Management of natural resources is typically pursued through traditional, sector-specific approaches, i.e. agricultural, forest and water management.  New resource management approaches are needed if multiple, competing social and environmental targets are to be reconciled.  Integrated “landscape-scale approaches” provide scope for meeting these competing targets by exploiting inter-sectoral synergies.

Landscape approaches can do this by managing natural resources at broader geographic scales rather than as individual sites.  This provides a wider range of biophysical inputs, processes and outputs, therefore effectively creating a local marketplace of “needs” and “offers” between different neighbouring resource functions.

For example, competition for forest and agricultural sites can be reduced based on biophysical synergies between these land uses.  Crop yields can be doubled by ensuring optimal nitrogen concentration in the soils of agricultural sites4.  Nutrients such as nitrogen can be provided to these sites through the fixation of nitrogen in soils by areas of neighbouring forest; in fact, the only natural mechanism for performing nutrient re-cycling in-land are tropical forests5, 6.  This in turn reduces the amount of land needed to grow the same quantity of a crop, thus reducing the rate of tropical deforestation to provide land for agriculture[1].


Landscape scale approaches do however have challenges.  For example, it requires more effort at the planning stage than traditional methods to facilitate co-operation and dialogue between stakeholders who may ordinarily operate independently given the increase in scale.  However the evidence suggests that the effort involved in this planning garners net social, biophysical and financial benefits in the longer term2.  The success and applicability of these approaches is also highly context-specific; a solution or set of solutions successful in one landscape scenario may not work in another.  However, the more the approach is adopted, the greater the level of understanding that can be shared on a global basis.

Other biophysical synergies between traditionally competing land uses which can be explored and exploited through a landscape approach include combining agriculture and forestry through agroforestry which in the right context can assist in the management of watershed management. A key step in the hydrological cycle is rainfall infiltration, the ability of water to pass through the land surface and replenish rivers.  A key part of effective rainfall infiltration is soil integrity, the ability for soil to stay in place without excessive compaction or erosion.  Hillside farmers who adopt agroforestry systems help to maintain soil integrity, stopping downstream soil erosion by ensuring that areas of trees and shrubs stabilise their land.  This in turn enhances rainfall infiltration providing benefits to water management objectives.

The second type of synergy achievable through landscape scale management is the social or political synergies which exist between different economic actors within a landscape.  Just as individual resources can co-exist and compliment one another on a bio-physical basis, so too can traditionally competing social and political groups.  For example, indigenous groups can provide the manpower and labour needed on degraded sites within a landscape – land potentially owned by another stakeholder – to bring that land on-line for subsequent use.  In return, these groups can be granted legal rights to the land they inhabit.  Granting these rights not only protects them from commercial interests, but allows them to protect and manage the land they – and the rest of the world – depend on7.

The net financial benefits enjoyed by all stakeholders achievable through landscape scale approaches also frees up finance for use as a mechanism for easing tensions between different groups and to facilitate co-operation.  For example, larger corporate players have financial resources to play with but may lack access to sufficient land to grow the quantity of crops needed to fulfill their supply chains.  Smallholders on the other hand may lack the financial resources to deploy the technology needed to implement agricultural intensification, but hold the keys regarding whether they choose to use their land for agricultural production or preservation of forest.  This choice for smallholders between competing land functions is resolved by the corporations funding agricultural intensification – simultaneously solving the commercial objective, the preservation of forest and resolving a conflict in the mind of the smallholder.

Landscape-scale approaches have huge potential to reconcile competing social, economic and environmental resource-based objectives.  However, if they are to be successful and used to their full potential, they need to be considered on a case-by-case basis and founded on transfer of knowledge from experience between different practitioners around the world.


[1] Tropical forest is being cleared at an alarming rate; ~ 25 per cent since 1990 (FAO).


1 C. Dean, M. Workman, S. Schillebeeckx, and N. Shah, ‘Modern Resource Scarcity: Complexity Bound by Environmental Sink Constraints’,  (2016).

2 Global Canopy Programme, The Little Sustainable Landscapes Book (2015).

3 M. Garforth, and N. Dudley, ‘Forest Renaissance: The Role of State Forestry in Britain 1919-2050 – a Discussion Paper’,  (WWF-UK / Forestry Commission, 2003).

4 Nathaniel D. Mueller, James S. Gerber, Matt Johnston, Deepak K. Ray, Navin Ramankutty, and Jonathan A. Foley, ‘Closing Yield Gaps through Nutrient and Water Management’, Nature, 490 (2012), 254-57.

5 R. Costanza, R. de Groot, P. Sutton, S. van der Ploeg, S. H. Anderson, I. Kubiszewski, S. Farber, and R. K. Turner, ‘Changes in the Global Value of Ecosystem Services’, Global Environmental Change, 26 (2014), 152-58.

6 R. Costanza, R. d’Arge, R. de Groot, S. Farberk, M. Grasso, B. Hannon, K. Limburg, S. Naeem, R. V. O’Neill, J. Paruelo, R. G. Raskin, P. Sutton, and M. van den Belt, ‘The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital’, Nature, 387 (1997).

7 Global Landscapes Forum, ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Rights and Land Tenure’,  (2015).