Nile falls, Ethiopia, Photo: Peter Messerli
Nile falls, Ethiopia, Photo: Peter Messerli

Our History

The evolution of the Global Land Programme

Land system science has developed over the past twenty years. The study of land use and land cover change [coordinated through the former Land Use Cover Change (LUCC) project] was initially dominated by monitoring and modelling of the ecological impacts of major land cover changes such as deforestation and desertification on the natural system (Turner II et al., 1993; Lambin et al., 2000; Lambin and Geist, 2006). Achievements were made in terms of observing land cover changes by remote sensing for single case studies as well as in global datasets (Walsh and Crews-Meyer, 2002). As part of LUCC activities, Belward (1996) developed definitions of land cover classes. The legend employed was developed to meet the needs of IGBP projects, providing for a consistent and objective representation of significant landforms for all projects. One of the main achievements of the early LUCC work was the synthesis of case studies to identify common driving factors of change and causation patterns (Geist and Lambin, 2002, 2004). At the same time, land use models were developed that allowed the exploration of future scenarios of land use change (Verburg et al., 1999; Pontius et al., 2001).

Besides the LUCC project the Global Change and Terrestrial Ecosystems (GCTE) project contributed by the research on terrestrial ecosystem changes under local, regional and global environmental changes such as increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases, changes in global and regional climate, habitat destruction, and increases in number and impacts of exotic invasive species (Pitelka et al., 2007). The overarching goal of the GCTE project was to predict the effect of changes in climate, atmospheric composition, and land use on terrestrial ecosystem and to determine how these effects lead to feedback to the atmosphere and physical climate system. GCTE took the lead in analyzing the nature of nonlinear change in Earth System functioning. This work played a central role in the emergence of abrupt change, surprises and extreme events as unifying themes in the second phase of IGBP research.

Gradually, the research field of land use and land cover change matured and became more integrative, focusing on both the drivers and impacts of land change and including a wider range of interacting processes of land use change. The growing group of researchers engaged in this field led to the emergence of ‘Land Change Science’ as a separate, interdisciplinary, research field engaging scientists across the social, economic, geographical and natural sciences (Rindfuss et al., 2004; Turner et al.,  2007). The increasing attention to feedbacks between drivers and impacts including adaptive behavior (Verburg, 2006), the interactions between social and ecological systems and teleconnections between world regions (Lambin and Meyfroidt, 2011; Liu et al., 2013) and between cities and their rural hinterlands (Seto et al., 2012b) have motivated an integrated socio-ecological systems perspective. In this integrated concept, land systems are conceptualized as the result of dynamic interactions within  the socio-ecological system. This perspective has also moved land system science from a focus on the most dramatic land cover changes to greater attention for subtle changes of human interactions with the natural surroundings, including land management (Erb et al., 2013; Kuemmerle et al., 2013) and the provisioning of a wide range of ecosystem services (Crossman et al., 2013).

Over the past decade the Land System Science community has been organized through the Global Land Project, now renamed into the Global Land Programme (GLP). The orientation of land system science at the interface of social, physical and ecological systems was reflected in GLP being a core project of both the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) commissioned by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council (ISSC). The Global Land Project started in 2006 for a 10-year period after publishing its science plan in 2005 (GLP, 2005). GLP is a successor of the previous Land Use and Land Cover Change project (LUCC; 1994-2005) and the Global Change and Terrestrial Ecosystems project (GCTE; 1992-2003). GLP aims at synthesis and integration of insights, knowledge and methodologies in research across the land system science community. A core task of  GLP is the identification of scientific priorities and agenda setting through synthesis of existing knowledge, meta-analysis of land-based research and targeted workshops. In addition, GLP provides a platform for the land system science community through networking activities, such as the organization of workshops and conferences.

In the final years of first phase of GLP several synthesis activities have been conducted to summarize the state-of-the-art of scientific achievements of GLP and define science priorities for the research community. A survey amongst the participants of the GLP Open Science Meeting in 2014 and an internal evaluation process by the GLP Scientific Steering Committee have identified the future needs for coordination of the GLP community and its priorities.

A major conclusion of this evaluation is that Land System Science is more important than ever: many of the important global change challenges are related to the use of land resources and many of the Societal Grand Challenges are related to the sustainable use of land. Increasingly, research is being done on land systems from different disciplinary perspectives as well as from an interdisciplinary perspective. Land system science is evolving as a discipline with strong connections between scientific understanding and the communities of practice and policy that govern and manage the use of land. In this context the scientific and practice communities still require synthesis and agenda setting activities, as well as a platform for exchange, collaboration and innovation.

To fulfill this role, GLP now operates more as a Programme or Network rather than as a traditional research project, bounded to specific research questions and hypotheses to be answered in the middle term. Hence, this current second phase of GLP uses ‘the Global Land Programme’ as its full name to reflects its networking, synthesis, and agenda-setting functions.