Culture’s influence in land systems

Cultural attributes such as values, meanings, and norms shape our interactions with land systems. Our recent study reviews how these attributes affect land use and sustainability outcomes. We argue that integrating culture into land use models and policies is key to developing sustainable solutions.
Culture’s influence in land systems

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Culture and land use are deeply interconnected concepts. The term culture itself originates from the Latin verb colere, meaning to cultivate, work, or care for the land.  Cultural systems are ever-evolving, allowing land users to break out of traditional modes of farming when they become obsolete, or to come together and form new, value-based restoration practices. However, culture can also impose constraints on behavioral change, and rigid value systems can sometimes prevent land users from exploring innovative environmental interactions.  To date, the patterns of how culture and land relate have not been studied systematically.  We identify a diversity of ways that cultural values and formalized taboos influence land use dynamics and ultimately their sustainability outcomes, helping us to pluralize our understandings of culture within land systems.

Encultured land

Through shared norms, values and meanings, cultures encode a “right way” of behaving and of using land. This is evident, for example, in the tree cultivation practices of pastoralists of the Red Sea Hills of Egypt and Sudan. These pastoralists use a special tree species for animal fodder and have cultural norms on how much these trees can be tended to ensure regrowth. Their preoccupation and cultural attachment with the continued growth of the trees is reflected in one pastoralist’s statement that "When the last tree is gone, it is the end of the world" (Andersen et al. 2014:41). Similar ways of culturally encoding sustainable behaviors have been described by the economist Elinor Ostrom in her work on governing common pool resources, where she outlines how certain rules-in-use apply to managing these resources. This applies not only to commons, but also to private property settings. Aimee Benoît and others, in a study about landscape values and land planning, quote a cattle rancher in the Calgary and Alberta region, Canada, saying that ‘[w]e want to be here forever, so you don’t want to abuse your grass […]’ (Benoit et al. 2018:218), reflecting a notion that he is part of a cultural land system with many farms operating since generations, leading him and similar farmers to think about long term pasture stewardship on their private property.

From ‘forest as life’ to ‘forest as commodity’

We explored instances where cultural values, norms, and practices related to land use undergo changes. Two distinct patterns emerged: market integration processes and new bottom-up environmental initiatives. In the former, traditional cultural values and practices are often replaced by more instrumental value systems. For example, in the Guatemalan Amazon, the symbolic meaning of forests has shifted from 'forest as life' to 'forest as commodity.' (Robb et al. 2019). Such processes typically lead to less sustainable land use practices, as traditional and place-based knowledge might lose importance.

Culture as a pathway or barrier to sustainability

Cultural systems play a decisive role in fostering new pro-environmental, collective actions. In these scenarios, it is crucial that people involved agree on values and norms and establish rules for land use that account for existing environmental externalities. For instance, in Oregon, USA, land users within the same watershed have begun organizing to restore riversides, driven by a shared sense of stewardship for the land (Rosenberg and Margerum 2008). These grassroots efforts showcase how cultural values can generate and support more sustainable land use practices.

Yet culture can also contribute to severe-lock ins that block sustainability. When land degradation, drought, or other climate change-induced changes occur, culture can sometimes hinder an effective response. For example, Rabinovich et al. report that pastoralists in Kenia and Tanzania challenged with issues of climate change and land erosion, are faced with a crucial dilemma between adapting their practices to respond to erosion, and continuing with traditional cattle grazing, a land use with high cultural importance for them. As one pastoralist poignantly states, "[w]e will change whether we want to or not."(Rabinovich et al. 2019). This statement might even symbolize the broader challenges facing our global land systems. Climate change, environmental degradation, and biodiversity loss are happening all around us, though many of us continue to live with the same cultural values, aesthetics, and lifestyles.

Call to action: a cultural turn in land system studies

Understanding and integrating cultural dimensions into our land use models and policies is essential for developing sustainable solutions. A shift in how we interact with land systems —not merely as a function of governance and economics, but as a holistic system where culture plays a vital role – requires that policy makers move away from oversimplified strategies based on changing financial incentives alone. Pathways to sustainable land systems will include integrating approaches focusing on common values, norms, and linked local participation . By valuing and incorporating traditional knowledge and new, value-based collective agreements, it is possible to create more sustainable and resilient land use practices.



Andersen, G., Krzywinski, K., Talib, M., Saadallah, A., Hobbs, J., & Pierce, R. (2014). Traditional nomadic tending of trees in the Red Sea Hills. Journal of Arid Environments, 106, 36–44.

Benoit, A., Johnston, T., MacLachlan, I., & Ramsey, D. (2018). Identifying ranching landscape values in the Calgary, Alberta region: Implications for land-use planning. The Canadian Geographer, 62(2), Article 2.

Rabinovich, A., Kelly, C., Wilson, G., Nasseri, M., Ngondya, I., Patrick, A., Blake, W. H., Mtei, K., Munishi, L., & Ndakidemi, P. (2019). “We will change whether we want it or not”: Soil erosion in Maasai land as a social dilemma and a challenge to community resilience. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 66, 101365.

Robb, J., Haggar, J., Lamboll, R., & Castellanos, E. (2019). Exploring the Value–Action Gap through Shared Values, Capabilities and Deforestation Behaviours in Guatemala. Environmental Conservation, 46(03), Article 03.

Rosenberg, S., & Margerum, R. D. (2008). Landowner motivations for watershed restoration: Lessons from five watersheds. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 51(4), Article 4.

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Humanities and Social Sciences > Society > Anthropology > Environmental Anthropology > Sustainability
Environmental Social Sciences
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