The re-emergence of holistic approaches to address the complex challenge of power disparities in landscape and territorial development | Land Portal | Securing Land Rights Through Open Data
  1. Participation and sectoriality in development

“Participation” and “local solutions” born out of the empowerment of groups or individuals have become, over time, very common elements to be found in the narrative of development projects and programmes. Public consultations and hearings have even become law in some countries (e.g. Kenya) before new local laws are enacted or large infrastructure projects begin. It is a fallacy however, to believe that what is on paper (i.e. statutory law or policy) mirrors reality or that participation and empowerment may also be used as discreet functions of a larger mechanism that concentrates power and control in the hands of a few, in a democratic façade.

Integrated and participatory approaches in development have been around for over 30 years as a result of the development projects implemented by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), which were in turn aligning themselves with more human rights-based approaches. These were projects of small or medium scale that obtained good results by engaging more closely with the realities and challenges faced by people on the ground. It was a noticeable contrast from the governments or international organizations’ large programmes, which had a limited engagement with people and dictated the technical solutions mostly from the top-down. This slowly changed over time even in these larger programmes, but never fully freed itself from the development dichotomy of them “the poor” and us “the developed”.

The level of decentralization that has been taking place in the governance of most countries for the past 50 years did not correspond with what would logically also be a greater level of engagement and active participation of society, and less so with those poverty-stricken. That is, as much as the devolution of power to other levels (provinces, counties, regions, etc.) of governance took place, already drawn out plans at central level continued to dictate the development of their local territories, sometimes for the sake of “coordination and oversight” and other times on the basis of the lack of capacity in the given region.

What remained constant, despite participative methodologies and the inclusion of empowerment in development processes, was the sectorial approach. Due to the way in which most governments are organized to manage different areas (i.e. through sector ministries or specialized parastatal bodies), the tendency is still to work in silos, in specific areas such as industrial development, agriculture or forest management to name a few. Not only do public institutions claim the governance of thematic areas in relation to other ministries (horizontally), they also do not promote multi-level decision-making (vertically) that can take into account the views of the majority of stakeholders.

Even in regional development or for greater goals such as national food security, this fragmented way of working persists today, mostly through public projects, and have remained a challenge in a world where these different sectors are only bound to interact with each other more increasingly. A similar approach was born from that, and that was the approach of value chains, that was mostly private sector driven and often limited to a commodity for the development of smallholders or the small & medium enterprises. Both of these approaches however, were not taking into account the multi-functionality[1] of the landscape (a territory being more than the sum of its parts) and did not include the larger crosscutting issues such as the environment and any other social impact to be considered in their wider sense. In sum, development was still projected to be done for people but not with people.

All the same, decentralization and more participation -despite being positive components to have- demonstrated different results according to specific contexts, for instance, depending on whether enough funding and autonomy was given from central to provincial or local governments for their own land-use planning, or whether or not proper consultation and construction of the territory took place with different sectors members society. Noticeably, with such arbitrary integration or incomplete decentralization, it became easy to conceal the real interests behind such efforts despite the participation of some people in these processes. Who participates and to what extend their arguments are taken into consideration slowly became a nuisance obstructing the way to development (in the shape and form that local stakeholders may have never envisioned).


  1. Moving into more dynamic methods of governance: the territory and the landscape

For over a decade and after years of a series of successes and lessons learnt from different development programmes, the concept of territories began to appear (not necessarily limited to administrative boundaries). This was a reaction from the fragmented way of working that did not respond to the more complex and sector-overlapping challenges of resource depletion, climate change and even food scarcity.

These geographical spaces were first defined by the existence (for conservation purposes) and use of natural resources (forests, the watersheds, semi-arid rangelands, etc.), or by the economic value chains that drove commerce and the rest of the local or regional economy; there was more focus on private-public governance mechanisms and attempts for more spatial integration of sectors.

While an integrated, systemic territorial approach that was more people-centred (as opposed to focusing on a commodity value chain) with inter-sectoriality was being promoted, it was then criticized first for not being more gender responsive (limited at best to be gender sensitive) and then for not paying enough attention to the environmental impacts of the decisions derived from a rights-based approach[2]. Hence, around the same time, a similar integrated approach was emerging, one that focused first and foremost on the environment and on the depleting natural resources. It prioritized the different actions and incentives that affect and drive a particular geographical area; the landscape approach[3] came about from people that were working on environmental conservation and natural resource management to address such issues.

Neither the territorial approach nor the landscape approach were actually confined to their stereotypical criticisms; the former being more focused on socioeconomic development and the latter more focused on the environment and natural resources. In reality, they both had the potential to integrate components of each other and in fact, to a lesser or greater degree, that was the case in many experiences.

Territories and landscapes can be socially constructed, based on demographics or on watersheds, or by existing jurisdictional boundaries and any other relevant set of internal and innate features. They are also defined not only by the actors and their history/relationship with the territory, but by outside actors that influence those landscapes as well, for example by the demand of global consumers that co-shape the landscapes based on a specific product or natural resource from that territory. Similarly, they are also influenced by global trade, markets and also foreign direct investments that come into (or around) the landscape. Thus, territories and landscapes allow us to see different global issues manifest themselves in a particular geographical place since they are open systems of multi-layer interactions.

These approaches were eventually launched either as government led programmes or by large NGOs or UN agencies with projects that sought the same result at the end: a coordinated and inter-ministerial approach in view of the overlapping issues at stake i.e. the environment, the economy (agriculture and non-agricultural small businesses), extractive industries, infrastructure, etc. By then, enough experience was gathered to understand the importance of going beyond consultation, to not take active participation for granted, or to assume consensus will be reached by the different actors in a friendly and logical fashion.


  1. Putting them in practice and other underestimated assumptions

Whereas both the territorial development and landscape approach cared for similar issues, their priorities tended to be different according to who leads the process. For example if a conservationist NGO or if the Ministry of Environment was facilitating and leading the process, then the discussions, the challenges and their solutions would have been steered toward to a sustainable use of natural resources and much less responsive on other emerging issues relevant to stakeholders, such as industry, health or infrastructure. The landscape approach is about balancing competing land use demands in a way that is best for human well-being and the environment. It means creating solutions that consider food and livelihoods, rights, restoration and progress towards climate and development goals[4].

To be effective, these approaches need a common and relevant entry point for all stakeholders, in terms of what those actors may get out of participating and what they may lose out if they do not participate. They also need to be based on continuous learning or “adaptive learning” (iteration, meaning not a pre-existing solution already on the discussion table), that operates at different scales of governance and that an implementing authority and financial resources (even if limited) exist to put it all into action. A convening actor (e.g. the government or a facilitating NGO/UN agency) will bring actors in a territory or landscape together (via platforms or networks) into a spaces of dialogue and present the issues at stake (ideally providing equal information, establishing the rules of the game), conciliate their views and interests and promote the negotiation of their trade-offs to make a wholesome plan. This can be expressed through a written agreement or pact amongst the actors, and take on the proper administrative channels for the implementation and monitoring of actions and results, respectively.

Although on the surface both approaches have their own pros and cons, they both have a common denominator of challenges. First on the list is the subject already thoroughly discussed which is the appeal to work simplistically by sectors and in silos. The persistence by individuals and institutions to retain control over a certain domain (for budgetary reasons or other vested interests) is real and would threaten an institution’s reason to be, hence the resistance to work with others. Thus, when a government request to have an NGO or UN agency facilitate such a process arises, caution must be taken to not fall trap of a manipulative effort to carry out a pre-conceived plan. The other side of the coin is that such an external facilitator, or honest broker, can also play a crucial role for the government in case of any mistrust by some actors specially at local levels, and can balance the scales of power by providing the same information to all actors (a diagnostics of the landscape or territory for example, that can be used as the basis for the dialogue and negotiation to come). As much as government proposed programmes have the will and resources to carry out any development, this does not guarantee a democratic process. External support is in the government’s interest, to show impartiality in the process and that it genuinely intends to have stakeholders participate.

Transparent and fair negotiations can be arbitrary terms however. In a landscape made up of smallholder farmers, faith based organizations, women’s groups, foreign investors, NGO’s and local merchants, it would be naïve to assume that each one of these representative actors hold the same level of capacity to negotiate, that they have the same access to outside sources of information or comparable friends in politics that can pull a few strings for them. On the same tone, the representativity of these actors to their own groups or constituencies would have to be thoroughly examined and discussed with all the components of that sub-group. For instance, if a person is chosen to sit around the table with the other actors to represent the farmer organizations and there are over 50 associations and cooperatives of farmers in the territory, what is the criteria to choose the one person (man or woman) to discuss and propose land uses based on the entire groups’ interests (as opposed to only his organization’s interests or based on her own personal investments)? This important challenge also applies to the NGOs working in the area who may have contrasting views with one another and may not want to form an alliance for this exercise, or private sector actors with different interests, and so on and so forth. Therefore selecting a representative actor for this approach is no small or simple exercise.

These differences in power (regarding personal capacities, interpersonal skills, access to information, having or not the financial resources, etc.) become evident early on in the process when arguments are put forth and decisions are being made on what to do in the territory. Those more confident due to their power secure their interests whereas those less accustomed to a roundtable set up or that come from a group that does not enjoy full clarity on its vision as a group (representativity again) can lose (clearly there are also power struggles between these smaller subgroups). The result of this experience can be more mistrust to such kinds of processes, where manipulation can take place and the usual winners are still getting the better end of the bargain.

Therefore, the assumption that consensus will just happen by bringing some stakeholders together to participate and that responsible leadership will provide fairness in the process of selecting those representative actors is mistaken. Tools may have to be developed for measures to be taken or we will be left with a sugar-coated same way of doing business.


  1. A way forward

Proposals on what to do in a given territory or landscape (be it through land-use planning or by addressing a specific common topic for all actors), should start from the bottom. As idealistic as that may seem, experience shows that the result of such bottom-up exercises produces an impossible list, a myriad of demands and ideas that together are chaotic and overlapping, if not contradicting. Not to mention the limited resources that exist for any of those proposals to be fulfilled. However, it proves a very important point: it reminds those actors that the job of the government is not an easy one, that their proposals can be just as important as that of the others, and that not everything can be done with the existing resources. If government is able to capitalize on this and follow due diligence in the criteria and representativity of the actors and address in as much as possible the power disparities in the discussion over a given territory, it will have much more support from the lower levels of the governance scale. The views and proposals negotiated from below are important and matter, as an active form of a participatory democracy where not everyone wins what they want (their interest not fully met), but at the very least have the space and opportunity for the discussion and negotiation of those interests.

When referring to the government as a facilitator of such approaches, it begs to question which part of government is entitled to coordinate such and endeavor. It cannot be just the ministry of agriculture to handle these issues that go beyond agriculture, even the ministry of finance or that of planning are not ideal candidates; they each have their own interests and limited ways to respond to stakeholder demands. A more encompassing State institution, one perhaps in charge of more general social issues can take lead and invite the others to participate. Similarly, there is no single UN agency with enough mandate to cover all of these areas e.g. education and road infrastructure do not fall under the FAO competence, but the technical facilitation and provision of other experts to participate at specific moments could be done by FAO.

Current efforts in the re-emergence and application of such holistic approaches tend to put much emphasis on the mechanics of the necessary institutional coordination, the vertical arrangements from central to decentralized scales (and vice versa), and the proper legal framework which include the drafting of laws that can allow for such coordination and clear institutional roles. Whilst this is important to have in place, the politics and forces at the top levels will drag and prolong the establishment of such an arrangement and it may take years to have the ideal institutional framework for a holistic approach to function. 

The fundamental issue of the power differences exists and is now more commonly discussed but ways to address them have hardly been explored. One first step for this is to start bringing it to the attention of the concerned governments that are interested in such types of approaches and that are being technically supported by FAO. Some of the ways in which the playing field can be levelled is by having an external facilitator work closely with government, an honest broker with no apparent vested interests. Without trust-building between sometimes apparently antagonistic actors, the process will not go very far because the capacity for dialogue will not be reached. Another measure is to have the proposals made and negotiated be based on information (the territory’s ecosystems, demographics, potential, trends, markets, future projects, etc.) provided by government or by the facilitating team at the initial phase of the approach. In other words, prevent the more powerful individuals from bringing insider information to the table for their own benefit unless other actors agree that this new information is valid for everyone. 

Even with such improvements, these will not be impeccable democratic processes because as much as there are political games happening at the very top for the fight for coordination and exposure, there are also power struggles and asymmetries between the different actors at the grassroots and meso levels. All the same, an approximation of these processes that promote these spaces and forge citizenship at the local level are a start in the process of the construction of the territory.

The focus of development agencies such as FAO, mandated to support country governments is to level the playing field as much as possible (through equal access to information, by facilitating such difficult or politically sensitive processes), inclusion of all actors, empowerment to dialogue and to negotiate, create as much space for the experts as there is for the voices of the stewards of those territories (even if they are not “experts”), and in that regard, having as much representativity of the actors as possible, with a systemic and historical approach that not only seeks to have a picture of the current situation, but a moving picture i.e. why the landscape or territory is the way it is at present and how it will shift if things are left on their own.

Providing a basic set of concepts for these two approaches based on these underlying and fundamental issues to be addressed is the first step to have the approaches re-emerge and not remain in the periphery of the evasive central issues, those of addressing the power disparities, general inequality in the access and control of resources, promoting active participation and inclusion, empowerment and representativity of the territory through the variety of actors. 


[1] By multi-functionality we mean that natural resources such as forests cannot be seen only as a source of livelihood by its nearby inhabitants and users, but that are also affected commercial agriculture (as a trade-off between nature and biodiversity versus the need to provide food for a growing urban population), or as a source of employment for income generation or other consumer demands for basic goods.

[2] Rightly so, if a group of diverse stakeholders in a territory meet around a table and establish a constructive dialogue, negotiate for their interest and arrive to the consensual agreement that more jobs are needed, and their solution was to cut down the forest and build a paper factory, then yes, from a rights-based standpoint it may be considered a success, but from an environmental perspective, it can have an immense negative impact in other peoples’ livelihoods, the existing biodiversity, the air quality for health reasons, etc.

[4] Van Oosten, Cora. Waggenigen University & Research.

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