Cross-site comparison of land-use decision-making and its consequences across land systems with a generalized agent-based model

Local changes in land use result from the decisions and actions of land-users within land systems, which are structured by local and global environmental, economic, political, and cultural contexts. Such cross-scale causation presents a major challenge for developing a general understanding of how local decision-making shapes land-use changes at the global scale. This paper implements a generalized agent-based model (ABM) as a virtual laboratory to explore how global and local processes influence the land-use and livelihood decisions of local land-users, operationalized as settlement-level agents, across the landscapes of six real-world test sites. Test sites were chosen in USA, Laos, and China to capture globally-significant variation in population density, market influence, and environmental conditions, with land systems ranging from swidden to commercial agriculture. Publicly available global data were integrated into the ABM to model cross-scale effects of economic globalization on local land-use decisions. A suite of statistics was developed to assess the accuracy of model-predicted land-use outcomes relative to observed and random (i.e. null model) landscapes. At four of six sites, where environmental and demographic forces were important constraints on land-use choices, modeled land-use outcomes were more similar to those observed across sites than the null model. At the two sites in which market forces significantly influenced land-use and livelihood decisions, the model was a poorer predictor of land-use outcomes than the null model. Model successes and failures in simulating real-world land-use patterns enabled the testing of hypotheses on land-use decision-making and yielded insights on the importance of missing mechanisms. The virtual laboratory approach provides a practical framework for systematic improvement of both theory and predictive skill in land change science based on a continual process of experimentation and model enhancement.