Managing telecoupled landscapes for the sustainable provision of ecosystem services and poverty alleviation

This research project pursues the overall goal of devising and testing innovative strategies and institutional arrangements for securing ecosystem service flows and human well-being within and between telecoupled landscapes.

​About the project

  • Background

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    Landscapes on forest frontiers in the humid tropics provide powerful examples of the challenge to reconcile human development with increasingly evident planetary boundaries. These social-ecological systems not only have to meet the immediate livelihood needs and the broader development aspirations of their local populations. They are also expected to ensure the complex mix of ecosystem service flows that support human well-being locally and provide environmental benefits worldwide. At the same time, global forces have come to outweigh local determinants of land use change in these landscapes. Driven by demands for agricultural expansion and intensification, fuel, carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, and more, these forces consist not only of socio-economic ("globalization") or environmental interactions ("teleconnections"), but increasingly encompass combined socio-economic and environmental interactions between two or more distant socio-ecological systems. This phenomenon, which land change scientists have recently conceptualized under the term "telecoupling", points to major methodological and empirical research gaps.

  • Objectives

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    This research project pursues the overall goal of devising and testing innovative strategies and institutional arrangements for securing ecosystem service flows and human well-being within and between telecoupled landscapes.

    More specifically, the project will be guided by the following objectives:

    1. Socio-ecological systems at different stages of telecoupling are assessed and understood in terms of their capacity to provide ecosystem services for human well-being.
    2. Recurrent processes of telecoupling are identified and generalized from case study research as a basis for predicting pathways of land use transitions and for strategy planning at different spatial and temporal scales.
    3. Multiple stakeholders learn and adapt their land use decisions based on knowledge sharing, joint model development, and future scenarios.
    4. Adaptations of actors' decision-making on SES are systematically monitored, understood, and shared.
  • Relevance

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    This project strives at impacts both in terms of scientific research as well as in terms of development policy and practice. The main contributions to scientific research will consist of: Linking supply of and demand for ecosystem services in forest frontier contexts: linking claims by different actors at different levels to ecosystem service flows to reveal trade-offs and synergies as well as winners and losers in time and space Advancing the telecoupling framework in land system science and geography: we will analyse land use decisions across distance and scales by linking place-based and process-based conceptualisations of space Exploring transformations to sustainable development: guided by a sustainability perspective we will design and monitor multi-stakeholder learning processes for innovative institutional arrangements.

    The key contributions to development policy and practice will consist of: Improving effectiveness of reform actors: empower reform actors across sectors and scales with knowledge and capacities for evidence informed land use decisions and policy Developing innovative approaches: testing new institutional arrangements for forest frontier contexts through innovative action research projects Linking context-specific experience to global policy: feeding evidence informed policy messages into regional and global dialogues and platforms through partnerships with specialised organisations

  • Highlights and selected results

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    In the first 2.5 years of the project we achieved the following key outcomes:

    • Through transdisciplinary collaboration with key stakeholders in Myanmar, Laos and Madagascar at the national and regional levels, we have identified land use changes, which are key in terms of sustainable development pathways. Stakeholder workshops included participatory mapping of land use changes and the subsequent evaluation of those land use changes’ impacts in terms of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). The following land use changes have been considered as most important: Transformations from forest and shifting cultivation to commercial plantations, to large-areas of forest conservation, to mining, as well as commercial extraction of Non-timber Forest Products (NTFP).
    • Guided by a detailed set of criteria and the results from the stakeholder workshops, we selected six case study sites in forest frontier contexts, which reflect a gradient of telecoupled interactions and pronounced differences with regard to the pace of land use changes.
    • Through intense discussions within the research team as well as together with non-academic stakeholders in the three research countries, we operationalised the concept of telecoupling for the present study. Complementing a conventional a-priori spatial delineation of our case-study sites, we take relevant land use changes as starting points to analyse the network of all relevant actors interlinked by flows of goods, capital, information, and guided by institutions. Meaningful spatio-temporal system boundaries will be delineated as an outcome of our empirical research. Such a research approach shall bring a more conventional place-based approach into play with a process-based perspective on land change, allowing us to advance the concept of telecoupling and demonstrate various ways of its operationalisation.
    • To ensure comparison of case study results across the different contexts and between the three countries and Work Packages we elaborated detailed Methodological Guidelines with common research protocols and shared databases.

    In each country, we conducted 2-3 field missions to gather data on our research questions. The following are our key insights:

    • WP1: For the real-time follow-up of continuous land use changes in the case study landscapes, we have developed a participatory mapping approach. First results reveal regime shifts from subsistence to commercial agriculture in all three countries. Through gender-separated focus groups we have contextualized the meaning of well-being for local land users in our sites, to then explore how well-being has changed. Actors related to land use change were followed with a snowballing approach along flows of information, goods, and capital. An actor survey revealed their strategies with regard to land use and the social networks connecting them. Preliminary results indicate that the connections of actors in terms of flows are not congruent with the connection of actors in terms of institutions.
    • WP2: We defined our target variables (land-use categories) in collaboration with WP1. The trade-offs between cash and subsistence crops are a central element in decision- making in Madagascar and Laos. In Myanmar, however, rice cultivation is of lower importance. In all case study areas, we successfully delineated driving mechanisms for most important land-use changes and included them in our Bayesian networks. Consequently, we better understand how markets drive land-use decisions and to what extent distant and potentially telecoupled drivers are in play.
    • WP3: Our research showed that successful facilitation of social learning among different stakeholders requires different approaches in our three case study countries. In Madagascar, intensive multi-stakeholder workshops and video showed to be very fruitful, whereas in communist Laos a more step by step procedure needed to be developed, starting with homogeneous actor groups. In post-conflict Myanmar an even more careful approach was required that is based on professional mediation. However, several aspects showed to be important for all three countries: trust building, addressing the interests of different stakeholders, careful process facilitation, and ongoing reflexivity.

    To start our intended pathway to impact, we established regional and local stakeholder platforms. Through carefully facilitating the stakeholder platforms, we could create the basis for more transformative activities in the second project phase.

  • Geographic scope

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    • Lao s
    • Madagascar
    • Myan mar
  • Project website and links to P3

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