Social innovation helps landscape governance

Government policy is often at odds with private companies, farmers and local residents’ attempts to manage landscapes. Social innovation can make bottom-up change possible, as Wageningen researcher Cora van Oosten discovered. She developed a method for this in Rwanda and Indonesia.

There is increasing interest on the part of companies, residents and farmers to work together to coordinate the functions and services of an area and make use of the landscape’s uniqueness, for example to create local products. This is called the landscape approach.

Government policy is often not conducive to this as it is based on general rules rather than the needs of a specific landscape. In Rwanda, for example, the government policy is reforestation. Land is either for forest or for agriculture. A mix, say of trees between fields, is not allowed.

Blind eye

After doing a brief study, Cora van Oosten discovered that the rules could be adjusted. It started with a farmer who ignored the government rules, and planted trees in between his cassava plants. The overseer turned a blind eye. The policymaker who read a report on it knew that this was illegal, but thought it wasn’t such a bad idea – and so adjusted the regulations.

In this way a new policy emerged that is more in tune with reality, through bottom-up change, says Van Oosten. ‘It’s an example of what I call social-spatial innovation.’ Similar examples emerged during a workshop that CDI organised with the Rwandan government and the FAO, which was part of her study on social innovation and landscape management.

Palm oil

In the landscape approach, social innovation also involves bringing about new forms of cooperation, says Van Oosten. For example in Indonesia, where a palm oil company in West Kalimantan created a new business plan jointly with smallholders and local residents. Van Oosten looked at how they went about the experiment. ‘It was very innovative. The company creates corridors in the palm oil plantation, strips of land where forest is retained. That increases the biodiversity. The company works together with locals and small-scale farmers to produce palm oil sustainably.' This palm oil is sold with a certificate, and therefore has added value. Once again, though, it was the government that got in the way. According to Indonesian policy, land that is designated for palm oil production must actually be planted with oil palms in order to prevent speculation. ‘The social innovation that arose from the palm oil company and the farmers working together requires change on the part of the government,’ sums up Van Oosten.


Van Oosten says the landscape approach is promising because it can a smart way to coordinate the interests of different users, and one that takes into account the uniqueness of a landscape. But bringing complex processes of collaboration to successful outcomes requires special skills of the people guiding them. Van Oosten developed a method for increasing landscape governance capabilities. Stakeholders come together and increase their spatial understanding and learn about each other’s interests. Then they work jointly to formulate a spatial plan for the area and its implementation. Governments and NGOs all over the world are now using this method in many different contexts and the results are clearly positive. ‘In this way we help to manage landscapes, and to restore them in an economically feasible and socially acceptable way.’