Thinking like a Landscape

By Matthew Fagan, Ph.D. This article was originally posted on Dr. Fagan’s blog, The Earth From Above, on December 28, 2014. Cross-posted here at EcoBlogic with permission.

Dave Kramer, our Senior Manager for Impact, Learning, and Innovation, attended the Global Landscapes Forum in Lima, Peru, at the end of 2014. The Forum provided EcoLogic with a big dose of inspiration for our own landscape-level conservation work. Read more about how EcoLogic is working on scaling up our impact from the community level to the landscape by clicking here! In this piece, Dr. Fagan shares his own reflections about the GLF and the importance of landscape-level conservation and land use planning.

The Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) finished in Lima, Peru today. I am excited about their continued development of the integrated landscapes approach. Supported by a wide variety of governmental and non-governmental organizations, the GLF seeks to break down the silos that exist among land-use specialists (fun Q: Why don’t foresters talk to agricultural economists or water managers very often? A: They go to different meetings and publish in different journals.).

San Mateo Ixtatán Landscape Guatemala

The stunning mountainous landscape of San Mateo Ixtatán, Guatemala

The integrated landscapes approach recognizes that multiple objectives and perspectives can be encompassed in the same landscape. It argues that landscapes need to be managed as wholes, with certain land-uses better suited for different regions. With adequate planning that conserves and connects different areas and recognizes the needs of different stakeholders, there is room for achieving many different objectives in any given landscape. We can protect nature, feed the planet, enrich the poor, and sequester carbon to combat global warming and ocean acidification.

It may sound like a pipe dream: have your cake and eat it too. But it is important to remember that nature rarely requires ALL of a landscape to maintain biodiversity. Similarly, people rarely require ALL of a landscape to produce food. Between those two extremes, there is a real and undeniable opportunity to create the conditions where nature and humans coexist in a synergistic relationship.

One can imagine a landscape where hill forests protect water and lowland farms produce food. Careful protection of selected lowland forests and river corridors could maintain many lowland species, and careful siting of mines and logging projects in the mountains could maintain regional water quality.

And sure, there are plenty of cases where ecological realities, poor planning, or unfavorable economic conditions force win-lose choices in landscape planning. A landscapes approach is not an exercise in blind optimism; it simply recognizes that win-win situations can be promoted if stakeholders and experts work together. An integrated landscapes approach often leads to a restoration roadmap for the way back from a win-lose choice. One conservation-oriented success story is chronicled in the book “Green Phoenix”, which details the restoration and expansion of a national conservation area in the dry northwest of Costa Rica.

What do we need to know about landscapes to support informed, integrated decisions about land-use management? I would argue that we need to know how different land-uses interact across space, and what the basic requirements are for different land-use objectives. If we want clean ground water in our well, we should minimize pesticides on our farm—but water quality is also affected by one’s uphill neighbors. It is only by working together in a democratic, egalitarian process that we can ensure clean water for all farms. But who is more important for groundwater quality: uphill farmers near streams, or uphill farmers on steep slopes? That’s where good science comes in.

Taking an example from my work in Costa Rica, if we want wildlife to persist while producing cattle, pineapples and bananas from the same area, we need to know several things. We need to know where forests need to be protected, how to best protect them, how to effectively connect the forests so organisms don’t get stuck on forest “islands” and go extinct, and where to reforest to reconnect isolated forest patches. And that’s just to protect the natural side of things; planning to sustainably increase production of agricultural crops in a forest-dominated region is even more complicated. Science is integral to supporting this political process. So, scientists and landscape planners: work with people who are planning together to care for their home, and you could save a forest near you today. Or you could plant a farm with life-saving corn. If you plan well, you could do both.

Matthew Fagan just finished a Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University on changes in forest connectivity in northern Costa Rica. He blogs mainly to justify his insatiable news-addiction.

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