“We need to ask more about what else could have been”

Banana plantation or hydropower station? In today’s hyperconnected world, decisions made far away in one corner of the globe increasingly impact what happens on the ground in another location. When it comes to land use, local populations frequently lose out – especially in tropical countries. In Madagascar and Southeast Asia, CDE researchers have studied how these mechanisms work – and looked for sustainable pathways together with diverse stakeholders. CDE researcher Flurina Schneider discusses the results and the role of science.

“In doing research, we must work much more directly towards the goal of positive transformation”: Flurina Schneider. Photo: CDE

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

According to the 2030 Agenda, transformation to sustainable development is possible – if we tackle it right away. Together with other CDE scientists, you conducted research in three tropical countries to find out what pathways of land use change could lead to sustainable development. What is your most important finding?

From my perspective, there are two key insights: First, land use is central to all the sustainable development goals – the 17 SDGs – of the 2030 Agenda. Land provides the basis for plants and animals, and hence biodiversity, as well as food production and thus the fight against poverty and hunger. But land is also needed for industry and energy production. Last but not least, land is crucial to the goals of peace and justice, since many conflicts worldwide revolve around land access and use. So we need to pay very close attention to interactions and synergies between different developments if we want to achieve the goals of the 2030 Agenda.


“When demand for natural vanilla rose in Europe, this led to more deforestation in Madagascar”


What does that have to do with the project in Madagascar and Southeast Asia?

That brings us to the second point: How land is used and what it is used for are often shaped by processes occurring far away. For instance, an apparently sustainable shift in European dietary habits can have unintended consequences in producer countries. For example, when European demand for natural vanilla increased, this intensified deforestation in Madagascar because farmers needed more land for cultivation. We refer to this phenomenon as “telecoupling”. The big question is: How can all the actors involved be brought on board to enable changes towards more sustainable development?

Tell us.

There’s no easy solution. In the project, we identified the most important stakeholders and tried to bring them all to the table for needed negotiations.


“In Laos, it’s not always clear to national authorities why they should sit down with local farmers to discuss matters”


Did it work?

Results varied. It went much easier in Madagascar than in Southeast Asia, in particular because Madagascar has a well-established culture of storytelling in which everyone is given a chance to speak. By contrast, in Laos, which has a one-party system, it wasn’t always clear to national authorities why they should sit down with local farmers to discuss matters. Moreover, it’s considered socially unacceptable to interrupt older or higher-ranked individuals during negotiations, for example to give farmer representatives a chance to talk. Finally, in Myanmar, land issues were much too sensitive and prone to conflict – following the long military dictatorship and civil war – for us to bring everyone to the negotiating table just like that. The recent military putsch vividly illustrates that as well. So, we mainly worked with the local population there, helping them jointly formulate their own development needs.


“Local populations are often interested in investments from abroad”


Whether land gets used for plantations, nature reserves, hydroelectric plants, or mining is increasingly decided in different centres of power around the world. What can local populations do about it?

In our study regions, land use changes have more often been the result of complex interactions between many local, national, and international actors, rather than the result of an intervention by a “long arm” that determines what happens from a distant control centre. In addition, local populations are often interested in investments from abroad, hoping that they will improve their quality of life.

Of course, we also came across other cases, such as companies evicting the original land users from certain areas or governments establishing protected areas by decree, as in Myanmar and Madagascar. These are usually difficult situations for the local population. Depending on the constellation of power, sometimes they find ways to cope; sometimes civil society organizations support them in claiming their rights, or else they form networks of resistance.


“We also wanted to test what the research results could contribute to sustainable transformations”


Wouldn’t it be more effective to leverage changes in Europe, the US, or China, rather than in these countries?

Precisely because it’s often a matter of complex interrelations between numerous actors, you have to approach the problem from both sides. National governments play a very important role, for example. Laos, for instance, tries to control land use, but in reality the state scarcely has a presence in remote rural areas. As a consequence, Chinese investors – most of whom come from the border region – sign unauthorized contracts with local farmers. When business is no longer profitable, they just disappear. And the farmers find themselves left with a pesticide-contaminated banana plantation.


“It’s no longer nearly enough to just understand past processes”


In all three countries, your project also launched small initiatives together with the local population, in hopes of bringing about change. How are these linked to the research?

For our project, it was important not only to generate new knowledge, but also to test – in small, concrete projects – how the research results can help improve the situation in terms of sustainability. Based on our results, we formulated substantive change hypotheses, or “theories of change”, for each study region. Not only did this produce very different results in practice, it also revealed that we need new ways of thinking in research in order to achieve sustainable solutions.

What do you mean by that?

It’s no longer nearly enough to just understand past processes. Rather, as researchers, we need to contribute to positive change and work much more directly towards this goal. So instead of first identifying all the reasons why something doesn’t work, we need to ask ourselves: Which innovations appear to point in the desired sustainable direction? This requires another type of research, other approaches, and fundamentally different questions and forms of cooperation, for example with the humanities and arts.


“The arts can help create entry points that bring knowledge and emotion together”


What’s the actual advantage of this?

Historians, for example, not only seek out evidence, but also contingency – that is, how things could have happened differently. When it comes to transformation towards sustainable development, these sorts of questions are very interesting. Collaboration with the arts, in turn, could create entry points that bring together knowledge, emotions, and relationships. After all, our rational approach of production and then implementing knowledge is just one of several possibilities. Many cultures take other approaches.

The incentive systems in academia are seldom aligned with transdisciplinary and transformative research. How do you promote the necessary rethink in science itself?

On the one hand, training of students is very important to foster the competencies needed for transdisciplinary, transformative research. On the other, I work together with different research funders to explore how the conditions for transdisciplinary research can be improved. This begins with how, and by whom, submissions are reviewed for research projects and scientific articles. In my opinion, those affected by research programmes should also be involved in the choice of topics – and the selection of projects. After all, they should benefit from them.

The research project

The research project “Managing telecoupled landscapes” began in 2015 and runs through 2021. It is part of the Swiss Programme for Research on Global Issues for Development (r4d programme), funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). Conducted in Laos, Myanmar, and Madagascar, the project aims at developing and testing innovative strategies to secure ecosystem services and the well-being being of affected populations – in particular where land use is under strong external pressure. The outcomes include three policy briefs: