World's resource problems need "whole landscape" solutions

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 15 June 2012 07:00 GMT
Unconventional approach that builds alliances between groups competing for limited land and water could boost food production and help environment

LONDON (AlertNet) – Transport yourself to a landscape in Central America with a rare virgin cloud forest, coffee plantations, crowded urban and industrial areas, a thriving tourism industry and a watershed critical for hydroelectric power.

The potential for a clash of interests among groups who live and work in this area of Costa Rica - its Turrialba Volcano region - is huge. But they have found a way of cooperating to achieve their goals while preserving the environment and farming land sustainably.

This way of doing business, known as the “whole landscape approach”, is key in helping combat hunger, poverty, climate change and environmental problems, according to a report released on Friday by the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative, an international coalition of agriculture, environment and rural development organisations.

“We are stuck in a vicious circle that locks farmers, governments, companies and communities in the pursuit of short-term, narrowly defined solutions to food, energy and water conflicts,” said Sara Scherr, president and chief executive officer of EcoAgriculture Partners, a co-organiser of the initiative.

Conventional approaches to resolving a conflict of interest often end up exacerbating another problem.

For example, when Brazil expanded soybean cultivation into its Cerrado grasslands, production soared, but the policy also led to massive habitat loss and a big increase in carbon emissions. And in China, large-scale reforestation schemes have imposed draconian restrictions on smallholder farmers.

“This type of top-down, single-outcome thinking doesn’t work in a world where the reality is one of shared dependency on limited resources,” Scherr told AlertNet.

The coalition is seeking to push landscape partnerships into the centre of agricultural and environmental policy, with the aim of averting planet-wide food and environmental crises, starting with the U.N. sustainable development conference in Rio de Janeiro from June 20-22 (Rio+20).

TAKING DOWN FENCES

Feeding an additional two billion people by 2050 will require an increase in food production of 100 percent in developing countries in an increasingly challenging environment, the report said.

Annual percentage increases in crop yields have slowed, while climate change is predicted to lead to more extreme weather and reduced water availability in many areas.

Whole landscape approaches consider not just how farmers can grow more food, but at the same time how to increase forest cover and improve water quality across an entire region in ways that bring long-term benefits for different sectors and sustain local livelihoods.

 “(This) approach seeks to take down the fences – in some cases both literally and figuratively – that divide up the land and the groups that manage land and water, in order to find solutions that unite interests across a landscape,” said Stephen Muchiri, chief executive of the Eastern African Farmers Federation.

The coalition has identified more than 300 landscape-oriented initiatives where alliances are being formed among farmers, ranchers, pastoralists, tourism operators, forest owners, conservation managers and private industry - many of whom have been adversaries in the past.

In Costa Rica’s Turrialba region, a grassroots-led approach coordinates activities in a large watershed among several hydroelectric companies, commercial vegetable farmers, tourism operators, forest conservation groups, herders, coffee growers and recreational water users such as kayakers.

The positive effects include a rise in coffee production, an increase in eco-tourism, reduced conflict over development plans, community empowerment, conservation of bird habitats, more forest and tree cover, improvements in agricultural biodiversity and protection of water resources, the report said.

** For other examples check out our factbox **

NEED TO SCALE UP

The whole landscape approach draws on advances made in the past two decades, such as agroforestry, conservation agriculture, integrated crop and livestock production, precision fertiliser and water application and improved grazing management – all of which have production and environmental benefits.

“For every whole landscape success story, there are countless examples where short-term, single outcome thinking is creating environmental and social havoc and long-term food insecurity,” the report said.

Scientific advances in remote sensing and resource-monitoring tools have also made it possible to assess resource use and availability more easily across a landscape.

In most places, agricultural practices and policies continue to favour short-term production needs without due regard for social equity and environmental impacts. Land use tends to reflect investment driven by market incentives and management practices that force severe trade-offs between economic, human and ecosystem values, the report said.

In contrast, the whole landscape approach challenges the way institutions have conventionally been organised, with businesses concerned about supply chains, farmers thinking in terms of their land, and governments managing environmental issues through regulation or setting aside protected areas, the report noted.

But, as the report points out, there are barriers to adopting the approach on a larger scale.

In many places, agricultural practices and policies continue to favour short-term production needs without due regard for social equity and environmental impacts. Land use tends to reflect investment driven by market incentives and management practices that force severe trade-offs between economic, human and ecosystem values, the report said.

In contrast, the whole landscape approach challenges the way institutions have conventionally been organised, with businesses concerned about supply chains, farmers thinking in terms of their land, and governments managing environmental issues through regulation or setting aside protected areas, the report noted.

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