Thinking beyond the canopy

Integrating forests into the global agenda on sustainable development

The "land sharing or land sparing" conundrum

A CIFOR learning event at Agriculture and Rural Development Day

18 June 2012, 11.30 – 13.00
Sul America Convention Center


Our purpose was to have the audience understand the complexity of the issue and to propose practical recommendations about the land sharing or land sparing question. We hoped to increase our understanding of the conditions and information needed to decide in a given context whether sharing, sparing or a mix of both are required to achieve progress in designing sustainable landscapes.


The global human population is estimated to grow to 9 billion by 2050. Not only will there be more mouths to feed, but increasingly wealthy societies will demand a more (animal) protein-rich diet, which will require considerable additional land and investment. With much of the world’s productive land already under some form of cultivation, policy makers are struggling to reconcile the need to grow additional food with the need to avoid encroaching on already threatened natural ecosystems, especially forests.  

Some advocate a process of “land sharing”, whereby agricultural production takes place within complex multi-functional landscapes. Others favour “land sparing”, where agricultural production on already cultivated or marginal lands is maximised, so that other areas are set aside for the conservation of biodiversity.

Although the “land sparing” versus “land sharing” debate presents itself as a black or white choice there are in fact many shades of grey in trying to optimise land-use, dependent on a multitude of interacting factors: be they geographical, ecological, economic, social and political. This Learning Event explored the various shades of grey characterising this question as the basis for some tangible recommendations.

This event is tied to the CGIAR Consortium Research Program on Forest, Trees and Agroforestry, a 10-year global research programme that aims to protect forest-carbon stocks and reduce risks for millions of farmers and forest communities.


Chair: Sven Wunder
Rapporteur: Andrew Wardell
5 minutes Introduction to learning event, Sven Wunder
10 minutes ‘Mato Grosso: realising the land-sparing potential from increased agricultural productivity’, Bernardo Strassburg
10 minutes ‘Land-sparing or Land-sharing:  Strategies for Green Growth in Kilombero Cluster in the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania’, Sara Scherr
10 minutes ‘Sustainable development in Africa requires both sparing and sharing in a multifunctional landscapes’, Sara Namirembe
10 minutes ‘Assessing land use strategies for food production and biodiversity in India and Ghana’, Ben Phalan
45 minutes Moderated discussion and closing remarks



Robert Nasi has been living and travelling extensively in Africa, Asia and the Pacific undertaking research activities in the fields of ecology and management of tropical forests for the last 30 years. He joined CIFOR in August 1999 and held several research and management positions in the organisation (principal scientist, biodiversity programme leader, programme director). He is currently the Director of the CGIAR Research Program on "Forests, Trees and Agroforestry".


Sven Wunder is an environmental economist who has worked for Danida and IUCN. Since 2000, he has been at CIFOR, and is currently acting as Principal Scientist and Head of the Brazil office.   Main work areas have been payments for environmental services (PES), deforestation, and forest-poverty linkages. He has worked on all three tropical continents, but is specialised in Latin America, having lived in Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil. 


AndrewWardell is Director of the Forests and Governance Program at CIFOR and has over thirty years experience working on natural resource management issues in more than twenty South-East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa countries. He has a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Botany from the University of Reading, a Master of Science in Forestry and its relation to Land Use from the University of Oxford, and a Doctor of Philosophy exploring the legacy of British colonial rule on contemporary forest policy and practice in Ghana from the University of Copenhagen.


  • Sara Namirembe has worked in both academic (Makerere University) and NGO sectors. Prior to joining the World Agroforestry Centre, she was with the Katoomba Payments for Ecosystems Services Incubator programme of Forest Trends. Sara has extensive experience in facilitating collaborative/participatory natural resource management and conservation. She facilitated institutional and community networks to develop collaborative action plans for managing forest resources in the Kasyoha-Kitomi Forest landscape, Albertine Rift.
  • Ben Phalan is a conservation biologist and has been based at the University of Cambridge since 2005. He works on biodiversity conservation, with a focus on agriculture and forests in developing countries, particularly in West Africa. He collaborates with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre and BirdLife International. His current research includes empirical evaluation of land sparing, land sharing and other strategies, and assessment of spatial overlap between conservation priorities and areas where commodity crop expansion is likely.
  • Sara J. Scherr is President of EcoAgriculture Partners, an international NGO that works with agricultural communities and their conservation, market and government partners to manage ‘ecoagriculture landscapes’ to both improve production and livelihoods and enhance ecosystem services and biodiversity.  An agricultural and natural resource economist, Dr. Scherr is an international expert on tropical agriculture and agroforestry, land degradation, and payments for ecosystem services, and has provided leadership in international development of ecoagriculture.  She currently serves as a member of the United Nations Environment Program Advisory Panel on Food Security and the Katoomba Group Board of Directors.
  • Bernardo Strassburg is the founder and executive director of the International Institute for Sustainability, in Rio de Janeiro. After completing a degree in Economics and a MSc in environmental planning (focused on land-use change and ecosystem services in the Amazon), Bernardo worked for the Brazilian Ministry of Environment as an environmental analyst in Eastern Amazon. His PhD in Environmental Science focused on issues related to Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD). He has led a number of projects in the interface of REDD, Biodiversity, Improved Land-Use and Financial Incentives.

1. Key messages:

  • Intensively managed agro-ecosystems can be combined with protected areas or low intensity managed systems at the landscape level where intensification is possible.
  • In several contexts, intensification is not possible and land sharing options (e.g. shifting cultivation practices and smallholder production systems) may be  more effective to produce food and protect environment.
  • The choice is not between land sparing or land sharing but rather on how to best apply a mix of both depending on the socio-ecological system considered and the anticipated trajectory of change.

2. Existing evidence

Several recent studies have argued in favour of one or the other end of the continuum from full land sparing to full land sharing (thus reviving a decade-old question of integration vs. segregation in natural resource management). Unfortunately a recent review shows that at least for the objective of biodiversity conservation, there is virtually no published evidence which meets basic tests of adequacy.  Case studies in (e.g. Ghana and India) show that land sparing is a better option whereas others (e.g. Brazil and Australia) tell a different  story. The differences depend to a large degree on what objectives are considered, how they are measured, and at what scale. There is a need to extend existing work to consider multiple objectives and to measure them properly in a range of contexts. Among the possible objectives to be considered when determining land-use strategies, one can think of adequate nutrition, income and land tenure security for local people, conservation of biodiversity conservation and provision of ecosystem services. The Poverty and Environment Network has shown how important forest resources are in terms of providing  a diverse diet which, in turn, improves overall nutrition and health. This research has also shown that managed forests combined with agriculture in multi-functional landscapes act as a food security safety net and reduce the vulnerability of the rural poor to the vicissitudes in climate and other environment-related shocks. Collaborative work  in West Africa (primarily Sierra Leone and Guinea) has shown that a wide range of goods and services can be provided within a forested landscape, while maintaining, and even enhancing in some cases, food production. Recent research on biofuels has found that large-scale agribusiness schemes could continue fuelling extensive forest clearance, and compete with traditional land use systems, thus displacing local people or threatening livelihoods when land acquisition as well as resulting land use change is not effectively regulated. These threats are exacerbated by weak national and international systems of governance that are unable to effectively protect customary land use rights, or regulate environmental impacts.

3. What is needed to expand from a few cases towards a more generalised multifunctional landscape approach for better environmental protection and improved food security?

 Several economic, governance, and technical issues still impede further advance towards multifunctional landscapes. Among these the high opportunity costs of maintaining forests and the limited economic benefits, if any, from improved management practices; the persistence of land tenure and land-use planning issues; or a general failure to enforce regulations because of the lack of finances or qualified human resources.  As a result, the fate and history of many formerly forested landscapes have been determined by polarised decisions to convert forestlands to agriculture, pasturelands or plantations, or to conserve them as protected areas, often without due consideration of the interests or incentives of forest-dependent communities and farmers.Governance plays a key role in determining which goods and services are given priority and how benefits are distributed ["The more that powerful groups of humans value a particular service, the more likely they are to drive a landscape toward mono-functionality"]. Weak and unclear tenure and access right regimes have proven particularly problematic, and the perspectives of local women have counted for even less. At the global level, multilateral environmental agreements establish objectives, obligations and opportunities for national policies and strategies, but rarely harness or recognise the potential of community-managed forests and agroforestry to advance environmental objectives. New innovative multi-level governance systems and networks that favour/promote partnerships among public, private sector, transdisciplinary approaches and champions are needed to allow for the desired expansion of multifunctional landscapes.

4. When do these actions need to take place, and who needs to take them?

Multifunctional landscapes (integrated or segregated) will only develop as the concerted effort of many stakeholders: from local communities to international processes supported by innovative integrated research (like the one proposed in the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry) to inform the decision making, the donor community and both national and sub-national governments. In particular, research needs to contribute answering  some remaining fundamental questions. Is a landscape based on land sparing a multifunctional landscape, because different parts of the landscape have different functions? At what grain size should various landscape functions be segregated or integrated? For what objectives or functions?Obstacles in the way of multiple-use management could be surmounted by i) creating a political support through either proactive (e.g. creating specific land-use units, accepting a redistribution or a waiver on royalties from extractive industries) or, at least, neutral (e.g. no undue interference from the State) policies and regulations; ii) pushing and rewarding the production sector to engage in certification; iii) involving all the actors in the land-use planning and the development of management plans. Successful examples show that starting funds are needed to cover initial transaction costs to establish the various negotiation platforms and to gather the necessary data on which to base the land-use planning. Global donors need to consider these needs for seed funding, but given that such properly implemented multiple-use management systems at the landscape level would likely sequester more carbon that the business-as-usual single use management, these existing initiatives could be benefiting directly from REDD+ funding.

This event is an activity tied to the CGIAR Consortium Research Program on Forest, Trees and Agroforestry, a 10-year, global research program that aims to protect forest-carbon stocks and reduce risks for millions of farmers and forest communities.