Local land-use decision-making in a global context

Žiga Malek, Bianka Douw, Jasper Van Vliet, Emma H. Van Der Zanden, Peter H. Verburg

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Land-use change has transformed the majority of the terrestrial biosphere, impacting biodiversity, climate change, food production and provision of multiple ecosystem services. To improve our understanding of land-use change processes, the motivations and characteristics of land-use decision-makers need to be addressed more explicitly. Here, we systematically review the peer-reviewed literature between 1950 and 2018 that documents decision-making underlying land-use change processes. We found 315 publications reporting on 559 case studies worldwide that report on land-use decision-making in sufficient depth. In these cases, we identified 758 land-use decision-makers. We clustered decision-makers based on their objectives, attitudes and abilities into six distinct types: survivalist, subsistence-oriented smallholder, market-oriented smallholder, professional commercialist, professional intensifier and eco-agriculturalist. Survival and livelihood were identified as most common objectives for land-use decision makers, followed by economic objectives. We observe large differences in terms of decision-makers' attitudes towards environmental values, and particularly their financial status, while decision makers have a generally favorable attitude towards change and legislation. The majority of the documented decision-makers in the literature have only few abilities as they are poor and own small plots of land, while the wealthier decision-makers were identified to have more power and control over their decisions. Based on a representativeness analysis, we found that decision-making processes in marginal areas, such as mountainous regions, are overrepresented in existing case study evidence, while remote areas and lowlands are under-represented. These insights can help in the design of better land-use change assessments, as well as to improve policies towards sustainable land use.

Original languageEnglish
Article number083006
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 12 Aug 2019


  • land use
  • meta-analysis
  • systematic review
  • typology
  • underlying drivers


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