By Tolera Jiren, David Abson, Jannik Schultner, Maraja Riechers, and Joern Fischer.

This Plain Language Summary is published ahead of the article discussed; check back soon for a link to the full paper.

Landscapes change and evolve because of the dynamic and collective effects of human activities and natural processes. Landscape change, in turn, impacts people and the environment in many ways. For example, the expansion of large-scale agricultural investments in a particular landscape improves economic growth through generating higher yields and cash income. However, it often leads to environmental degradation by causing forest clearing, habitat and biodiversity loss, and soil and water pollution. Moreover, landscapes continue to change in the future, given the dynamic human aspirations and natural conditions. It is therefore important to develop strategies that minimize the potential negative impacts of landscape change while also shaping future landscape trajectories in socially and environmentally desirable ways. To realize such goals, proactive and inclusive landscape planning is essential.

Landscape planning and management greatly benefit from a deep understanding of the underlying causes of landscape change and the possible future landscape change trajectories—technically, participatory scenario planning can help with this. Following scenario planning, it is useful to develop a widely shared vision of a socially and environmentally desirable future landscape, and then identify pathways to reach this desired future landscape—a process called backcasting or landscape visioning. Participatory scenario planning is widely used to support landscape planning. However, to date, only a few case examples have integrated landscape visioning into landscape planning. One reason is that stakeholders may have divergent aspirations, which can make it difficult to develop an agreed-upon shared future vision. Practically, reconciling these divergent and conflicting stakeholders aspirations is challenging. Also, unequal power relations between participants in collective visioning workshops can lead to the dominance of only a few influential stakeholders, while the interests of many other people remain overlooked.

In this study, we addressed these empirical and methodological gaps by conducting a landscape visioning study in southwestern Ethiopia. Specifically, we elicited individual stakeholder priorities regarding their future landscape. To do so, we drew on scenario narratives for the study area that we had previously co-developed together with local people. Working with individuals instead of large groups of stakeholders helped to avoid conflicts and unequal power relations.

We found that many stakeholders share a similar goal of building a future landscape that supports smallholder-based development. However, people differ in their envisaged desirable landscape and pathways to achieve the desired future landscape. Majority of the stakeholders in our study area prioritized Agroecological production pathway (40%), followed by the Coffee investment pathway(31%), and Intensive food crop production pathway (29%). Understanding the consensus and divergent landscape aspirations between different stakeholders is important because it can help researchers and facilitators to carefully plan and organize inclusive landscape visioning exercises where many stakeholders come together. Knowing individual stakeholders’ aspirations, at least in approximate terms, can help to pre-empt conflicts and adjust the format of collective landscape visioning exercises. Also, having a nuanced stakeholder-by-stakeholder understanding can help to systematically integrate different sets of landscape preferences and preferred strategies toward achieving a socially and environmentally desirable future landscape.