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Developing middle-range theories linking land use displacement, intensification and transitions

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - MIDLAND (Developing middle-range theories linking land use displacement, intensification and transitions)

Reporting period: 2020-11-01 to 2022-04-30

Land is a nexus for crucial societal and environmental challenges including food security, access to water, land degradation, biodiversity loss, and climate change. Development of solutions to balance these tradeoffs and synergies is currently hindered by the lack of theories explaining the conditions under which different pathways of land change occur and lead to different outcomes, integrating human and environmental aspects.
This project develops and tests integrated middle-range theories explaining the linkages between three of the major processes in land systems, i.e. (i) land use intensification and expansion, (ii) land use displacement and trade, and (iii) land use transitions or regime shifts.
The work focuses on the emerging agricultural frontier of Southern African dry forests and savannas, which is a threatened and understudied region, and its linkages with distant places.
We analyze: (i) The actors’s decision-making logics, in particular land-based (agriculture and forestry) investment decisions, the emergence of frontiers and pioneers of commercial, capitalized agriculture, policy-making dynamics strategic field of actors’ coalitions; (ii) Links between land use displacement, leakage, and local land changes; (iii) land use dynamics through remote sensing, including pathways of agricultural expansion and intensification, and field sizes; and (iv) The conditions for transformative governance of land systems to foster resilient landscapes that sustain ecosystem services and livelihoods.
The Project has addressed the main objectives set up in the Description of the Action.
We have developed integrated middle-range theories and high-level syntheses about land system change, particularly in two landmark papers. These, along with other synthesis works on conceptual frameworks and theories in land system and sustainability science, on the normative aspects of land system research as well as on theories of land use claims, are major contributions to Step 5.
A key objective of Step 5 is to produce synthesis and theories on land use and natural resource frontiers. Most of the works of the different steps below contribute to this objective, but in addition, we led or contributed to several key works providing the building blocks for a proper middle-range theory of frontiers emergence and expansion, as well as empirical works that highlight the patterns of frontiers globally as well as of those emerging in boreal regions. We are still working on integrating all these pieces into a coherent synthesis.
The work on Step 1 has generated a novel comprehension of the actors’ decision-making, strategies, and interactions in the domain of land use investors and entrepreneurs in the emerging frontiers of Southern Africa. Collaborations stemming from the project have led to contributions to a larger review paper on farmers decision-making.
The work on Step 2 has generated strong empirical tests of the causal linkages between cropland area and intensity changes, forest area changes, economic development and governance, and the conditions under which distinct effects occur. We have generated theoretical insights on how land use regime shifts from subsistence-oriented land uses to commercial frontiers can occur. We collaborated to broader works to shed light on specific land use displacement issues such as between Russia and Brazil as well as on the role of supply chain configurations and (in)stability in land use outcomes.
The work on Step 3 has generated wall-to-wall maps of land use and land cover change across the north of Mozambique, a ~380,000 km2 region, that provide a spatialized understanding of the trajectories of smallholder and large-scale agricultural investments and of tree plantations in that region. We also generated a comprehensive characterization of deforestation frontiers in tropical dry forests and woodlands regions, as well as novel algorithms for large-scale mapping of field sizes, providing a much more detailed understanding not only of the dynamics of small versus large-scale agriculture but also of the multiple dynamics within small and medium-scale agriculture. On a broader scale, we contributed to assessing the role of land management in global change dynamics.
The work on Step 4 has brought together scientists, policy-makers and practitioners in Mozambique to explore the opportunities and challenges of land use investments in the region. From that, we have developed a comprehensive review and an empirical analysis of the role that strategic planning can play in fostering more sustainable land use systems. We have also produced works on territorial conflicts and on questioning climate change adaptation interventions and narratives around resettlement, a key land use issue in Mozambique. Collaborations developed along with the project have led to publications that contribute to paving the way for improved governance of land use frontiers, such as in relation with transparency of supply chains, on flow-based governance, forest transitions, and sustainable intensification.
Beyond but also transversal to the five steps planned in the project, our work has triggered a novel line of research on the interactions between food systems and land systems, with several papers assessing these relations and developing ideas, or synthesizing key issues at the interface between forests and livelihoods, leading to ongoing empirical works on the role of labor in land system sustainability and on new remote sensing developments to map cropland, fallows and field sizes, which cross-fertilize with the work from Steps 1 and 3 on farm and field size and small-medium-marge-holders interactions.
The project is developing key progresses beyond the state of the art, in particular:
- An ethnography of investors and commercial farmers
- A multi-sited investigation of investors' decision making
- A cointegration approach for disentangling long and short-run causal relations between land use variables
- A remote sensing approach based on Google Earth Engine to map large and small scale cropland.
- An articulation of middle-range theories in land systems.

The project is fundamentally inter and transdisciplinary. We combine quantitative and qualitative data, and natural and social sciences. We held a transdisciplinary workshop in Mozambique in October 2018, which put together scientists, industry representatives, civil society and policy-makers. Key integrated outputs of the project shall include an understanding of the factors and processes leading to the emergence of land use frontiers, a theoretical structuration of land system science, and insights regarding the governance of land use frontiers towards improving sustainability.

We produced a rich set of high quality papers, which are also disseminated through conferences, public media interventions, blog posts, engagement with local stakeholders, etc. We have also done several other valuable activities:
- A remote sensing workshop in 09/2018 to transfer knowledge and technologies to our partners from Universidade Eduardo Mondlane (UEM) in Mozambique
- A stakeholders workshop in Mozambique in 10/2018 pulling together scientists (from the ERC team, from UCLouvain as well as from UEM, and from other teams), industry actors (from agriculture, forestry and investments companies), civil society, and policy-makers, to discuss and develop visions and solutions towards sustainable land uses in Mozambique.
The team at work in Mozambique
A coffee farm in Eastern Africa
Tobacco processing in Zambia
An emerging commercial soya farmer in Gurué, Mozambique
The team at work in a community land delineation meeting in Mozambique
A large-scale soybean field in Northern Mozambique
A stevia farm nursery in Eastern Africa
A macadamia farmer in his nursery in Northern Mozambique
The team at work in a forestry plantation in Northern Mozambique
The team at work in a forestry plantation in Northern Mozambique
The team at work with key informants in Northern Mozambique
Colonial tea plantation buildings reutilized by a macadamia farm in Northern Mozambique
A macadamia plantation in Northern Mozambique
The team at work with emerging commercial soy farmers in Northern Mozambique
A Miombo forest landscape in Northern Mozambique