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III Methodological Advances for Facilitating Social Science Integration

The Representation of Human-Environment Interactions in Land Change Research and Modelling

Peter H. Verburg

Introduction: Land Change and Spatial Models

Land change is the result of multiple human-environment interactions operating across different scales. Land change research needs to account for processes ranging from global trade of food and energy to the local management of land resources at farm and landscape level. Land change has a pronounced impact on the local and global environment. Land change may cause degradation of the living environment through soil degradation or changes in the aesthetic qualities of the landscape. At the same time, land change may lead to aggregate impacts on larger spatial and temporal scales, examples include the impacts on global climate and food security. Such impacts affect human well-being and often feedback on land use practices and decision making by adapting to the changing environmental and socio-economic context. Human-environment interactions in the land system are, therefore, connected across scales with multiple feedbacks, leading to so-called 'teleconnections' or 'telecoupling' in the earth system. The same process may cause different trajectories of land change in different world regions: globalization of food production can cause deforestation in tropical regions while marginal agricultural landscapes in other regions are abandoned. The local environmental and socio-economic context determines how the same global changes lead to different trajectories of land change in different parts of the world.

Land change occurs at the interface of human and environmental systems and is crucial in understanding both the causes and consequences of global environmental change. Local land change decisions are often made by individual land owners.

In some cases land owners decide on land practices of small agricultural plots in terms of farming practices as well as having the opportunity to sell their land or buy adjacent plots. In other cases land owners have authority to make land use decisions over large areas of land managed by multiple individual farmers. When ownership is linked to the state or community, decision making on land resources is either the outcome of a political process (e.g. in assigning concessions for deforestation) or a result of communal decision making. Irrespective of the land ownership, land change decisions are steered by both the preferences of the land owner and managers and the way in which the decision process is influenced by the environmental conditions, commodity markets, socio-economic context and other driving factors. The spatial and temporal diversity of the actors of land change, the environment and the socioeconomic and cultural context lead to a wide array of different land change trajectories with processes operating across multiple spatial scales. Such diversity expresses itself in a diverse mosaic of land use within the landscape and in the development of widely diverging trajectories of landscape change worldwide.

Effective management of land resources and the transition towards sustainable natural resource management can only be achieved based on a thorough understanding of the complex interactions and feedbacks in the land system. Land science has developed a wide portfolio of methods to investigate land system change, ranging from local case studies aimed at understanding the land change decisions leading to land change to global scale integrated assessment models that evaluate the impacts of land change on the earth system functioning. One of the major challenges of the land change community is to reconcile the different methodological approaches at different scales and make complementary use of the different types of knowledge generated. Computer simulation models play an important role in land science. Models provide a platform for formalized synthesis of the knowledge on the functioning of the land system, allow hypothesis testing and allow the exploration of alternative development trajectories and intervention options. This chapter will review how human-environment interactions are conceptualized in land science and land change models in particular. The chapter will explicitly address how social science knowledge is integrated in land change models and discuss a research agenda for further improving the representation of human agency in land change models.

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