Understanding the landscape

In this chapter

  • Guidance on gathering insights into the current state of the 4 Returns in your landscape with the 4 Returns diagnostic tool
  • Gaining a shared understanding through a combination of desk research and fieldwork, with a diverse group of stakeholders
  • How a landscape stakeholder analysis deepens connection with communities in the landscape, shows dynamics at play, and explores opportunities and challenges

Understanding your landscape

When the boundaries are defined and the 3 Zones are identified, it is time to explore your landscape’s key characteristics further. Knowing a landscape and its driving forces, barriers, potential, and challenges helps stakeholders make informed decisions on effective restoration methods. It also fosters inclusive stakeholder engagement and helps create a baseline for monitoring progress. Exploring and building on existing information about the landscape is a great way to start. 

This chapter provides guidance and practical approaches on how to improve your understanding of the landscape. We recommend two ways forward: understanding the 4 Returns in your landscape through a 4 Returns diagnosis and conducting a landscape and stakeholder analysis. Both are helpful tools for creating the shared understanding needed for strategy and partnering with stakeholders, and a source of insight for funding and communications. These assessments don’t necessarily follow one after the other; they are complementary and can be used alongside other analyses or workshops. Both feed into Element 3 in this guidebook, in which we move towards creating a landscape plan. At this stage, more than any other, it is crucial to involve a diverse group of stakeholders in each step in the process to create a shared understanding.

The elephant and the blind men

We start this chapter with a parable.

Once upon a time, a group of blind individuals learned of a mysterious creature called an elephant that had arrived in their town. Eager to understand this creature, they decided to explore it by touch, relying on their sense of feel. As they approached the elephant, each person touched a different part. One, feeling the trunk, likened it to a thick snake. Another, touching the ear, thought it resembled a fan. A third, encountering the leg, believed it to be a sturdy pillar akin to a tree trunk. Yet another, exploring the side, deemed it a solid wall. Another, grasping the tail, described it as a rope. And finally, the one who felt the tusk, described the hard and smooth surface as a spear.

People can tend to see their own, often limited, perspective as the only truth. In reality, there can be many truths at the same time, all of them equally valid. When we come together as a diverse group, we share these individual truths and jointly shape a more complete picture — a shared understanding. It is important that we do this with empathy, grace, and compassion, and not create opposition. Each perspective has value.

Exploring the 4 Returns in your landscape

To create a better understanding of the 4 Returns in your own landscape, you could conduct an assessment. The 4 Returns diagnosis offers a comprehensive snapshot of the status of the 4 Returns within the landscape. This can be useful to stakeholders who are new to landscape restoration, as well as to stakeholders who are already working in a landscape and want to broaden their approach. The content is gathered through interviews with landscape stakeholders and complemented by existing resources such as local information, literature, and reports.

Although the main purpose of the 4 Returns diagnosis is to assess the status of the 4 Returns in your landscape, it could also be used for: 

  • Creating a shared understanding of the 4 Returns and the state of your landscape
  • Identifying potential areas of focus and barriers to restoration
  • Developing pilot designs and interventions for holistic landscape restoration
  • Input for a landscape proposition, which will be further explained in the chapter From vision to action
  • Input for the strategic direction of a holistic landscape restoration plan

How does the 4 Returns diagnosis work?

The assessment dives into all 4 Returns and their themes, which are explained in the chapter Unpacking the 4 Returns [page 36]. The return of inspiration, for example, includes awareness, connection to the landscape, and behavioural change. Each of these may, in turn, deliver several effects. Using the 4 Returns diagnosis, you rate the state of all these effects on a scale from one to four, including an explanation. This data creates a 4 Returns diagram for each return. A report is generated; this is not a definitive landscape assessment but a glimpse into the landscape that serves as a starting point for discussions to shape strategies and interventions for holistic landscape restoration. 

In the example below, the 4 Returns diagram for the return of inspiration in a hypothetical landscape reveals that the replication of initiatives is very high, but restoration awareness is still low. The diagram could help stakeholders define potential focus areas as it highlights the landscape’s strengths and challenges from a holistic perspective.

How to do a 4 Returns diagnosis?

You will find the 4 Returns diagnostic tool will guide you through all the steps of a 4 Returns diagnosis and help identify which stakeholders to consult. Your report can be downloaded; remember, it is intended as a glimpse into the landscape not a definitive assessment. Having validated and discussed the report with all relevant stakeholders, you can think about viable next steps. The nature of these will vary depending on your landscape’s stage and particular needs.

Some potential follow-up workshops include: 

  • Discuss and validate the 4 Returns diagnosis with a broader stakeholder group. Which outcomes of the diagnosis stand out and why? Does it describe the current state of the landscape well? What questions arise from it? Which factors would be interesting to explore through follow-up conversations, research, or another way?
  • Organise a participatory session to prioritise focus areas based on the outcomes of the 4 Returns diagnosis. Explore existing pilots or interventions, design new ones.

You can also use the outcomes of the 4 Returns diagnosis to feed into a landscape and stakeholder analysis, which will be discussed below.

Landscape story: 4 Returns diagnosis

The Mahanadi Delta in eastern India is a dynamic landscape with mudflats, marshes, mangroves, estuaries, islands, and tidal channels supporting human and natural communities. Wetlands International South Asia started an ecological restoration programme in the delta’s Chilika catchment in 2000 in collaboration with the Chilika Development Authority, local NGOs, and private partners. As a result, the population and habitat of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin has increased. In 2023, the consortium started implementing the 4 Returns Framework to improve holistic development for resilient communities in the Chilika catchment. 

Doing a 4 Returns diagnosis enhanced a shared understanding of the landscape by bringing together existing information. It showed the landscape’s potential and barriers to delivering the 4 Returns, and contributed to prioritising focus areas and interventions for holistic landscape restoration. The assessment highlighted that the focus and strength of the landscape initiative are on wetland restoration, and less on the uplands. The programme has the opportunity to be strengthened to have more effect socially and financially. Low scores in areas such as basic services and infrastructure underscore the need for sustainable and resilient infrastructure, particularly to mitigate the high vulnerability of the area to climate change. The community’s livelihoods are at risk due to natural and social threats, which drive people to migrate from their native area. 

Ravi Prakash, of Wetlands International South Asia, said: “The holistic nature of the 4 Returns diagnosis helped us to create a better shared and holistic understanding of the landscape. It helped to see the complex socio-economic, as well as ecological processes, happening in the landscape in a much easier and more understandable way and provided the opportunity to integrate it into the already existing Chilika management planning framework. It provided us with a way forward to work on prioritised interventions that will enable us to strengthen financial and social returns. As a follow-up step, we will plan to create a shared landscape vision, have participatory sessions to prioritise focus areas, and explore new sustainable interventions.”

Conducting a landscape and stakeholder analysis

You might decide to run a comprehensive landscape and stakeholder analysis instead — or as well as — a 4 Returns diagnosis. When the landscape boundaries are roughly outlined, you can choose the method or methods that best supports you depending on the stage you’re at and what you need to know. You can do them in parallel or one at a time, in any order. For example, conducting a 4 Returns diagnosis alongside a landscape and stakeholder analysis could offer valuable insights into the current state of the 4 Returns in your landscape. 

The landscape and stakeholder analysis involves a detailed examination of the landscape, making use of insights gained in the process of defining the boundaries. It provides deeper analysis of historic and current effects of geology, climate, culture, economics, policy, and initiatives on the landscape. The analysis supports understanding of the landscape’s challenges and opportunities, and explores areas of high urgency. This sense of urgency is when land users are already facing significant challenges of land degradation and are potentially more willing to do something about it. This way, you can reach scale more quickly and you don’t have to start from scratch. 

To create local ownership and build on what is already there, we suggest identifying existing initiatives and stakeholders who are already working on landscape restoration. The landscape and stakeholder analysis is best done with a variety of stakeholders who between them offer a mix of knowledge about local context and networks, and experience of other landscapes. 

The analysis is split into desk research, fieldwork, and write-up. Fieldwork is invaluable for gaining nuanced insights that you can’t get from desk research. To make the fieldwork as useful as possible, first do the desk research and gather as much information as you can to describe the landscape’s relevant history, its current state (which can be enriched with a 4 Returns diagnosis and the 3 Zones exercise), and the driving forces that have shaped it. Include an overview of the most important challenges of land degradation that are faced by stakeholders in the landscape. Finally, identify potentially interesting stakeholders to meet during the field trip.

Desk research

A vast choice of topics is suitable for investigating at your desk. Find a balance between being comprehensive and concise. Topics include geology, hydrology, biodiversity and ecology, climate change effects, weather patterns, population and culture, economy, governance, and mapping of stakeholders and existing initiatives (see more on this below). For each of these topics, you can describe the relevant history, status, recent developments, and future expected developments. 

The sources you can use for this are varied, so consider: strategic documents of partners; research and evaluation studies from local, national, and international knowledge institutes, NGOs, and governments; reports, policy documents, strategy documents, websites, or media outings from local, national, and international partners, NGOs, governmental agencies; and spatial data from geographic information systems. 

Stakeholder mapping

Before going on to fieldwork, it is important to have a good overview of all the stakeholders in a network, and their activities, relationships, and stakes. This will help you connect with the right people at the right time. Stakeholder mapping can take many forms, from quick and dirty desk research to a workshop or a comprehensive participatory process. There are several tools and resources that can help you get started in the way that suits your stage in the process and context. 

A quick-start guide to stakeholder mapping provides an overview of the essentials of stakeholder mapping in a holistic landscape restoration context. It includes several frameworks and tools that are easy to use in your desk research and workshops. The guide includes four key steps: 

  1. Identify key stakeholders
  2. Conduct a power analysis
  3. Start engaging with stakeholders
  4. Loopback and follow through

You could think about who your champions are, those who might block your initiative, those who might still be hesitating but could become your ally. Champions can be front-runner farmers, who are already experimenting and trying new ways to farm. Blockers might be organisations that have vested interests in the status quo and will work actively against change. Hesitators can be anyone open to change, but not willing to be the first to try it out. Remember the theory of Diffusion of innovations as explained in the chapter How to get started.

To learn more about how stakeholder mapping can drive positive change in landscape restoration, we recommend Mapping social landscapes by the World Resources Institute. It explains how to recognise the social capital of actors within landscapes, spot opportunities for building stronger networks, and measure changes in the network, through mapping actors’ resource flows, priorities, and values. 

Finally, Kumu is a simple tool for organising complex data, such as people, systems, and concepts, into relationship maps.

From desk to field

While much can be discovered through desk research, fieldwork can enrich an understanding of a landscape; meeting people face to face yields higher quality information. Developing deep cultural understanding takes years, but a thorough landscape and stakeholder analysis is a valuable start. 

Begin your fieldwork by drawing up a plan of where to go and who to meet based on the results of the desk study. The fieldwork will test your assumptions. You will investigate what the stakeholders in the landscape need and how they might be inspired and supported to restore their landscape. Plan well and reserve time for follow-up interviews because you will probably be introduced to even more stakeholders who can add insights. 

It is best to carry out fieldwork with two or more people who can listen from different perspectives. During preparation for fieldwork, consider: 

  • Expectation management. Think carefully in advance about the storyline. How will you present yourself? Why are you there? What do you want to achieve? Why are you interested in these stakeholders and what will you do with the information you glean from them? It can be useful to prepare a short briefing before the field trip, summarising the main facts you already know, the key questions that are still open, and hypotheses and assumptions you would like to test. This will also allow the landscape stakeholders to share their expectations and bring in topics.
  • Building a trusting relationship with stakeholders. Be transparent and give stakeholders something in return for their time. Send your partners a copy of your report after the field trip. This demonstrates that you are extracting information not just for your benefit. Also, the interview and report may stimulate them to think about their landscape differently. Promise to contact them again after a few weeks for feedback on your report to talk about a possible way forward. Keep that promise.

Stakeholder engagement

During the field trip, you will probably interview stakeholders and experts, and visit locations and initiatives. You will collect more information and test assumptions. It is important to listen carefully; the listening assessment from Theory U could help sharpen your skill. Likewise, Theory U stakeholder interviews may be useful before meeting people in the landscape. Take a lot of photos and videos, and record all your conversations. Try to expand your network as you go. 

The people you interview will be from your stakeholder research during the desk study, or from a stakeholder mapping exercise. It is also interesting to speak with individuals or organisations that may not have a big stake but do have a large network that you could use or build on. Potentially interesting stakeholders to interview during fieldwork:

  • Farmers and farmer groups or collectives
  • Land users such as foresters, fishers, grazers, eco-tourism
  • Local entrepreneurs
  • Local government
  • Regional government
  • Conservation public organisations and private NGO initiatives
  • Community development NGOs
  • Community leaders or community-led initiatives and organisations
  • Companies working on coastal protection, infrastructure, value chains or sourcing natural produce from agriculture, forestry, fisheries, mining, and water
  • Research institutes such as universities
  • Relevant ministries and departments of the national government

Small workshops can be included in the field trip. You can choose the assessments or workshops that best support the stage or needs of your initiative. Options include the 4 Returns diagnosis, the 3 Zones exercise, or a stakeholder mapping workshop. 

Write your report

Now write up your findings in a landscape and stakeholder report. This document summarises the current state of the landscape and the driving forces that shaped it. Also, write down the landscape’s key needs and opportunities. Needs are the obstacles that stakeholders face or gaps that exist, standing in the way of landscape restoration. Opportunities are ideas for projects that could contribute to solving the challenges related to land degradation. They can be suggestions from stakeholders, concepts that we’ve seen working in other landscapes, or brand-new ideas of your own. Compile a list of needs and opportunities for possible partners, projects, and interventions. You can also share your opinion on partnerships and activities that could be developed to start the shift from degradation to restoration. 

A layout for a Landscape and stakeholder report can be found below. Adding maps and pictures with details and descriptions, including location (GPS tag) and credits if possible, will help ground the analysis.

What’s next?

Gaining a thorough understanding of your landscape is crucial for long-term decision making and knowing where to focus your energy and activities. This chapter introduced you to the 4 Returns diagnosis and the landscape and stakeholder analysis. Remember to always view these analyses within the wider landscape context. The next element focuses on creating a landscape vision and collaborative planning, ultimately leading to a landscape plan. 

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