The community of the “undisciplined” marches on

It was a busy seven years in Bern. This spring, the Global Land Programme, an international network of land system specialists, moved its coordination office from CDE to the University of Maryland in the US. We wanted to know from the key people behind the scenes: What were the highlights? What challenges went unsolved? And what opportunities are opened up thanks to the new GLP headquarters?

The Global Land Programme’s 4th Open Science Meeting was held at the University of Bern in 2019.

Text: Gaby Allheilig; Photos: Manu Friederich*

By Bernese standards, it was a fairly momentous event: in April 2019, over 600 scientists, practitioners, and policymakers from around the world gathered at the University of Bern to exchange and discuss how land is used globally and how it should be managed as a system for sustainable development. Indeed, as the community of land system scientists stated then, and still maintains: Land is the key to addressing today’s challenges and crises – whether biodiversity, the climate, or resource conflicts.


The 2019 Open Science Meeting on land systems was organized by the Global Land Programme, or GLP. Its international programme office was headquartered at CDE beginning in 2016. The programme is one of 27 networks belonging to the international Future Earth platform, representing the interests of global research on the environment and sustainability. At the time, it was one of four Future Earth programmes based in Switzerland.

Auditorium at the University of Bern, 2019: Kick-off event of the 4th Open Science Meeting of the Global Land Programme.

This chapter has now come to an end. In March 2023, the GLP’s international programme office was relocated to the University of Maryland, USA. The rotation of the office is part of the programme’s philosophy. Hosting GLP should be considered an honour, observes Peter Messerli, former Director of CDE and now Director of the Wyss Academy for Nature, who also served as GLP Co-Chair and was one of the initiators of the GLP office in Bern.


We meet him in Kenya via Zoom. Although very busy, he is generous with his time to discuss the Global Land Programme and its seven years in Bern. GLP appears to be a matter of the heart – and not only for him.

The network was launched in Denmark at the turn of the millennium, eventually moved its international headquarters to Brazil, and then finally came to CDE. “We said to ourselves: Let’s invest in this!” recalls Peter Messerli. It was an effort towards strategic positioning on the part of CDE, using its own resources. The effort was made because GLP’s orientation lent itself to adopting a key role at the interface of science and policy.

GLP members against the backdrop of Bern.

In terms of content, the network has its roots in the spirit of optimism that prevailed in the late 2000s. On the international stage in 2012, under the title “Planet Under Pressure”, people began speaking of addressing climate change, biodiversity, and environmental degradation in a systemic manner alongside poverty, food security, energy, and governance issues – and scientists began engaging in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary partnerships. CDE had taken this approach since its founding.

Within GLP, researchers came together in a global community whose appeal also lay in the desire to transcend disciplinary boundaries, think holistically, and aim at systemic solutions. It was, in Peter Messerli’s words, a “community of the ‘undisciplined’”.

Researchers gathered from all over the world.

Also providing motivation, Peter Messerli observes, was their conviction that the tasks of science should not be left exclusively to universities. The reason: Mission- and problem-oriented science is needed to tackle the challenges facing society today, and the university system does not offer enough space for it. Against this background, CDE found support in internationally organized research networks such as GLP.


As the new host of GLP, however, CDE also aimed to contribute to its development. It sought to do so with a threefold pledge: First, to link land systems knowledge more closely with sustainability science. Second, to introduce transdisciplinary methods to land system science – that is, know-how on ways for science to create shared knowledge in collaboration with non-academic stakeholders such as local populations. And third – “this was especially close to our hearts at CDE” – to anchor the entire North–South dimension more firmly in GLP, as it has huge implications for key questions of justice: Who has access to land? How is it used? Who decides about it?

Poster session at the 4th Open Science Meeting.

Words were soon followed by deeds: In 2016, Ariane de Bremond assumed management of the international programme office at CDE. Together with other researchers studying land systems at CDE, she rolled up her sleeves and began transforming GLP. For the first time, working groups were created within GLP in order to break through hierarchies, intensify community exchange, and promote transdisciplinary ways of working in the network.

"Because of its focus on transdisciplinary research, CDE was an ideal setting. But Switzerland’s scientific environment – including its network for transdisciplinary research at the Academies of Arts and Sciences, the td-net – also played a key role for us,” says Ariane de Bremond looking back. The first GLP working group was formed on the topic of “Co-Production of Sustainable Land Systems”, with around 90 members from science and practice.

Work and discussion also continued during breaks at the conference.

At the same time, with financial support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), GLP sought to connect with international NGOs like the International Land Coalition, a network that advocates for land rights globally. GLP also promoted exchange with other actors, for example at the annual World Bank congresses and at major UN conferences. “In terms of politics and decision-making, this is where things are happening, so if you want to be relevant as a research network, you have to go there”, emphasizes Peter Messerli.

Executive Director Ariane de Bremond and Co-Chair Peter Messerli.

Both thematically and methodologically, GLP gradually acquired more visibility in sustainability debates. Co-Chair Peter Messerli underscores GLP’s pioneering role in this regard: “Today, it’s clear to everyone that land system science is a sustainability science that, in addition to the descriptive dimension, also incorporates normative and transformative dimensions into science – in other words, it addresses the question: What do we want to achieve as a society? And how do we get there?”


In addition, the GLP office in Bern helped the network gain momentum. “We began with an address file comprising around 400 contacts, but we barely knew anything about the people or their research. Today we have a data set of 2,400 scientists worldwide, about whom we know the respective land system science field in which they are active, what they are researching, and where they work,” observes Ariane de Bremond. “Our community has grown substantially, the exchange has increased, and the gap between the global North and South has diminished in terms of our members,” summarizes the GLP Executive Director. Indeed, in contrast to the pre-2016 period, 40 percent of the network’s members now come from the global South.

The GLP community gathered in one of Bern’s largest restaurants.

The clear highlight was the Open Science Meeting (OSM) 2019 in Bern, which brought all the different new strands together. “Since then, Bern has been on the radar of everyone conducting research on land,” as Peter Messerli puts it. The conference set new standards – in terms of content, but also in terms of atmosphere. “It boosted the community’s sense of togetherness”.

But did the GLP conference also impact science in Bern? “I’d say it did”, says Peter Messerli. In the past, CDE and the University of Bern’s Institute of Geography had worked on land and land use topics. “After the OSM, many other researchers from Bern and the rest of Switzerland joined in. And from an international perspective, the OSM certainly raised Bern’s scientific profile.”

University of Bern, main building, during the Open Science Meeting.

Seven years in Bern – a pure success story? Peter Messerli and Ariane de Bremond agree that progress has been made on many fronts. But some issues remain. One of them is the multiple demands on members: While many members are highly committed, the work related to the network must be done on a voluntary basis due to a lack of funding. This is a clear impediment when it comes to realizing targeted, coordinated research projects that address questions of land and land use more strongly – and place them at the heart of the sustainability debate, in particular.

GLP at the UniS, one of the University of Bern venues.

Indeed, everyone in the land system science community agrees that a stronger emphasis on land issues is urgently needed. “How we use our land will determine if humanity can rise to the challenge of fairly dealing with climate change, halting biodiversity loss, and providing decent livelihoods for all”, commented Casey Ryan of the University of Edinburgh in February 2022. His statement marked the publication of a study in the prestigious journal PNAS and an accompanying report – “10 Facts about Land” – to which 50 GLP members contributed.

However – and this comes up in almost every conversation with land use specialists – the land issue lacks powerful advocates, especially in global debates. Peter Messerli: “In the meantime, the topic does get raised at the major conferences on the climate and biodiversity, but sometimes with conflicting aims. Yet from a systemic perspective, it is land use and food systems that can actually be employed to combat these symptoms. But we’re not there yet.”

A big round of applause at the end.

But maybe it will happen in Maryland. GLP aims to take more steps forward from its new headquarters – whether through efforts to strengthen the GLP community in North and South America, or by taking advantage of GLP’s new proximity to the Earth and Space Institute, the Global Land Analysis and Discovery Lab, as well as NASA overall and its programme on land use and land cover change, including methodological expertise and a treasure trove of data derived from satellite-based remote sensing.

Indeed, maybe this community of the “undisciplined” will succeed yet again in inspiring others from its new home in the USA. In any event, we’ll keep our fingers crossed here in Bern – and we’ll stay engaged.


* All pictures were taken at the 4th Open Science Meeting of GLP in Bern 2019.