Landscape restoration in the shadow of formality

Published on
June 8, 2021

Discussions about soil degradation, biodiversity loss, climate change and Global One Health are currently dominating international politics. Rightly so, as global ecosystems are increasingly exhausted, and have started to let us down. Fortunately, there are taking action, in different ways. Planting trees is the solution we most commonly hear about. This is something we like to do far from home, in tropical landscapes where we mobilise people and resources to plant the trees. Although well-intentioned, these initiatives aren’t always welcomed with open arms by local residents. What they see is new players – foreign companies or organisations – claiming already scarce land for planting trees that don’t really fit into their production systems and livelihoods.

If we really want to contribute to landscape restoration in faraway landscapes, we’d better look first at what local inhabitants are already doing to protect and restore their own landscape. This is what Cora van Oosten, a social geographer at Wageningen University & Research, did for the past ten years. In her PhD thesis Landscape Governance, from Analysing Challenges to Capacitating Stakeholders she describes how landscape actors (inhabitants, farmers, producers, local governments,) restore their own landscapes, putting their food and nutrition security and otherwise livelihood interests first.

Farmers, citizens and businesses: collective action at local level

Cora’s study contains case studies of farmers and forest peoples in the Amazon who are trying to preserve and restore their forests in the face of large-scale road building and agricultural development. In the borderland between Bolivia, Peru and Brazil, she saw people networking across national borders in order to bring about cross-border forest management. She studied rural landscapes in  Africa, for example in Rwanda, where she encountered people in the villages around the capital Kigali who reforested the banks of those rivers providing the capital Kigali with its urban water supply – with all the costs borne by the city’s water users. In Indonesia, she studied the case of progressive palm oil companies that are devising smart ways to make their production areas more sustainable. They do so by designing multifunctional palm oil concessions, providing space for community forest gardens and protected forest, in consultation with local residents.

What do these projects have in common? They contribute to landscape restoration, based on the principle of more integrated land use, designed in collaboration with landscape actors: farmers, citizens and businesses who know their landscape, and who want to take care. They operate within the existing rules and regulations or just outside them, by interpreting them freely, and adapting them to their need and wishes, and in a way that better suits the landscape. Nevertheless, this process is not always without hurdles as Cora's study reveals.

Collective local action in the shadow of bureaucracy

All around the world, we see local initiatives taken by farmers, citizens and companies who jointly experiment with novel crop combinations and production systems. They take initiatives to restore their landscapes, in a way that is ecologically sound, economically interesting and socially acceptable. They are often led by motivated local people who feel a responsibility for their landscape, with which they have a personal connection. At the local level, these initiatives are generally rather successful. In many cases, however, initiatives of this kind do not reach the scale at which they can truly make a difference. They seem to remain outside the formalities, in the shadow of the formal bureaucracy.

Can you explain what that shadow is? Cora: ‘Policies are often developed within a particular sector (such as agriculture, forestry, nature management) and they take little account of what is happening in other sectors. The result is that within one landscape, different sectoral policies contradict as many landscape initiatives are place-based, not necessarily sector based, they get easily bogged down in fragmented actions, supported by some regulations but counteracted by others. Normally, Spatial planning would help to align sectoral policies within a single space, but spatial planning is usually tied to the administrative boundaries of municipalities, provinces or countries, while landscape initiatives often transcend these regulations. The borders of many countries in ‘the South’ have been artificially drawn and have little to do with the landscape dynamics. In other words, there is a mismatch between the governance and the geography of a landscape. Rivers, forests and biodiversity know no borders.

Does that mean that a local approach never works?

Cora: ‘No, that’s not what it means. It’s true, though, that landscape initiatives are often hampered by fragmented policies and administrative boundaries, they remain informal and they don’t achieve the scale needed to be truly effective. But at the same time, local farmers, citizens and businesses frequently come up with smart, creative strategies to stretch, or even change, the regulations. They’re hugely adept at networking, forming all kinds of coalitions to secure a place at the negotiating table. Everywhere, I encountered people who created landscape wide networks, swapped information, learned from one another, and created visions on how their landscape could be successfully restored. But too often these outcomes were too informal to be noticed, and to have a lasting impact.’

So, what can be done? It helps, Cora says, if spatial regulations are made more flexible in all instances, allowing more scope for landscape initiatives that fit in landscapes, ecosystems and cultures. By giving more room to such initiatives, landscapes literally blossom. ‘Landscape actors are often so creative with their innovative and sustainable land use that they easily trespass the lines of formal and sectoral regulations. But that’s fine as it puts those regulations to the test and stretches and adapts them where necessary. This can then lead to the creation of new and more innovative regulations. And these are regulations that may not quite fit the formal policy process, but it’s legitimate because it is supported by the social acceptance of landscape actors, and better tailored to the landscape. I often see this in the tropics, but it’s just as true in Europe, and in the Netherlands, where colleagues who work there arrive at similar conclusions. But governments and policymakers must of course be open to this and be willing to engage in dialogue. And make this the cornerstone of national and international policies, such as currently being developed in the context of the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, which was launched on June 5th.’

The UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration has been launched on the 5th of June. This is a global plan that aims not only to halt but also to restore the degradation of our ecosystem. Cora: “Many people say: ‘Yep, it’s a great plan, but what’s missing are international regulations about how it should be implemented’. I prefer to say that we should forget about the international regulations for a moment and focus all our attention, recommendations and resources on looking closely at what is already happening at the landscape level. Follow the reality and create the conditions in which landscape initiatives can flourish. Follow the advice of landscape inhabitants, their activities, their businesses and their local governments – all those who are experimenting extensively with different ways of landscape restoration that restore ecosystems. In doing so, they also improve cultures, social relationships, their food security and their incomes. Landscape restoration that’s based on the local needs and ambitions of the people who live there, that’s what’s needed. This can in turn lead to large-scale restoration, but without planning and imposition from above.”