Understanding systems through a social-ecological “landscape interface”

By Joern Fischer

Throughout the world, we witness rapid change in traditional rural landscapes. As part of the synthesis efforts of our work in Southern Transylvania, Andra Horcea-Milcu just published what is one of my favourite papers from the entire project (PDF). The paper describes two new concepts: that of the “landscape interface”, and that of the “value change debt” (or in short “value debt”). I’ll describe these concepts below, hoping the paper will be of interest to many others working on changing social-ecological systems.

Rural social-ecological systems – apart from those in frontier landscapes – are typically characterized by the gradual co-evolution of social and ecological features. These, in turn, tend to shape and in turn be reinforced by value systems that somehow “fit” the social and ecological characteristics of the landscape.

In the context of such landscapes, the landscape interface can then be understood as the central meeting point, or intersection, of social and ecological phenomena. It is where the lived experiences of people come together with biophysical realities; where these two entities shape one another. The landscape interface is shaped by the local value system, and upholds it through particular understandings of how to use the land, and how the landscape works in response to human activities. The landscape interface thus is a critical space in which sustainable land use practices can evolve and be upheld.

What happens when people spend less time in the landscape, and stop using it in traditional ways? Essentially, the landscape interface loses its prominent role in upholding sustainable land use practices. External changes take place – for example, people from elsewhere move into the region, or new land use practices are adopted that have not co-evolved with local culture or experience.

What is fascinating to observe in Southern Transylvania, is that at first glance, the landscape is relatively resilient to external change. However, upon close investigation, this resilience may in fact be a lag effect… In ecology, people speak of extinction debts when species are still present, but declining such that they will eventually go extinct. Analogous to this, land use practices in Transylvania appear to be partly upheld by a value debt. Many smallholder farmers still act according to the value systems they inherited from the past, even though the external world has changed. And thus, certain practices persist, for the benefit of sustainability – but are declining, and at risk of being lost.

When an extinction debt is identified by conservation biologists, this may come as a shock because it looks like yet another species is doomed. But it is also an opportunity: as long as the species is still there, it is possible to work with the remaining individuals, and perhaps recover its population numbers.

The value debt is similar: it is an opportunity to engage with local people facing rapid and massive landscape change at a time when they are still connected to nature; at a time when the landscape interface is still strong enough to provide a foundation for a sustainable future. The point here is not that the past will be restored: but not all has been lost thanks to the memory in the social sub-system. The value debt thus is both a warning signal and an opportunity to engage before it’s too late.

The paper (PDF) provides many additional details, especially with respect to Transylvania. We hope the concepts provided here will also be of use to better understand and work with changing human-environment interactions elsewhere.


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