You are here






Jeffrey Sayer and Stewart Maginnis

Forests in Landscapes: Ecosystem Approaches to Sustainability

A Review of Conceptual Understandings and Practical Experiences


While many international agreements, governments, private sector companies and civil society organizations have committed to implement both an ecosystem approach and sustainable forest management (SFM), there is a general lack of clarity on how these two concepts relate to each other. As a result, delegates to international fora on forest and forest-related issues have many different interpretations as to whether and how an ecosystem approach and SFM relate to each other.


In response to challenges arising from this definitional problem, recommendations were made to take necessary actions to clarify the conceptual basis of the ecosystem approach in relation to sustainable forest management at both the sixth Conference of the Parties (COP-6) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and Resolution 3/4 of the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF). Based on the request made by the CBD and UNFF, the objective of this study was to evaluate the link between the concepts of an ecosystem approach and SFM and, using case studies, to review the differences and similarities in the application of these approaches with a view to improve the conservation of biological diversity and sustainable use.

Specifically, the study sought to:

  • Outline the historical evolution and key operational features of the ecosystem approach and of contemporary SFM concepts.
  • Review practical experiences in the application of SFM and the Ecosystem Approach.
  • Explore how spatial and temporal perspectives inherent in the ecosystem approach and SFM can contribute to how we understand and address the economic, environmental and social trade-offs involved in land-use policy and practice.
  • Suggest key policy and institutional interventions for operationalizing these concepts, and optimizing synergies between them, in contemporary resource management and planning.


Forests in Landscapes, published in 2005, is the culmination of this work on the relationship between the Ecosystem Approach and Sustainable Forest Managment. It reviews changes that have occurred in forest management in recent decades. Recent innovations in Sustainable Forest Management and Ecosystem Approaches are resulting in forests increasingly being managed as part of the broader social-ecological systems in which they exist. Case studies from Europe, Canada, the United States, Russia, Australia, the Congo and Central America provide a wealth of international examples of innovative practices. The book also examines the political ecology and economics of forest management, and reviews the information needs and the use and misuse of criteria and indicators to achieve broad societal goals for forests.

The study was based on a discussion paper (Ecosystem Approaches and Sustainable Forest Management) prepared by IUCN, PROFOR and the World Bank for the 4th session of the UNFF, and a workshop organized by IUCN, PROFOR and the World Bank between 12 and 14 May 2004 which brought together experts from various countries in the Swiss Jura. Participants discussed and brainstormed on the relationship between the EsA and SFM concepts and assess how these two concepts can help operationalize the growing consensus that 21st century forest management should address broader, multi-stakeholder, multi-scale and multiple function objectives. Based on discussions from the workshop, a set of regional and thematic case studies on this subject were commissioned, and terms of references for the contributing authors were finalized.

The key findings from the initial draft of the report were distilled into a special issue of the joint IUCN/WWF Arborvitae newsletter, entitled Changing Realities: Ecosystem Approaches and Sustainable Forest Management. This 12-page communications piece offered a summary of the key findings of the study to date, reviewing and clarifying the relationship between EsA and SFM. In addition, a workshop on Ecosystem Approaches and Sustainable Forest Management was held at the World Conservation Congress in November 2004.

An important conclusion from the case studies is that many of the issues that the EsA principles highlight are already being addressed on the ground. The real value of EsA therefore is not as a competing concept to SFM, but as a set of general guidelines that help enrich the debate and provide a broad conceptual framework for resource management.

For stories and updates on related activities, follow us on twitter and facebook, or to our mailing list for regular updates.

Author : Jeffrey Sayer and Stewart Maginnis
Last Updated : 02-24-2017