This paper outlines a framework for understanding the complexity of land degradation processes, their impacts, and offers insights into their remediation. The authors suggest that possible options for increasing the relevance of environmental policies and projects to problems include: a ‘local political ecology’ based on an agenda set by the local people that includes long-term advocacy workpartnership research, conducted in collaboration with development actors and organisations having the power to effect change and to adopt key recommendationsa selective application of scientific methods, which are widely understood by policy makers, to illustrate the viability of certain threatened livelihood systems or the genesis of particular resource use trendsparticipation in user-led studies that unfold at a slower pace than standard academic development projectsmore advanced research dissemination procedures, allowing potential clashes between academic researchers and development actors in productive ways.In concluding, the authors call for a research framework on land degradation that combines an assessment of resource use and change at various scales. They argue that an analysis of the institutional structure that governs land and related resources should be included into the research framework. The dominant academic ideas on land use should also be included. The authors feel that the dominance of ideas is closely related to the question of who controls the institutions that govern access. The authors appeal for further research on the relationship between institutions, access, ideas, use and environmental conditions over time and space.