3. Understanding the landscape

Every landscape has its unique history and state, including a.o. its people, politics, economy. ecology, and climate. This module will teach you how to investigate and understand this context with a landscape and stakeholder analysis. 

The landscape and stakeholder analysis is one of the first things we do after identifying a landscape as having potential for a long-term holistic landscape restoration programme. The purpose is to get to know the landscape. Every landscape has its unique history, a journey which has led the landscape to be the way it is today. It is important to understand this context:

  1. The current state of the landscape is the result of a variety of long-term processes; these processes drive change in the landscape. Understanding the driving forces is important to know what interventions have a chance of succeeding, and which don’t.
  2. Things which are present in the current landscape have come to be there for a reason. Although the thing itself may not be future-proof, it is important to understand why it is there to be able to develop a future-proof alternative.
  3. We want to create local ownership and build on what’s already there. In order to do this, we have to find out which stakeholders are already working on landscape restoration, what has been tried before, what worked and what didn’t, et cetera.

A good landscape and stakeholder analysis is the foundation piece of the landscape restoration programme. Not only will it help inform strategy in the first year(s) of the programme, it will also be a help to a range of other pieces of work that will follow; from serving as source of input for stakeholder workshops to create shared understanding, to serving as a baseline study for monitoring, to providing a source document for our communications and fund mobilisation teams to draw from.

In short:

  • It provides context – landscapes are shaped over the course of many centuries under many influences (geology, climate, culture, economics, policy, et cetera). You need to understand a system before you start changing it, so it is important to understand how the landscape was shaped and how it functions today.
  • It identifies past and present initiatives – not only does this help us identify what initiatives we could to build on, we can also learn from things that have not worked well in the past.
  • It helps identify key locations in the landscape – it can help identify key areas of high urgency, where land users are already facing significant challenges related to land degradation and are potentially more willing to do something about it.


The landscape and stakeholder analysis consists of three components: desk research, field visit, and analysis and report writing.

There is a lot of information that can be gathered by doing desk research before we set one foot in a landscape. The field visit serves to verify this information, test assumptions, and augment/add to our knowledge. The field visit is necessary because there are some things important to our work that you just can’t get through a computer; we need to see the landscape with our own eyes and talk with stakeholders face to face. The most interesting initiatives and stakeholders are usually not on the internet. A field visit is indispensable to truly understand the landscape and map the stakeholders.

The general process looks as follows:

  1. Desk analysis of landscape and stakeholders – we will gather as much information as we can to describe the landscape’s relevant history and its current state, and the driving forces that have shaped it. We include an overview of (the most important) challenges related to land degradation faced by stakeholders in the landscape. We will also identify potentially interesting stakeholders to talk with during the field trip.
  2. Field trip plan – Based on the desk analysis, we can plan where to go and who to speak with during our field trip. A field trip will allow us to test our assumptions, investigate what the stakeholders in the landscape need and how they might be inspired and facilitated to restore their landscape.
  3. Field trip – During the field trip we will interview relevant stakeholders and experts, and visit relevant locations and initiatives. We take a lot of pictures and videos and capture all our conversations. We try to expand our network during the trip: the people we speak with will hopefully refer us on to other interesting people to speak with, so reserve time in the programme to allow for such follow-on interviews.
  4. Need/opportunity analysis – Based on the information gathered, we can compile a list of ideas for possible projects/interventions. These are rough ideas of projects that can contribute to solving the challenges related to land degradation stakeholders in the landscape face. These can be ideas that stakeholders came up with, concepts that we’ve already seen working in other landscapes, or of course brand new ideas that you come up with.
  5. Write-up and opportunity analysis – Based on the information gathered we can write up the ‘baseline’ report: a document summarising the current state of the landscape, the driving forces that shaped it, and an ‘opportunity analysis’: our take on what activities can be developed to start shifting the system from degradation to restoration.


This section will give some practical tips on each step of the process.

These kinds of analyses are best done together, meaning: in tandem with a local partner. If the analysis is performed solely by the Commonland team, there is no local ownership and we will miss important pieces of the puzzle because we don’t know the landscape. If, on the other hand, we let a local partner do everything, we don’t leverage the experience we have gathered in other landscapes.

Desk study

The desk study serves as a strong foundation for the other work and can go a long way in helping us understand the various facets of the landscape without even setting foot in the landscape. It is a lot cheaper to do desk research than to be travel through the field, so we try to get to know as much as possible in this stage while keeping in mind that we cannot know everything from a distance.

We can already start putting together a draft for the final report at this stage.

With the desk study, we look at a large breadth of topics. We need to find a balance between being comprehensive and concise. Too much detail and you end up writing a 1000-page trilogy and take 5 years to complete it, too little detail and we miss important nuances that help our understanding of how the landscape works.

Here is a list of possible topics to look into, that may help in the search. For each of these topics we want to know and describe the relevant history, current status/recent developments and future expected developments.

  • Geology
  • Hydrology
  • Ecology
  • Climate and weather patterns
  • Population
  • Economy
  • Governance
  • Mapping of stakeholders and existing initiatives

The sources you can use for this are varied. You can think of:

  • Strategic documents of our partners, where relevant
  • Research and evaluation studies from local & (inter)national knowledge institutes, NGOs and governments
  • Reports, policy documents, strategy documents, websites or media outings from local & (inter)national partners, NGOs, governments (ministries/departments, regional governments, water councils, other government agencies)
  • News media
  • Spatial data (GIS): maps and remote sensing data

'Mapping the social landscapes of regenerative actors' will help you map key actors in the landscapes and their relations and interests.

Field trip plan

Based on the results of the desk study we can plan the field trip. During the preparation of the field trip there are a few things to pay specific attention to:

  • For expectation management, we will have to think carefully in advance about the ‘storyline’. How will we present ourselves? Why are we there? What do we want to achieve? Why are we interested in these stakeholders and what will we do with the information we get from them?
  • It is important, for building a trusting relationship with local stakeholders, to be transparent, and to give them something in return for their time. What we always do is promise them to send them a copy of our analysis/insights/report after the field trip. This is a double-edged sword; not only does it show them we are not just taking but also giving, the interview and the report may also stimulate them to think about their landscape differently and give them a nudge to cooperate to restore it. To stimulate this, we promise to contact them again after a few weeks for feedback on our report and visit, and discussion on what could be the way forward.
  • We will always travel with two people or more. This is because two hear more than one, and for our safety while travelling.
  • It can be helpful to organise/prepare the field visit together with a local counterpart, who can introduce us to stakeholders and accompany us in the field. They can also help translating where necessary and help to understand the local culture. However, be careful in selection of this person: being with the stakeholder can colour the answers we get. It should preferably be a neutral partner with good reputation in the area, or one with no reputation at all. We will want to check the track record of our partner anyway, so it may be prudent to plan a few interviews without them present to get a clearer picture of how they are actually perceived, locally.
  • It is advisable to prepare a short mission briefing, summarising
    • Main facts we already know
    • Main questions that are still open
    • Hypotheses and assumptions we already have that we want to test

Field trip

During the field trip we will visit relevant sites, and interview a range of relevant stakeholders about their knowledge and future plans/strategies. We are using this to collect more information but also to test our assumptions. It is important to listen well, beyond ‘downloading’ or trying to (re)confirm our own ideas. Have a look at the ‘4 levels of listening’ section in the annex.

Examples of potentially interesting stakeholders to interview during the field trip:

  • Farmers and farmer groups/collectives
  • Local government
  • Regional government
  • Conservation NGOs
  • Community development NGOs
  • Community leaders or community-led initiatives/organisations
  • Companies working on coastal protection, infrastructure, value chains/sourcing natural produce (from agriculture, forestry, fisheries, mining, water)
  • Research institutes (universities and others)
  • Relevant ministries/departments of national government

This tool from the Presenting Institute takes you through the principles, set-up and steps to conduct constructive stakeholder interviews

Stakeholder interviews


co-design tool, communication tool

mobilising people

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Small workshops can be part of the field trip. For example, for mapping stakeholders there are certain workshop designs which bring together a group of key actors in the landscape and map out all their networks.

Stakeholder mapping workshop (to be changed into our own tool)

Institutional and context analysis tool


mapping & analytical tool


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Managing expectations…

Travelling to a landscape as a foreign organisation and going around asking questions has advantages and disadvantages. An advantage is that, by asking the right questions, you can already create momentum; you can help people zoom out of their day-to-day activities and observe the bigger picture. A disadvantage is that you can very quickly start raising expectations of collaboration or support that we may not be able to deliver on. Expectation management is therefore key!

Depending on the landscape, you may find that many NGOs have been working there already for decades. Based on previous experiences, local communities may have certain presumptions and expectations of NGOs that come and visit their landscape and their way of working (e.g. short-term expensive projects without involvement of local stakeholders), which they may project on us as well.

Straight after the field trip, at the latest within two or three weeks, it is important to send all the interviewees a ‘thank you’ note and a short summary of the findings during the field trip.

Write-up and ‘opportunity analysis’

The following is an example chapter lay-out of the report. Adding maps and pictures with good detail and descriptions, including location (GPS tag) and credits (source) if possible, will help ‘ground’ the analysis (an image says more than a thousand words). Keep in mind, the report on the analysis can double as a baseline report for MEL and communication purposes later.

Once this report has been completed, we have done ‘our homework’ and we can start getting into action mode. See the next module: ‘Getting started‘.

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