Land-system dynamics are central to the livelihoods of rural communities and global food security1,2 but often severely out of balance with planetary boundaries3. Agricultural intensification and expansion are linked to multiple intersecting crises of biodiversity loss, soil degradation, pollution and global warming4,5, as well as human disease spillovers6. Yet there are also many bright spots of persisting or newly emerging land systems across the world that benefit local communities and have a lower impact on the environment7.

Human behaviour is key to understanding these challenges and, more broadly, the sustainability of land systems at both the individual and group levels. Different synthetic works have recognized the importance of structural conditions, such as markets, policies, climate and culture, in shaping individual land-use behaviours and land-system outcomes8,9. As noted in ref. 10, a dynamic understanding of human behaviour acknowledges that people are both ‘enculturated’ and ‘enearthed’, that is, highly influenced by their culture and place. Other recent papers suggest that greater research on social values as part of cultural systems is urgently needed to advance understanding of socioecological systems and improve sustainability governance11,12,13,14.

Despite these advances, there has been little effort to synthesize knowledge of how cultural systems influence land-use behaviours. Cultural systems, here defined as shared ‘webs of meanings'15, are often understood as sets of beliefs, knowledge, norms and values shared by groups of actors16. Because it can be seen as fluid17, scholars are often careful to avoid essentializing the concept of culture or referencing its influence without linking it to historical context and avoid making causal claims about the role of culture. Yet in the absence of causal investigations, reductionist views on culture may prevail, such as the narratives that Western anthropocentrism drives environmental destruction18, that ‘culture’ is a barrier to sustainable transformation19 or that non-Western cultures contain more biocentric relationships to the natural world20.

We build on the conceptual model by ref. 16 in which shared group cultural attributes affect behaviours through individuals’ cognitions (values, perceptions and other decision-making rules), which guide land use21 (culture–cognition link). By using a system-dynamics lens, we emphasize that our actions both shape and are shaped by the cultural contexts in which we live. This allows us to explore positive and negative feedback loops among culture, cognitions and land use (Fig. 1, orange and purple arrows). In this Article, we extend this conceptual model by connecting it to Ostrom’s institutional analysis framework22,23 and integrating sustainability outcomes. In the field of social–ecological systems, which builds strongly on Ostrom’s seminal works, culture has been connected to bottom-up, mainly pro-social and pro-environmental group behaviour through institutions (the rules-in-use of groups of land-use actors)24,25. These rules-in-use are shared norms that allow for collective resource management22,23. To date, there has been little investigation of how these institutions are culturally derived.

Fig. 1: Conceptual model of the culture–land system, reflecting the causal role of culture on land use and associated feedbacks.
figure 1

Classical land-system science (LSS) models did not include individual cognitions (blue arrows); later models expanded to include perceptions and decision-making rules (green arrows). Cultural systems (including norms, values, beliefs among other attributes (...)) influence land-use behaviours (as well as other behaviours) and sustainability outcomes through cognitions (black arrow). Behaviour loops back to affirm or change the cultural systems (yellow arrow)16. Sustainability outcomes are perceived on the individual level (purple arrow), competing with the culture–cognition link and other structural drivers.

To integrate sustainability into the model, we look at how land uses favoured by certain cultural conditions influence sustainability outcomes. Social and environmental benefits or costs may be directly perceived by land users, influencing their cognitions. To illustrate, experiences of environmental harms influence perceptions of environmental risks and resulting land-use decisions21, that is, environmental cognitions. The presence of these externalities (benefits and costs not captured by markets) may lead individuals to opt into cooperation and form rules and taboos that are coded into culture. For example, behaviours with positive externalities may lead to the creation of social norms to support those behaviours (Fig. 1, orange arrow)26,27.

These feedback loops can both stabilize and destabilize land systems. A stabilizing feedback loop buffers changes in one factor by offsetting it with a change in another factor, promoting system resilience28. Resilient systems can respond to shocks without changing the entire system29 (for example, group behaviour and norms change in response to structural changes)28. Some transformable systems, however, have the ability to change into alternative stable states30 (for example, reorganization of a system to a more sustainable land use). Conversely, destabilizing feedbacks are changes into unstable states. For example, changing environmental or socioeconomic conditions can worsen output, leading to poverty and further degradation31. The sustainability of such systems vastly depends on the internalization of environmental and social externalities23,27.

Using this enhanced culture–land-system–sustainability model, we asked the following questions. (1) What specific aspects of culture drive culture–land-use relationships? (2) What are the ways that culture has been shown to influence land use and land-use change? (3) What sustainability outcomes are associated with different culture–land-use relationships? To answer these questions, we used an abductive approach32 whereby we first coded the data using themes identified by previous synthetic causal studies linking structural factors, including culture, to land use and outcomes (Methods)8,16,22. We then identified sets of phenomena that typify the different ways that culture interacts with structural factors to affect land systems and sustainability outcomes.

In systematically analysing the land-system science literature, we identified 66 articles, consisting of 71 cases, that empirically evaluated the causal influence of cultural systems on land use (Fig. 2). These cases span 42 countries (Fig. 2a), and most articles were published after 2014 (Fig. 2b). Culture was analysed at different scales utilizing largely qualitative approaches and focused on land users’ management choices in the context of their economic and social circumstances, rather than land expansion or contraction (Fig. 2c). These selected papers were used for further in-depth analysis of the culture–land relationship.

Fig. 2: Summary plot of the relevant articles assessing the link of culture and land use.
figure 2

a, World map with study sites (map generated with R and ggmap96). b, Timeline of year of publication. A wide range of journals (52 journals) contributed to this knowledge base, and most articles (85%) were published between 2010 and 2020 c, Summary table of methods used to study the causal link of culture and land use.

Aspects of culture driving culture–land-use relationships

We found that, to date, land-system science has focused on norms, practices, values and symbolic meanings. Different aspects of culture often converge on one of these elements. For example, a taboo can be interpreted as a manifestation of a norm.


The main types of norms studied as part of cultural systems in the land-systems literature are group boundaries, collective choice agreements and monitoring and social control (three themes during qualitative analysis (Supplementary Table 4)). Group boundaries refer to boundaries of social groups or around a natural environment, influencing land access and use, for example, when in-group-elected leaders make decisions related to land33,34, when inheritance rules dictate land division among children35 or when only one gender makes land-use decisions36. Collective choice agreements range from formal to abstract conservation agreements among individuals, established through landowner associations, labour unions or more informal groups. They determine management practices, such as communal labour in coffee communities37 or rules around collecting firewood and non-timber forest products in common forests38. Monitoring and social control can take the form of physical help or verbal advice among neighbours39, as well as social pressure. It can lead to sanctions, such as community exclusion for violating sacred forest rules40 or judgement via non-conformance with socially enforced aesthetics41. Norms find expression in behaviour, for example, through allowed and forbidden actions (Fig. 3a).

Fig. 3: Norms, practices, values and meanings as cultural identifiers.
figure 3

Norms (A) work like recipes for decision-making, for example, via taboos about performing specific actions, allowing for certain land-use actions (for example, performing rituals), Practices (B) provide shortcuts about allowed/disallowed and good/bad practices through their repetition. Actions are embedded in value systems (C), determining more continuous (rather than black and white) perceptions of which behaviours are good/beneficial or bad/harmful. Symbolic meanings (D) (for example, seeing nature as life) similarly guide land-use behaviour by shaping individual world views and relations to nature. Credit: icons,


Studies that explicitly examine cultural rituals in relation to land use discuss, for example, group activities conducted before sowing33 or before preparing the land for production39. Specifically, the habitual repetition of group activities to ask for a plentiful harvest37, animal sacrifices42, but also ritualistic fire practices43 have been argued to strengthen land management strategies such as crop rotations, livestock husbandry and fire use. Food cultures (shared cooking and eating practices) are mentioned various times as a stabilizing factor for land uses associated with higher agrobiodiversity44,45,46 (Fig. 3b).


The work on values as part of cultural systems in land-system science is focused largely on relational values (the value of the relation to a part of a land system)33,39,47,48,49,50,51,52,53,54,55,56,57,58 and similarly, bequest values (benefits to children and future generations)59,60. Another large fraction showed how cultural identity and social prestige could be tied to specific land uses (especially for coffee37,61 and ranching/pastoralism62,63). Some describe ethical reasons for good stewardship of land64 and conservation of forests65. Others yet pertained more to land cover, relating notions of work ethic and aesthetics to agricultural landscapes (as opposed to conservation)66,67. A smaller set of studies described direct-use values such as use of land or forest (versus exchange/market or instrumental values)68,69. Many of these different culturally derived values outweigh profitability considerations in the decision to maintain forests49,70 or other land uses59,71 (Fig. 3c).

Symbolic meanings

Several studies describe symbolic and mythical representation of parts of a land system as key aspects to understand the relationship between culture and land systems, often embedded in an entire world view. One example is how certain cultural systems frame humans and nature as one entity or nature as life33. Trees can be loaded with religious meanings40, or forests can be seen as symbols for life68,72. By contrast, some meanings are oriented towards the more human-centric notion of economic development, or nature as a commodity68,69, cattle as an indicator of wealth63, or production landscapes can represent the importance of work and cleanliness66. In the case of amenity landowners, for example, these meanings may emerge from a certain idea of nature associating it with pre-industrial working landscapes or the idea of wilderness73,74 (Fig. 3d).

How land use and land-use change are influenced by culture

Stability in the culture–land system

Strong group-level norms, meanings and values (for example, the ‘right way’ of behaving) can lead to stable land-use behaviours and cultural systems (Fig. 4a). These behaviours result in socially and environmentally resilient systems that persist over time (even if not all outcome variables are beneficial). Almost all the groups in this set of cases have faced external shocks and changes yet maintained their existing cultural–land-use system.

Fig. 4: Four sets of relationships of culture and land systems.
figure 4

Culture–land relationships can be characterized in terms of stable (1), emerging (2) or weakened (3, 4) relationships. a, In stable or resilient relationships, cultural systems including rules-in-use are in a mutually reinforcing relationship with cognitions, land-use behaviour and land-system outcomes. External drivers are either integrated (for example, biophysical adaptation) or not considered (for example, market external incentives). b, New internal (for example, collective action, migration) and external (for example, market integration) influences change cognitions, land-use behaviour and, ultimately, the cultural system via feedback loops. Land-system outcomes and relationships to culture that will persist are unknown at this stage (also blue (potential) arrows in e. c, External or new land-system circumstances lead to a forced change in land-use behaviour while culture–cognition relationships continue to exist (for example, after a regime change), leading to a situation we call ‘displaced cultures’. d, In what we call ‘cultural traps’, strong external influences can change land-system outcomes, but cultural resistance can keep the relationship among culture, cognitions and land use strong (also red arrow in e), leading to conflicts with new outcomes. e, There is a relationship between the stability of land systems and the strength of the culture–land-use feedback. Credit: icons,

Among these cases, we find rules-in-use designed to limit over-exploitation on common property22,23. Those institutions are linked to different cultural traits such as religious world views33,34,38,42,57, social reciprocity55, shared language for natural units56,65 and food culture45,52,75,76. For example, groups may collectively use natural resources such as non-timber forest products at sustainable levels, conserve forest patches as sacred areas or manage landscapes in a certain manner as part of their way of life. This rootedness of rules-in-use in shared world views is aptly expressed in a study of traditional tree-trimming practices in the Red Sea Hills, in which one pastoralist is quoted saying “When the last tree is gone, it is the end of the world”72, justifying his reluctance to harvest more firewood.

In a second set of studies, we find that similar cultural traits lead to persistent land use, but in a context of private-land-tenure settings where shared history and common practices create incentives to cooperate in land management activities. Community solidarity and reciprocal help39,77, sense of place49,59 and a shared stewardship ethic64,68,78 lead to the persistence of a range of land-use practices, including mixed farming39,77, fire use43,79 and subsistence food systems44,46. For example, collective practices can be found in rice farms in the Philippines, where farmers gather and agree on a timetable to work on each other’s farms and value the commitment they provide to one another, led by a “common desire for cultural preservation and community solidarity”77. In ranching landscapes in the northern United States, production sites managed by ranching families persist with the help of social networks59,78, which heightens the social value of ranching and perceived importance of maintaining the current landscape form59.

Some of these cases within private ownership settings are specifically described as illustrating relatively unprofitable behaviours. However, cultural identity37,48,61, heritage and social networks59,78 and attachment to landscape rooted in local history49,80 prevent land users from switching to more profitable strategies. For example, a study of coffee producers in Mexico described the importance of identity (with quotes such as ‘I am a cafetelero’) and pride in ‘modern’ production in driving coffee cultivation61. The importance of the cultural link is underscored by the fact that the coffee areas were maintained despite removal of government support, land privatization and low coffee prices, all of which put enormous pressure on production sites.

Changing culture and land systems with new feedbacks

New culture–land-system configurations arise through the reworking of norms, values and meanings (Fig. 4b), leading to new rules-in-use. The creation of rules-in-use can be triggered by an event that affects the shared vision of what is perceived as the ‘right’ land-use or management behaviour, by changes in exposure to new ideas and incentives that shift social status indicators or by the introduction of new cultural systems in a place through in-migration.

In some cases, we see how new environmental ideals, emotional attachment to landscapes and moral obligations towards the environment support a process of developing new rules leading to diversified farming, conservation and restoration60,70,81. One example describes how one awareness-building event shifted perceptions of timber use in the Mindo region of Ecuador70, which has changed the community’s perceptions about the need to reduce extraction levels.

Other studies show how market changes can lead to shifts in lifestyles, meanings and values. Detaching from traditional land-use practices towards economic prosperity is often due to higher demand for food commodities or development of tourism58,62,82,83. For example, in the Langtang Valley in Nepal, there was a change in the social prestige assigned to different land uses (away from having livestock to operating hotels), which further shifted the land uses themselves (away from livestock to tourism-related activities)62.

When migrants go searching for new livelihood opportunities, they bring their culture with them, often causing large changes in local land use, especially in forest frontiers53,66,68,69,71. Landscape as work and forest as opportunity are typical meanings associated with migration to a forest frontier and resulting deforestation. One case describes how settlers in Sierra Santa Martha in Mexico bring aesthetic values corresponding to a deforested working landscape (“now in this place everything looks more beautiful without so many trees”)66. In addition, owning livestock is considered prestigious among many migrant communities in Amazonian and Mexico forest frontiers, despite its low productivity and profitability66,71,84.

By contrast, some cases in the United States and Europe document how migrants often carry romantic visions of nature and ideals of wilderness that can clash with local ecological settings59,73,74,85, especially in the case of residential land users. These can result in ecologically harmful management practices. For example, one study shows that amenity land buyers in Texas plant tree monocultures on their lands under the assumption that they benefit wildlife, even though these invasive species have encroached onto rangelands, causing land degradation and the loss of forage productivity85. However, amenity values can also lead to more sustainable practices73.

Stable culture, changing circumstances, displacement and traps

Structural factors, such as climatic change or government policies, can weaken existing feedbacks between culture and land use. Instead of changing alongside broader structural changes, many elements of the cultural systems in these cases remain the same. If land use then changes as a result of the changing structural conditions and comes into conflict with the previous cultural system, we call this a displaced culture–land system47,51,86,87 (Fig. 4c). Another relationship can be classified as a trapped system, in which a culture keeps influencing land-use behaviour but in a new environmental or policy environment to which it is less well suited88,89,90. New perceptions of the state of land systems and culture are in conflict. These systems may eventually force a change in cultural identity and land use (Fig. 4d).

Cases we describe as displaced culture–land systems include those where cultural attachment to land, place-based identity or shared history leads a group to identify with and value a particular land use, even if they are no longer practicing it47,51,86,87. In South Africa, pastoralists were displaced from their historically used land, and it was converted to a game farm. This limited the access of culturally significant ecosystem services of a cultural group of farm workers47. However, even after eviction, communities preserve elements of their place-based cultural value system. In the Brazilian Amazon, rubber tappers have adopted cattle ranching amidst in-migration of other groups favouring cattle. As one cultural rubber tapper explains, “We can no longer be against cattle—that time is over. All of us have cattle”86. Yet these self-identifying rubber tappers still cut down fewer forests than large-scale cattle ranchers as they remain linked to a pro-environmental, social justice-focused cultural movement founded by Chico Mendes.

When a culture–land system is trapped, it is unable to adapt to new conditions and becomes stuck in an undesirable, unsustainable state. This can be caused by either a conflict over how to respond to changes or a poorly chosen response that has a destabilizing effect and exacerbates the problem. This phenomenon has been described in conservative, heritage-oriented cultural systems, associated with a sense of duty to continue a certain land-use activity at any cost64,78 or linked to strong cultural identity and loyalty only towards one cultural group90. For example, in pastoral grazing systems in eastern and southern Africa, pastoralists are described as being torn between their heritage, traditions and identity as nomadic herders and the strong governmental pressure for settlement and, therefore, for changes to their livelihood strategies63,88,89. In degrading grassland landscapes in Tanzania, pastoralist identity and the social prestige of livestock ownership are still important to land users, which exacerbates land degradation and makes people more vulnerable. One pastoralist, acknowledging this dilemma, is quoted saying “We will change whether we want it or not”63.

Sustainability outcomes

Systems with high cultural and ecological resilience (Type 1 in Fig. 4) often exhibit social and environmental sustainability when rules-in-use, taboos and value systems help to internalize negative externalities or promote positive externalities. Systems similar to these culture–land systems were already highlighted by Ostrom’s work on common-pool resources33,34. However, we also see examples in private tenure systems where collective agreements help codify norms for sustainable land use59,77, forest and biodiversity preservation35,49 and food security44.

Type 1 systems can also exhibit negative sustainability outcomes. The two examples include cattle in South America and coffee in Mesoamerica where culture ‘locks in’ economically and environmentally unsustainable practices despite increasingly unfavourable policy, market and climate conditions37,71. Interestingly, both examples involve land uses introduced from other regions and embedded in culture and markets through colonization.

The sustainability outcomes of emerging culture–land systems (Type 2 in Fig. 4) depend on the new culture–land-use links. Market integration processes linked to shifts from pro-social to individualistic, instrumental value systems tend to neglect externalities and are associated with adverse environmental outcomes62,82. Similarly, new culture–land systems created through migration predominantly show negative sustainability outcomes. Prominent examples come from cases of migration to forest frontiers, where the culture of migrating groups sees forests as an impediment to economic opportunities66,69.

Conversely, new environmental social movements can bring cultural shifts resulting in greater sustainability. In these cases, groups have developed and formalized norms that integrate externalities into their practices60,70. While the potential for achieving sustainable outcomes exists, it may introduce an element of unpredictability, particularly if the new system’s economic viability is uncertain, as, for example, in the ecologically intentional communities in Spain91.

Displaced culture–land systems (Type 3), reacting to changing external influences, also have mixed sustainability outcomes. Governmental interventions working against traditional practices, such as the fencing of traditionally nomadic area88 or the conversion of livestock into game farming47, have mixed sustainability outcomes, creating, for example, higher economic opportunities for some landowners, while others lose land access.

Type 4 systems are trapped in unsustainable land uses. They find themselves entrenched in the condition of degradation and economically unviable circumstances or a system collapse, as in the case of continuing soil erosion and overgrazing in Tanzania63. Although individuals within these systems might perceive the necessity for change (outcome–cognition feedback), the culture–land link might still act as a barrier to innovation or transformation, which can also be described as ‘social dilemmas’ or dysfunctional cultures26. These traps are the worst-case scenarios for cultural ‘lock-ins’ during changing conditions.


In cataloguing the existing analysis of culture within land-system science, we found numerous examples of how norms, practices, values and symbolic meanings influence land use. These aspects are the building blocks of rules-in-use to internalize social and environmental externalities in land systems.

We identified three phases of culture–land-system relationships: persistent, emerging and declining. Persistent culture–land-use relationships are the most frequently identified (37 cases), by which stabilizing feedback loops between culture and land use lead to highly resilient culture–land relationships. Traditional systems, which have exhibited resilience and adaptability over time in response to changing environmental and social conditions, tend to be sustainable. However, persistent systems can lead to cultural traps with unsustainable outcomes, especially when surrounding structural factors change (for example, population, markets, climate). Emerging culture–land-use relationships are also common (21 cases), whereby structural changes have contributed to active transformation in culture and land use. Newly emerging systems can yield either sustainable or unsustainable outcomes, contingent on the maintenance or loss of traditional practices and the degree to which pro-environmental and pro-social norms are established. Declining culture–land-use relationships are the least common (12 cases), with weakening culture–land-use relationships and unsustainable outcomes. Like the stable cultural lock-ins, unstable cultural traps progressively diminish adaptability, potentially ending in system collapse.

By identifying several types of culture–land-use relationships, this work advances understanding of middle-range theories of land systems9 and of the enculturation of socioecological systems10. We note that the culture–cognitions link could not be studied thoroughly in this review. The systematic review of pertinent literature reveals a research gap as this relationship remains unexplored in the selected papers. Enhancing our comprehension of how culture affects cognitions and delving into the mechanisms of cultural systems in competition with other structural factors during individual decision-making will contribute to a more nuanced understanding of land-use decision-making.

With a focus on resilience, change and uncertainty, and decoupling mechanisms within socioecological systems, this study also connects to theory of sustainability transitions and transformation30. The work sets the foundation to help to compare diverse land-use trajectories by understanding their cultural links and ultimately identifying pathways to resilient systems. It suggests that future work must better understand how to activate, leverage or change the webs of meanings that currently shape unsustainable land-system lock-ins. As our land systems approach or exceed their stability thresholds, it becomes even more urgent to identify, activate and foster norms and values leading to more sustainable behaviours.


To address our research questions, we employed a systematic review approach to collect literature related to culture and land use. Systematic reviews provide a transparent and replicable process for collecting literature on the basis of predefined search terms and inclusion criteria92,93.

Review scope and search criteria

We searched the Web of Science Core Collection database for peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters that examined culture and land use. To do so, we developed a search string with the following criteria: (1) abstract, title or keywords had to include ‘land use’ or ‘land change’ or ‘land cover’; (2) abstract, title or keywords ‘culture’ or a derivative; (3) the publication had to be in English; and (4) the publishing date had to be between 1990 and 2020. To avoid irrelevant hits, we deleted the hits ending with ‘cell’ or ‘cultures’ after testing whether relevant articles were missing from the query set with this restriction. Similarly, we queried the Scopus database and found fewer hits and no additional hits compared with the Web of Science database, thus only querying the latter. By selecting only articles mentioning land use or land cover we restricted the search to focus on the literature most closely associated with the field of land-system science. This decision was based on our aim to get a systematic overview of how culture has been examined in English-speaking causal land-use analyses focused on recent history, rather than a broader historical overview of the links between culture and farming, agriculture, forests and so on. As such, our sample is restrictive and excludes work from other fields such as anthropology, archaeology, human geography and political ecology. The search string is listed in detail in Supplementary Table 1. Supplementary Fig. 1 depicts a ROSES (reporting standards for systematic evidence syntheses) diagram as suggested in refs. 94,95, helping to report the methodological detail of the exclusion process.

Exclusion by abstract

We screened the retrieved 3,148 abstracts using the following predefined relevance inclusion criteria: (1) the article examines the relationship between culture and land management, land use or land cover; (2) culture has been examined as a causal driver of land use, and this causality is presented with a high level of rigour using quantitative or qualitative methods; (3) the time frame of the content of the article is within the past 100 years. We identified 208 that were relevant by abstract. All authors reviewed a subset of the abstracts, study exclusion criteria were developed collaboratively, and consistency checks were performed for difficult cases (~1.5%).

Excluded full texts

From these 208 articles, 133 were excluded upon full-text review because they did not meet the inclusion criteria, including review and synthesis articles, historical analyses and methodologically weak studies (Supplementary Table 2). We further excluded studies with a statistical land-use model that deduced a cultural influence on land use from an unexplained variance in the models (culture is the ‘other’ variable (for example, Supplementary Table 2: ID 14, 23, 43). Other articles do not examine land use but assess only the general cultural relationship to land systems of various stakeholders (for example, Supplementary Table 2: ID 22, 46, 63). Another great part of articles focused on the assessment of individual perceptions and knowledge of land-use actors without explicitly examining cultural systems (for example, Supplementary Table 2: ID 17, 56). Culturally influenced social matters, in which land use is involved marginally, for example, food preferences of the general public (Supplementary Table 2: ID 5, 19, 59,) or how rural values influence attitudes towards policies (Supplementary Table 2: ID 62), were also excluded. In addition, in Supplementary Table 2, detailed rubrics for methods used to analyse culture and land use were assigned to all 75 selected articles. The methods through which causality was established included both quantitative approaches (such as regression analysis with controls or hypothesis testing) and qualitative methods (such as grounded theory and process tracing). All authors contributed to the selection of papers by full text, including consistency checks for difficult cases (~5% of the set).

Exclusion after critical appraisal

An additional nine articles were excluded after critical appraisal because they either used used cultural proxies, such as ethnicity (Supplementary Table 3: ID 1, 9) or religion (Supplementary Table 3: ID 2, 3, 6), without establishing a causal relationship to land use, or they failed to isolate cultural impacts from other variables (Supplementary Table 3: ID 8).

Analysis on different aspects of culture

As five studies include two cases in which the cultural influence on land use has been examined, our analysis incorporated 66 articles with 71 cases. To identify causal linkages between specific attributes of culture and land use, we established categories of cultural attributes (norms, values, symbolic meanings and practices) and different land-use categories (land management, land use and land systems) as well as other shared attributes mentioned in the studies (Supplementary Table 4). Among the simplest identifiers of culture that can be measured are norms and rules as they are strongly connected to behaviour and are therefore relatively easily identifiable by an outside observer. Norms play an essential role in signalling what behaviour is appropriate. They encode how people should interact with the environment and within a cultural group. Ostrom empirically demonstrated through numerous examples how formal and informal norms, as part of self-organized, self-enforcing local institutions, have been shown to be useful in sustainably governing common-pool resources22,23. These norms include the existence of strict boundaries, collective choice agreements, monitoring and graduated sanctions, among others. We found other shared attributes such as beliefs, habits and world views, including symbolic and spiritual meanings, that expand this definition and influence individual perceptions and behaviour. We coded reoccurring themes (norms, values, meanings and practices) if these have been explored in the corresponding papers. More aspects such as beliefs, traditions and others have been found but not with the same abundance. For each aspect, we further grouped cases inductively into different, loose and non-exhaustive rubrics. For norms, we included group boundaries, collective choice agreements, monitoring and social control. For values we included relational values, identity and social prestige, aesthetic values and ethics. For meanings we included nature as life, nature as commodity and nature as ideal. For practices we included rituals and food cultures.

Analysis of culture–land-system relationships

Via linking the cultural aspects to environmental and historical context and trajectories, we deduced a framework of the different cases in emerging, persisting and declining social–environmental systems, motivated by the classification in ref. 22, looking through the lens of social–ecological systems, searching for clusters of emergent phenomena32 and selecting quotes from the original papers (Supplementary Table 5). To group the cases into these three phases, we asked whether the place-based culture–land-system relationship existed in the past or emerged recently. We further coded broader structural factors such as demographic, economic, technological, institutional and changing environmental factors. We iteratively examined the evidence for shared attributes in the cultural system, as well as shared and non-shared attributes in the land systems (commons or private-land regimes) and broader structural factors provided in the selected articles, to identify recurring patterns. We formed subcategories based on different themes in these culture–land-system relationships.

Analysis or sustainability outcomes

In Supplementary Table 6, we present sustainability outcomes for the selected cases, both social and environmental, if assessed, and code them in positive, negative and mixed outcomes for persistent, emerging and declining social–environmental systems. We additionally coded cognitions, including perceptions and decision-making rules if referenced in the articles. However, due to the lack of in-depth exploration of cognitions in the articles, it posed a challenge to comprehensively assess these aspects in the context of this review.

For a thorough picture on research efforts covering the topic examined here, all 75 articles are represented in Fig. 2, counting the articles with various cases only once. We used the ggmap96 to assess the geolocations of the study regions and to draw the world map. For Figs. 3 and 4, coded cases from Supplementary Tables 4 and 5 have been used.


Our literature search has been limited to publications in the English language, which likely biases the relationships outlined in the preceding. It is very likely that outsiders conducting research on certain places will have different interpretations and assumptions about the cultural groups they treat as study objects. Another limitation to full completeness was the need to exclude longer periods in this literature review to limit the scope of the study, a procedure that also left out many valuable contributions from anthropology, environmental sociology, human geography and cultural ecology, among others.

Reporting summary

Further information on research design is available in the Nature Portfolio Reporting Summary linked to this article.