In northern Ghana, many people struggle for decent livelihoods amid high levels of poverty and few job opportunities — a situation that is fueling a greater risk of conflict among communities sharing a common landscape and its resources.

How these conflicts can be resolved is one of the fundamental questions being probed by Eric Bayala, a researcher working on his Ph.D. with the project Collaborating to Operationalize Landscape Approaches for Nature, Development and Sustainability (COLANDS). It aims to operationalize a landscape approach to natural resource governance while closing the gap between strong scientific theory about landscape approaches and weak implementation.

Bayala has been visiting communities in northern Ghana to study how conflicts are being dealt with, and what guidance towards conflict resolution could be offered through integrated landscapes approaches (ILAs). These approaches are recognized for their potential to address peoples’ livelihoods and conservation concerns, and are applicable in the case of northern Ghana. Bayala, therefore, is looking for opportunities where the landscape approach could be applied.

Livelihoods is the concern raised most often, says Bayala. That reflects the history of high rates of poverty across the Northern Savanna ecological zone, leaving people highly dependent on natural resources. Competition can erupt among land users as some government agencies may at times prioritize conservation and sustainable resource use, while local residents aim to improve their living conditions, and private companies search for profit.

To earn a living, many are driven to cut down trees for sale, or for the creation of new agricultural fields, or for charcoal production; or they hunt wild animals or graze their livestock in these protected areas. A greater focus on what can be done to help improve employment opportunities and economic conditions — particularly, green jobs and value chains — for local populations could provide a sound base for more effective biodiversity conservation while reducing conflict. Authorities could help in this regard.

“People expressed a real need for support, to be able to provide for their families. They need some options so then they won’t be so dependent on forest areas,” says Bayala, who travelled between several communities in northern Ghana in early 2021, interviewing a cross-section of people. “If they had livelihoods or possibilities for generating an income, then most of the other challenges would disappear, little by little,” says Bayala. He interviewed six groups in each community he visited: women, youth, elders, farmers, forest operators (which can include people who collect honey or shea nuts) and Fulani pastoralists, when they were available. In all, Bayala had interviewed about 220 people across six communities, as well as local government officials, chiefs and district assembly members.

Conflict can also be triggered when the search for livelihoods pushes young men to cut down shea trees. That may destroy the harvest of shea nuts, an activity traditionally accepted as a business for women and one that provides for as much as 30 to 40 percent of their income, says Houria Djoudi, senior scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and a colleague of Bayala in the COLANDS program, which is supported by CIFOR.

Women in Ghana and much of West Africa have traditionally had rights to manage and use shea trees. They have especially relied on shea nuts, which are turned into shea butter that can be sold locally and internationally, due to a growing demand for the natural emollient that is used in numerous food and beauty products, from chocolate to face creams.

Some 16 million women in 21 African countries labor to harvest shea although these local producers don’t see a fair share of the benefits. But by empowering women, shea trees can be better protected; and by protecting shea trees, women’s rights can be better secured, says Djoudi. This is also where ILA can help to improve women’s rights, by ensuring that women have a voice in decision-making.

“How people shape landscapes and how landscapes shaped the people over centuries matters today,” says Djoudi. “We need to build on, and strengthen, the traditional systems where those systems still work.”

In the landscapes of northern Ghana, many people do want to change; to learn new skills so they could earn a living without over-exploiting the forests. Training in trades such as welding, carpentry and jobs in tree nurseries were raised during Bayala’s discussions with residents in the region. Young people talked about finding public-service jobs, such as forest guards or firefighters, working to protect their environments. Others wanted training to improve their existing skills, such as more modern techniques in agriculture, honey production, managing livestock, as well as shea products and forest-foods, including dawadawa, a popular flavoring ingredient made from locust beans.

Solutions could also include training in more sustainable uses of farmland, from sowing to fertilizing and tending crops that suit the landscape without applying chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Restoring landscapes and planting trees would contribute to the capture, containment and best use of water, an essential and vanishing commodity, and thus, would boost livelihoods sustainably.

It has become clear that it is very important for all landscape stakeholders in northern Ghana to meet frequently, within the same platform, to frankly discuss the difficulties that affect them all, if they are to find suitable and well-supported solutions, say Bayala and Djoudi. Such collaboration would provide an essential foundation to sustainably manage their shared landscape resources and improve living conditions. Indeed, implementation of a landscape approach through the COLANDS project would be beneficial and very timely.