Has the GLP moved too far from its social ecological roots?

The Global Land Programme was established in 2005 (IGBP 53/IHDP 19) and was born through a marriage between the Global Change Terrestrial Ecosystem Project (GCTE) and the Land Use Cover Change Project (LUCC) in the early part of this century. The merger of these two Core Projects, of what was then the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP) and the International Human Dimensions Program (IHDP), was timely and strategic in recognition of the need to further integrate social sciences and biophysical sciences to enhance our understanding of the consequences of global environmental changes on land systems and to enhance our ability to contribute to solutions to mitigate global environmental changes.

The initial science plan (IGBP 53/IHDP 19; 2005; Ojima et al 2007) was forged as a merger of these two communities and defined a research agenda based on a land system perspective that incorporated both social and ecological research elements. As the Global Land Programme evolved, it has departed somewhat from this joint social-ecological system perspective such that core ecological perspectives are now lacking. The GLP needs to reengage with the ecological community to address the critical issues land systems face today. Due to the lack of ecological perspectives in the current construct of the Science plan and implementation strategy 2016-2021, GLP research will only partially address changes in land systems and thus in the pathways toward managing for these changes.

The current Science Plan articulates research thematic areas associated with: Telecoupling of land use systems, Land use and conflict, Land-atmosphere processes, Land governance, Land change trade-offs for ecosystem services and biodiversity, Land management systems, and Urban-rural interactions. These areas of focus share a number of ecosystem-related features that are neither well represented in current ecological research nor capture the social-ecological system dynamics operating around the world.

Erle Ellis in his 2015 Centennial paper for the Ecological Society of America provided a thesis that called for greater integration between classic ecological thinking and socio-cultural framing of land systems. He argues that ecological theory does not have a clear perspective on how to incorporate the role of human activities as a transformative ecological actor, and he develops a concept called the anthroecology theory. Ecology can contribute to addressing these issues and provide an ecological framing for how key processes may be altered by human activities and in response to climate changes that influence the well-being of people and ecosystems. In addition, this ecological perspective can also provide a better context to develop adaptive ecosystem management practices and lead to sustainable management strategies based on ecological principles.

For example, how will the expansion of biofuels affect ecosystem structure and functions that influence the social-ecological system dynamics? How would land use intensification affect biodiversity, ecosystem connectivity and hydro-biogeochemical processes in associated landscapes? How would changes to the rural-urban interface affect the fluxes of energy, water, and biogeochemical compounds that influence air quality and human health? How do cascading effects of changes to ecosystem structure affect biodiversity and sustainable land use? How do the cumulative impacts of land use change affect ecosystem integrity and increase vulnerability of food and water security?     

There are many other examples where deeper ecosystem knowledge can and should contribute to the research activities of the Global Land Programme. As the GLP moves forward, a better balance in the science and research efforts that integrates the ecological and social dimensions of the land system dynamics and processes should be sought.

1.          IGBP Report No. 53/IHDP Report No. 19. 2005. Global Land Project (GLP): Science Plan and Implementation Strategy. Dennis Ojima, Emilio Moran, William McConnell, Mark Stafford Smith, Gregor Laumann, João Morais and Bill Young (Eds.). IGBP Secretariat, Stockholm. 64pp.

2.         Ojima, DS, WJ McConnell, E Moran, BL. Turner III, JG Canadell, S Lavorel. 2007. The Future Research Challenge: The Global Land Project. Pp: 313-322. In Canadell JG, DE Pataki, LF Pitelka (eds.) Terrestrial Ecosystems in a Changing World. GCTE Synthesis Volume. Springer, Berlin.

3.         GLP. 2016. Global Land Project: Science plan and implementation strategy 2016-2021. https://glp.earth/our-science/science-plan

4.         Ellis, Erle C. 2015. Ecology in an anthropogenic biosphere. Ecol. Monog. 85: 287-331