Time to stop treating farms and forests separately - experts

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 18 November 2013 10:23 GMT

A farmer uses oxen to plough his rice paddy field in the outskirts of the Madagascar capital of Antananarivo on October 30, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

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Farmers, governments and scientists need to step up efforts to manage forests and farm land as a whole, and stop treating them as separate issues, experts experts say

WARSAW (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Farmers, governments and scientists need to step up efforts to manage forests and farm land as a whole, and stop treating them as separate issues, experts told a forum exploring a new approach to landscapes on Sunday.

The approach aims to help people think more broadly about the way they use land and natural resources, and how these can be used to boost food security and incomes without harming the environment and making global warming worse.

"The future of forests, food and climate are so closely bound that it is vital we start developing a shared agenda," Rachel Kyte, vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank, told the event held alongside U.N. climate talks in Warsaw. "We need to build healthy, productive landscapes...that support the livelihoods of billions of people and we must slow climate change."

The "landscapes approach" requires a major rethink in research and policy on protecting forests and fisheries, providing access to clean energy, and supporting small farmers. These areas have been dealt with independently in the past, but experts said this makes little sense when around three quarters of deforestation is caused by the clearing of land for agriculture, for example.

"It is in landscapes we must put our hope, because in landscapes we have the key to ensure stable income for most poor people, provide sufficient amounts of food and renewable products, enhance ecosystem services and make efficient use of our planet’s limited resources," Peter Holmgren, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), told the conference. "We can only achieve this through combined efforts. Fragmentation is our enemy and a recipe for disaster," he added.

Ruth DeFries of the Earth Institute at New York's Columbia University cited examples where a landscapes approach has been successful, including in the west Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. Here meat and soy continue to be produced for export at the same time that deforestation has been reduced.

But a holistic view is not yet the norm, she said. "It is possible to bring together competing interests to achieve multiple agendas, but there is much science to be done...and even more hard work on the part of policy to provide the right set of incentives," she added.

One challenge is that many policy makers are not yet familiar with the "landscapes approach" and how it could transform the way they operate, noted Agnes Kalibata, Rwanda's minister of agriculture.

"Governments haven't really understood the approach we are discussing here. Decisions are being made on a very narrow perspective," she said. "We need to get it to the highest level possible, so there is commitment." 

'NERVOUSNESS'

There is also some way to go in getting the message out to farmers in the field, especially when it comes to the potential for new techniques to cut planet-warming emissions from agriculture, experts said.

Kyte spoke of her recent visit to a farm north of Kisumu in Kenya, where a couple were "transforming their own lives" and their children's prospects by using new maize and other crop varieties, a different breed of goat and "heat-resistant sheep". "The primary objective was not to reduce emissions, the primary objective was to become food secure," she said.

Researchers argue that what they call "climate-smart" agriculture can produce a "triple win" for farmers - from boosting their incomes and food security, to helping them adapt to climate shifts and extreme weather, and cutting the emissions from their cultivation and livestock.

Climate-smart measures include weather-based insurance for crops, providing social safety nets and access to credit, getting weather and climate information to farmers, encouraging them to cultivate trees on their land, and managing water and soils more efficiently.

But Michael Hailu, director of the Netherlands-based Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), said there "was some nervousness" among smallholder farmers - as well as developing-country policy makers - about doing things differently.

There is a need to provide upfront investment and other support for farmers, to make climate-smart methods more affordable and less risky for them, Hailu said.

Bruce Campbell, director of the CGIAR research programme on climate change, agriculture and food security (CCAFS), said non-financial assistance - like better weather forecasts - could also enable farmers to become more innovative. "If you don't know what the season is going to bring, you won't invest your labour and money," he said.

Secure land rights - especially for women - are also important in encouraging farmers to take longer-term risks and invest in their plots, Kyte said.

"We need to learn more about what drives the successful adoption of climate-smart practices, and be prepared to support the shift through public funding," she added.