From New Zealand to Africa: managing land use trade-offs

As part of the Sentinel project, IIED has developed a new virtual training tool for analysing trade-offs in land use decisions. Xiaoting Hou-Jones shares how the tool was inspired by a decision-making framework designed by a team from Lincoln University, New Zealand, and evolved through trialling it in Ghana and Zambia.

Xiaoting Hou Jones's picture
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4 March 2022

Xiaoting Hou-Jones is a senior researcher in IIED's Natural Resources group

Aerial natural landscape.

Landscape mosaic in New Zealand (Photo: Xiaoting Hou Jones, IIED)

At COP26 in Glasgow, 141 governments, whose countries contain 90% of the world’s forests, pledged to and reverse deforestation by 2030.

These included countries in Africa, hosting 17% of the world’s forests and its second-largest rainforest. Faced with rapid population growth and severe climate change impacts – including droughts and pest outbreaks – they will have to manage tricky trade-offs between meeting food demand and protecting their forests to meet these pledges. 

Food versus forests

So how can Africa feed its growing population in a changing climate while also protecting its forests, which provide vital ecosystem services?

Through my fieldwork, I have met many African agricultural land managers, from individual farmers or families working a patch of land on their own or as part of a cooperative, to local and international companies, public agencies and non-profit organisations managing agricultural land. Each has their own preferences and priorities, and different ways of deciding how to use their land and the trees and forest on or around it.

Collectively the decisions they make shape Africa’s farm and forest landscape. If we can better understand what drives their decisions and incentivise and support them to manage environmental, social and economic trade-offs in these decisions, African countries will be better able to meet growing food demand while also conserving their forests.

Inspiration from New Zealand

In early 2020, I set off for New Zealand in search of some answers. And while it bears little resemblance to Africa, this remote island country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean knows how to manage tricky land use trade-offs. Much of its economy depends on farming, while agriculture and forestry make a significant contribution to its export earnings.

So, its government and landowners have long invested in trying to work out how to minimise the environmental impacts of agriculture and forestry production while growing the country’s economy.

And like Africa, New Zealand has many types of land manager – from individuals and families to companies and Indigenous People – all with their own priorities and decision-making processes. The Indigenous Māori people collectively manage 5.6% of the land, using a system based on traditional beliefs that enshrine culture, environment, economy and society.

During my sabbatical there, I met many passionate researchers who are designing and trialling different methodologies to support and engage the country’s diverse land managers to better deal with trade-offs. One of these was a land use decision-making framework based on analytical hierarchy process (AHP), developed and trialled by professor Alan Renwick and his team at Lincoln University.

Easy, flexible decision-making

AHP is a multicriteria analysis tool that helps decision makers analyse trade-offs among multiple and competing objectives and make informed decisions that explicitly acknowledge those trade-offs.

It is widely used in the private and public sectors for complex decision-making in topics ranging from conservation and natural resource management to health, marketing, conflict resolution, policy design and supply chain management. Its few simple steps allow users to map and investigate the relative importance of key drivers of decisions.

It can generate both quantitative and qualitative information and its participatory nature makes it engaging for land managers.

A new tool for sustainable land management

I was excited to explore how AHP could help us better understand African land managers’ decision-making to better engage and support them to make more sustainable land use choices.

After my sabbatical, I shared the idea with a group of UK, Ethiopia, Ghana and Zambia-based researchers who are part of Sentinel, a project that seeks to address the challenge of achieving zero hunger in Africa while reducing inequality and conserving ecosystems through interdisciplinary research.

With Sentinel’s support, professor Renwick and I worked with researchers in Ghana and Zambia to trial AHP as a tool to engage land managers and analyse how they manage competing land use objectives.

Drawing on these rich application experiences as well as those from New Zealand, we then developed a free virtual training course to help researchers use AHP to better understand trade-offs in land use decision-making and therefore help land use managers deal with them.

We welcome you to explore the training course for yourself and look forward to receiving your feedback.


The first video in the training course explores the analytical hierarchy process and its strengths and limitations

We hope this new tool will allow researchers and land use managers alike to make land use more sustainable. With this extra tool in the box, committing to conserve Africa’s forests while also achieving zero hunger may just become possible.

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