Land-use trajectories for sustainable land system transformations: Identifying leverage points in a global biodiversity hotspot

Related GLP Member: Dominic Martin


Finding entry points where policy has strong leverage to transform land systems for people and nature is pivotal. We develop an innovative framework to identify and evaluate such leverage points along land-use trajectories that account for path dependency. Applied to the biodiversity hotspot Madagascar, the framework reveals three leverage points: Two leverage points are associated with trade-offs between biodiversity, ecosystem services, and agricultural productivity, while the third entails cobenefits. Swift policy action is required, as path dependency caused by forest loss may soon put two leverage points out of reach. We argue that such closing windows of opportunity may be common, but often overlooked, calling for a wider consideration of path dependency in land-system science.


Sustainable land-system transformations are necessary to avert biodiversity and climate collapse. However, it remains unclear where entry points for transformations exist in complex land systems. Here, we conceptualize land systems along land-use trajectories, which allows us to identify and evaluate leverage points, i.e., entry points on the trajectory where targeted interventions have particular leverage to influence land-use decisions. We apply this framework in the biodiversity hotspot Madagascar. In the northeast, smallholder agriculture results in a land-use trajectory originating in old-growth forests and spanning from forest fragments to shifting hill rice cultivation and vanilla agroforests. Integrating interdisciplinary empirical data on seven taxa, five ecosystem services, and three measures of agricultural productivity, we assess trade-offs and cobenefits of land-use decisions at three leverage points along the trajectory. These trade-offs and cobenefits differ between leverage points: Two leverage points are situated at the conversion of old-growth forests and forest fragments to shifting cultivation and agroforestry, resulting in considerable trade-offs, especially between endemic biodiversity and agricultural productivity. Here, interventions enabling smallholders to conserve forests are necessary. This is urgent since ongoing forest loss threatens to eliminate these leverage points due to path dependency. The third leverage point allows for the restoration of land under shifting cultivation through vanilla agroforests and offers cobenefits between restoration goals and agricultural productivity. The co-occurring leverage points highlight that conservation and restoration are simultaneously necessary to avert collapse of multifunctional mosaic landscapes. Methodologically, the framework highlights the importance of considering path dependency along trajectories to achieve sustainable land-system transformations.