- Biodiversity is essential for safeguarding food security, ecosystem function, and human well-being.
- A collaborative study by the Collaborating to Operationalise Landscape Approaches for Nature, Development and Sustainability (COLANDS) team highlights the need for incorporating the ecological dimension in integrated landscape approaches.
- India aims to better integrate biodiversity conservation and livelihood objectives through the Biodiversity Conservation and Rural Livelihood Improvement (BCRLI) project. However, identifying land-use synergies and balancing trade-offs across scales and sectoral boundaries will be key for sustainable landscape management.
Biodiversity, the variety of life across genes, species and populations, plays an integral role in ensuring food security, ecosystem function, and human well-being. Amid alarming reports of skyrocketing species extinction rates due to biodiversity loss, global agencies are calling for urgent action. In one response, the United Nations has designated the next 10 years as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. But we must also learn to integrate biodiversity into the way we manage landscapes.
We know that the single largest threat to biodiversity is habitat loss, largely driven by agricultural expansion for food production. Land-use change is another major driver of biodiversity loss and is underpinned by multiple socio-economic issues, such as food security, livelihoods and indigenous rights.
These must be addressed together, as part of a much larger landscape management plan that includes the interlinked social, environmental, and economic challenges to achieve both biodiversity conservation and livelihood security. This is why integrated landscape approaches (ILAs) are rapidly gaining support across sectors, as they offer significant potential for reconciling multiple land-use objectives. These involve integrating the different functions within a landscape, such as agricultural production, biodiversity conservation, and the provision of ecosystem services. These components influence each other in many ways, and trade-offs and synergies will arise as these are being addressed.
Recent integrated landscape approaches have focussed a great deal on social dimensions, such as social impacts, governance structures and the socio-political and financial barriers of implementation. However, that has come at the expense of biodiversity and the potential trade-offs between components. A recent paper published in Landscape Ecology by the COLANDS team and partners highlights the need for a thorough examination of the ‘integration’ component, so we can better understand the contribution of biodiversity in landscapes, and assess the challenges and ways to incorporate the ecological dimension within ILAs.
Why is biodiversity important?
Biodiversity is extremely important for multiple reasons. Biodiversity and forests, for example, contribute to livelihoods and human well-being directly by providing wild vegetables, fruits, edible insects and bushmeat and by increasing dietary diversity and nutritional quality. Biodiversity maintains and enhances ecosystem services, such as pollination, seed dispersal, pest control and carbon sequestration – all crucial for agricultural production, ecosystem functioning, and our well-being. Biodiversity also provides benefits to human health by reducing disease-transmission risk through a ‘dilution effect’ as disease transmission rates decrease with increasing diversity of animal community of potential hosts. This is critical to prevent potential zoonotic spillover such as COVID-19 in future.
Though it is widely accepted that these goods and services are essential, the complexities of these relationships are not well understood and often not endorsed by decision-makers. Furthermore, ecology, the overarching science dealing with biodiversity, is rarely reflected in public land-use policies. This can be explained, at least in part, by the number of challenges that limit the integration of ecology into landscape approaches. Project funding cycles, for example, tend to be short-term while monitoring landscape ecological dynamics needs long-term engagement. Another problem: natural science and social science disciplines are each specific, and the history of reconciling traditional and scientific knowledge is quite poor. That’s despite an acknowledgement that local land managers often hold considerable place-based ecological knowledge.
Incorporating biodiversity in integrated landscape approaches
To better integrate ecology – and with it, biodiversity – the paper by the COLANDS team and partners suggests the integration of two approaches: one focused on conventional scientific studies of biodiversity and biophysical parameters; and one focused on the participation of relevant stakeholders. The two approaches should inform one another.
Results of conventional scientific studies should be shared with local land managers, and participatory methods should bring local knowledge and priorities to inform scientists and relevant decision-makers. Such participatory engagement will also shift the traditional, expert-led system towards a more inclusive system where local stakeholders evaluate and outsiders facilitate across various stages from design to implementation. We must also align ecological principles with the principles for knowledge co-production. That means any ecological assessment should suit the particular social, economic and ecological contexts in a landscape and explicitly recognise the multiple ways of knowing and doing, in order to ensure a range of perspectives on a given issue.
Broad coalitions of stakeholders, such as local communities, governmental and non-governmental organisations and land managers, need to develop a collective understanding of the challenges and an agreed measure of success through frequent interactions during the process to ensure collaborative implementation. Thus, the greatest benefit of ecological studies will be delivered via a transdisciplinary approach that, from the outset, engages a range of sectors, disciplines and stakeholders. This will help identify issues of most concern, plus any institutional, financial, and technical capacity needs, and contribute to co-developed action plans with high local significance. Various ecological approaches can be used to support ILA design and monitoring.
For example, ecology plays a key role in assessing spatial and temporal variation in biodiversity and ecosystem services. This involves collecting or compiling data on species presence and their abundance, the ecological services they deliver, and their uses and relational values perceived by local people. Similarly, ecological experiments could support ILAs by allowing researchers to determine drivers and predict the outcome of future events. That is key, as landscapes are experiencing rapid and unpredictable change, and understanding past events through snapshot studies or long-term monitoring may not predict non-linear or sudden changes. Furthermore, they should be considered alongside established principles for landscape approaches, governance, as well as existing ecological principles.
Embracing integration across its many dimensions will be key to progress in the implementation and evaluation of ILAs in future. Each particular context is critically important, but general principles can still apply. The application must be based on a solid understanding of past trends and current threats and actions need to have local relevance. A greater focus on the ecology of landscape approaches is necessary to enhance understanding of the functioning of landscapes through pattern/process dynamics and ensure that this is better incorporated within land-use decision-making. Meanwhile, greater integration of local socio-economic (and political) dimensions is necessary to shine a light on local lived realities and deliver on the promise of ILAs to be truly integrative.
Implementing integrated landscape approaches in India
In India, a mega-diverse country where millions of people rely on forests to sustain their livelihood in rural areas, the biodiversity crisis and decline in ecosystem services has posed a critical threat to the wellbeing of the local communities.
This calls for a more integrated approach to landscape management that brings social, environmental and local knowledge together. Programmes such as Joint Forest Management, Van Panchayats, and Eco-development, first recognised these interrelated aspects and attempted to link conservation and development objectives through participatory land management with the local communities. But these programmes were implemented at the local level only in priority sites. Recent initiatives, such as India’s Biodiversity Conservation and Rural Livelihood Improvement (BCRLI), have built on the earlier models to better integrate conservation and local livelihoods at a broader landscape scale. This multisector and interdisciplinary project, piloted in the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat and Askot in Uttarakhand has been expanded to four additional landscapes across India, i.e., Indus Valley (Jammu and Kashmir), Satpura (Madhya Pradesh), Dampa (Mizoram) and Agasthyamalai (Kerala-Tamil Nadu). These biodiverse landscapes, however, face challenges including conflicts over forest rights and customary and political control, lack of trust between local institutions such as Van Panchayats and the state Forest Department, and lack of government and financial support. Identifying land-use synergies and balancing trade-offs across scales and sectorial boundaries will be crucial in sustainably managing these landscapes to reconcile social, environmental and biodiversity goals.
Joli Rumi Borah is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sunderland Lab, Faculty of Forestry in the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her broad research interests are sustainable management of agricultural landscapes for biodiversity conservation and human well-being and ecosystem services management. James Reed is a researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), within the theme of Sustainable Landscapes and Livelihoods (SLL). He is also team leader of the Collaborating to Operationalise Landscape Approaches for Nature, Development and Sustainability (COLANDS) initiative. His research focuses on strategies that seek to reconcile conservation and development objectives in the tropics.
Banner image: The Agasthiyamalai range of the biodiversity-rich Western Ghats as seen from the rainshadow region of Tirunelveli, India. Photo by PlaneMad/Wikimedia Commons.