Human-Nature Connectedness in Simplified Landscapes: Exploring Relational Values

From soy monocultures in the Amazon to palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia and agricultural intensification in Europe: landscape simplification is taking place all over the world. In a recently published paper, Riechers et al. (2020) argue that in addition to ecological degradation, the simplification of landscapes can also have detrimental effects on human-nature relationships. Using a landscape sustainability science framing, the paper explores interconnections between ecological and social changes taking place in rural landscapes. Here, the authors draw on the concept of relational values to provide a conceptual framework that hypothesizes ecological, social-ecological and social consequences resulting from landscape simplification.

Around the world, the face of agriculture is changing. Traditional agricultural landscapes commonly provide a balance of provisioning, regulating and cultural ecosystem services. In contrast, simplified agricultural landscapes largely supply the single provisioning service of crop production, meanwhile sacrificing other types of services and degrading ecological functions. By trading heterogeneity for intensification, landscape simplification adversely impacts biodiversity and the diversity of crop varieties. But the rapid simplification of landscapes is not only considered a key threat to terrestrial ecosystems: research shows that local communities are also affected by changing land-use patterns, resulting in an erosion of human-nature relationships.

Rural landscapes are changing over time: intensive, simplified agricultural systems replace more diverse traditional landscapes.

Human-nature relationships are central to the notion of relational values. This relatively recent concept is based on the recognition that environmental changes shape both, human-nature connectedness and human relationships. In other words, relational values emphasize the sum of collective values stemming from interactions within a social-ecological system. According to Riechers et al. (2020), the key strength of a relational values perspective lies in the inclusion of environmentally mediated social relationships between individuals and groups of people. Because relational values acknowledge a plurality of sources of human well-being, the concept is well equipped to include diverse worldviews and attitudes of people at a given location.

Riechers et al. (2020) hypothesize that ecological changes to landscapes are intimately connected with social-ecological and social changes: While a typical diversified agricultural landscape exhibits a great variety of ecological functions and strong relational values, a simplification of these systems can result in their erosion. Consequences may include experiential, emotional and material disconnection of inhabitants from the landscape they are living in. According to the authors, ignoring these links between ecological, social-ecological and social dimensions of landscape change could intensify a downward spiral of increasing disconnection from nature.

In extreme cases, Riechers et al. (2020) suggest that landscape simplification can also have severe flow-on effects on human–human relationships. They assume that strong relational values in diversified rural landscapes co-occur with good social relationships. When these relational values erode and the feeling of connectedness of resident groups declines, the agency experienced by local people to meaningfully partake in the development of landscape trajectories may erode as well. This loss of agency can go hand in hand with losses in regional identity and local ecological knowledge.

Left: the original landscape state. Right: the simplified landscape state. The width of the arrows indicates the hypothesized strength of a given connection; potential erosion or conflict is marked by a lightning symbol. (Modified from Riechers et al. 2020, p.3)

After introducing relational values and their connection to landscape simplification, the authors present four case studies to illustrate their arguments. The cases from all over the world describe a gradient from minor and gradual to major and rapid landscape simplification. In Szeklerland, a cultural landscape in Romania, for example, political inconsistencies over the course of the last century resulted in numerous changes in social-ecological systems. Yet, despite these changes, Riechers et al. (2020) report that the local community today is still connected to nature in many ways, and local identity and social relationships are strong. In contrast, the Abobo district in Ethiopia experiences a significant erosion of relational values due to rapid and severe landscape simplification. Here, because of ecological degradation and restricted access to economically important ecosystem services, the lives of the indigenous people are endangered.

The case studies show how landscape simplification undermines relational values. Riechers et al. (2020) propose that the erosion of ecological functions as well as relational values are partly predictable, and somewhat proportional to the speed and intensity of landscape simplification. The authors call for a more holistic take on landscape simplification and its impacts on ecological, social-ecological and social systems. Here, the concept of relational values can contribute to future research.

To read the full paper and learn more about the case studies follow this link.

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