Stunning visual reports from the World Resources Institute made headlines earlier this year when they revealed the scope of global deforestation that has taken place in just a few years. Seeing the problem is critical but solving it will require more. It will take a multi-dimensional understanding of the key drivers behind these losses. 

Productive landscapes are much more than an ecology. They are shaped by the dynamic tension between social, economic and environmental factors.  So banning deforestation is rarely successful. Forest destruction are symptoms of an underlying cause. The right data helps us to understand what are the economic and social drivers of deforestation in order to guide responsible change and stimulate stakeholders to work together effectively.

A Landscape study that COSA conducted with Conservation International in a coffee-growing region showed that deforestation controls were weak. Primary data revealed conflicting stories. A solution in the form of dashboards and new technology provided timely data and satellite imaging maps for key stakeholders. This creates more awareness and facilitates engagement with community leaders, giving them the leverage to effectively diagnose problem areas and target appropriate solutions. They could wisely advise supporting more reforestation and mixed agroforestry programs that promote the planting of food trees and indigenous species.

Good solutions can engage collective action with all the stakeholders that matter: farmers, cooperatives, traders, processors, communities, and local government. This potential is unlocked with access to common, clear data that allows mutual understanding and accountability for results. The FAO experience also confirms:  “Multi-stakeholder approaches implemented at a defined spatial level, are a potentially powerful tool for improving development outcomes.”

To effectively manage with a landscape approach, the drivers of deforestation and other challenges must be commonly and even visually understood and readily assessed. The advent of big data is a key lever in this approach. It offers vast potential for understanding the holistic aspects of agriculture. When it is effectively integrated with local pragmatic realities, this same data offers exceptional levels of insight, and – if made accessible and intuitive for those who can act –  helps scale up best-practices through knowledge-sharing that can transform the way agricultural and forestry products are produced.

Mars and its collaborators in the Farmer Income Lab similarly realized in early research that there is no single magic wand. They came to the conclusion that it is important to see the big picture holistically and that we must often consider a bundle of interventions if we are to resolve some of the big sustainability issues we face today. 

This big data + small data idea includes the important aspect of listening. This approach to landscapes has tested successfully with a consortium of businesses that included the Coalition for Coffee Communities (with Starbucks, Keurig, S&D, Farmer Brothers, and others), and it takes into account these four key aspects:

  1. Blending the context of local data with the signals of big data to yield unprecedented insights and learning
  2. Accountability – integrating data on what matters, using common metrics, offers exceptional levels of transparency for reporting on progress (SDGs, corporate pledges, NY Declaration on Forests, etc.) and demonstrates progress toward measurable outcomes
  3. Shared vision – understanding how individual perspectives fit into the big picture helps to empower multiple stakeholders to see solutions and to be agents of change
  4. Unique data visualization – makes it easy for anyone (not just scientists) to understand and identify the drivers of change, manage risk, and share solutions, 

Research strongly suggests that a landscape approach “has considerable potential to meet social and environmental objectives at local scales while aiding national commitments to addressing ongoing global challenges.” 

The approach is not without its challenges, however. Sara Scherr and EcoAgriculture Business Partners say the ability to scale the approach requires system-level changes to “enable landscape-scale partnerships to much more quickly and effectively achieve their regenerative landscape and livelihood ambitions”.  Supply chains are a necessary part of the solution. 

With transformative, human-centered applications of technology, we can truly listen to each other.  This encompassing view empowers policymakers, corporations, and farmers to understand and resolve large landscape-scale issues as collective results.