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News Story
12 December 2014

Moving Targets: Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainability in Frontier Landscapes

SIANI and EcoAdapt hosted a lively discussion at the Global Landscapes Forum 2014 on ways to improve land use governance in frontier landscapes, including ways to engage diverse actors, resolve conflicts, and address everyone’s needs and concerns.

Landscapes across the developing world are changing rapidly, mostly due to accelerating demand for food and other natural resources, exacerbated by climate change and other factors. Over time, novel societies are emerging in these “frontier landscapes”, with diverse actors who have different productive strategies, cultural and migration histories, and access to capital, technology and markets.

Several SEI researchers are working in such landscapes across Latin America, through projects such as EcoAdapt, an EU-funded collaboration focused on ecosystems-based approaches to water governance and adaptation. Most recently, SEI’s Toby Gardner and Javier Godar spent three weeks in Brazil, meeting with policy-makers and civil society stakeholders concerned about deforestation in the agricultural-forest frontier in the Brazilian Amazon.

“There is a pressing need for more effective sustainability governance in these regions,” says Godar. “A key first step is to recognize the diversity of actors – from large commercial farms geared to global commodities markets, to very poor and subsistence farmers; established communities and newcomers. Frontier regions need well-run, inclusive dialogue platforms that bring these actors together and works with them to develop sustainability measures that meet their diverse needs and concerns.”

But how do you build such a platform? Are there success stories that others can emulate or scale up? Aiming to answer these questions, Gardner, Godar and Tahia Devisscher, an SEI Oxford researcher who is a coordinator of EcoAdapt, organized a side-event on 7 December at the Global Landscapes Forum. The event, co-sponsored by EcoAdapt and SIANI, the Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative, drew about 100 people for one of the liveliest discussions at the GLF.

A wide range of perspectives
The event brought together perspectives from researchers, local NGOs, and mid- and high-level decision-makers – some on stage, others acting as a “hidden panel” in the audience. Participants were also given green, red and yellow cards to quickly convey agreement, disagreement or questions.

The key message that emerged is that frontier landscapes urgently need innovative institutions to create legitimate spaces for dialogue amongst diverse actors, including and especially the most marginalized. But such spaces, it is clear, are still very rare.

The success stories shared at the event were small-scale and local, and mostly involved NGOs, civil society and research organizations, not government entities. At the national level, one of the positive examples cited was Peru’s recent creation of a Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion – sending the message that stakeholder engagement is essential for socially just, legitimate and effective development.

Summarizing the discussion, Tasso Azevedo, a senior adviser to the Brazilian COP delegation, emphasized that frontier landscapes are, by definition, fast-changing, “messy” places with limited governance; “when you achieve good governance, you’re sort of past the frontier”. The challenge in these regions, Azevedo added, “is how to increase social capital at a speed that is higher than the loss of natural capital”.

Tailoring policies for frontier landscapes
Gardner, who was a panellist, said it’s important for policy-makers to recognize that frontier landscapes cannot be governed in the same way as less diverse or dynamic regions. Not only do they need policies and measures that are tailored to different actors; it’s also crucial to understand how those actors interact with one another, and identify opportunities and risks in those interactions.

“It is incredibly rare to find examples of policies that explicitly address multiple actors and how they interact,” Gardner said. “In fact, there are remarkably few platforms where the most established and the most marginalized actors actually interact. There is an abyss between the two ends of the spectrum.”

One key idea raised by the panel, Devisscher noted, is that you cannot expect people with radically different backgrounds and interests to get together and immediately tackle contentious issues. “You need to build trust and relationships first,” she said. “One good way to do that is to start by focusing on shared concerns such as water security, health or education. That way you can establish the common ground needed to address challenging problems.”

Participants also discussed what it takes to create a successful multi-actor dialogue platform. NGOs and researchers often fill this governance gap in frontier landscapes, but they will only succeed if they work to build trust and legitimacy, are proactive in building capacity and leadership among local actors, and are flexible and adaptive to changing local conditions.

Researchers in particular need to be careful not to treat local communities as research subjects, panellist Gregoire Leclerc from CIRAD said, but rather, they need to design their research with them to meet local needs. This also means recognizing that local communities have a great deal of knowledge and experience of their own, and they often have very different views of the land than the researchers joining them.

“For me that is what inter-culturalism really means,” said panellist Yolanda Ramírez, director of research and human development at AIDER, in Peru. “We connect people’s knowledge and experience with our scientific knowledge, and work towards common objectives.”

The Global Landscapes Forum event is not the end of the discussion. The team has produced a briefing note summarizing key messages from the event, and they are also producing a short film and a longer paper. “We invite anyone interested in the topic to join the discussion,” said Devisscher. “We want to distil more lessons and success factors that could be applied in other locations or studied further.”

Download the key messages summary in English and in Spanish

Would like to know more? Download the recent publication on “Governing for sustainability in agricultural-forest frontiers: A case study of the Brazilian Amazon” by Toby Gardner, SEI and Javier Godar, SEI.

More about the importance of landscape governance in frontier landscapes

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