team had only just started field work when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. This drastically limited travel, binding us to desk-based research on the art of balancing multiple demands for using land in a specific area, otherwise known as integrated landscape approaches (ILAs). 

But this year, we’ve returned to research sites in our three target tropical countries – Ghana, Zambia and Indonesia – and the PhD students working with the COLANDS team in the field are ready to report back on some of their experiences as well as some early findings. 

Through a series of diary posts, the students will also describe how, during the pandemic and as part of our country teams, they continued to engage with people living in the COLANDS research landscapes, and with each other. 

The three country teams are now reconvening stakeholder workshops and resuming strategic planning for upcoming actions. This work will also identify roles, resources and responsibilities required to improve the existing landscape structure and governance. 

What is COLANDS?

The concept of ILAs has gained significant respect in science and academia since it arose about 40 years ago, but there has since been little evidence gathered on how it actually plays out – and should play out – on the ground. Taking the plunge to fill this gap, COLANDS, which began in 2018, brings a science-based yet practical focus to large-scale work on reconciling livelihood, environmental and biodiversity goals among stakeholders with varied and often conflicting concerns in a shared landscape – all while confronting climate change. Work is carried out via ILAs that attempt, often through multi-stakeholder negotiation forums, to accommodate a broad range of wants and needs. 

By applying a range of tools and techniques, stakeholders come together to consider historical events of significance within the landscape, identify current drivers of land-use change, recognize issues of common concern, and collaboratively develop strategies to orient the landscape toward a desired future state. We are optimistic that the facilitation role COLANDS team members have played provide lessons that could be replicated elsewhere and in future projects.

A palm oil plantation in Indonesia. Ricky Martin, CIFOR
A palm oil plantation in Indonesia. Ricky Martin, CIFOR

Recognizing context

Landscapes are highly context-specific, dynamic systems that are subject to drivers of change – and often quick-acting ones too. For example, in Indonesia, commercial oil palm has rapidly changed the landscape, and local communities are faced with tough choices over whether to adopt or resist. In Zambia, unsustainable natural resource use has impacted biodiversity and water security, while in Ghana, a lack of resources and weak governance have inhibited the progress of established community resource mechanisms. As such, for ILAs to be operationalized, maintained and effective, they must be tailored to meet specific needs and challenges. 

In short, there is (unfortunately) no silver-bullet solution to landscape-scale challenges, as what is successful in one context might not work in another; in fact, a solution developed in one context might not even be culturally appropriate in another. Therefore, organizations with the capacity to broker stakeholder discussions and carefully facilitate negotiations are crucial to improving the understanding of the landscape challenges and, ideally, generate shared solutions.

Confronting common challenges

Despite this need for specificity, from our experience with COLANDS, we have found that there are commonalties across the sites, and each has also been affected by emerging issues beyond the scale of the landscape. For example, all three COLANDS landscapes have complex tenure systems where customary and statutory laws overlap, differing degrees of devolution of environmental governance, skewed power dynamics, and a legacy and continuation of externally funded projects designed to mitigate environmental harm and/or improve local livelihoods. 

Meanwhile, global events are also impacting these tropical landscapes. Climate change is increasing forest degradation and the frequency of droughts that further increase food and livelihood insecurity. The increasing reach of transnational supply chains is exposing communities to new markets that can offer opportunities but also significant risks. Unstable geo-and regional politics means the threat of civil unrest has increased in concern. And, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted lives and livelihoods across the planet.

Charcoal production in Zambia. Mokhamad Edliadi, CIFOR
Charcoal production in Zambia. Mokhamad Edliadi, CIFOR

COLANDS fieldwork diaries

Although progress has been significantly impacted in each of the sites, perhaps hardest hit has been our Ghana site. The team members there initially planned to conduct research in Burkina Faso, but social unrest forced us to relocate to Ghana roughly two years ago. Then, plans were stalled again by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as with the other countries, the Ghana team recently held its first post-COVID stakeholder workshop, engagement with local communities and development planners has been maintained, and planning is now well underway for a theory of change workshop in September.

Our COLANDS fieldwork diary posts will talk more about what has been happening with our teams in all three of the research countries. Read them here:

James Reed is a researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), within the theme of Sustainable Landscapes and Livelihoods (SLL). His research focuses on strategies that seek to reconcile conservation and development objectives in the tropics. He is currently working on the CIFOR COLANDS research program on operationalizing integrated landscape approaches in Ghana, Zambia and Indonesia.

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