An unconventional approach that involves building alliances between groups competing for limited land and water resources has the potential to dramatically increase food production, boost rural incomes, improve human health and restore degraded land, rivers and habitats, according to a report released today by a newly launched global coalition of leading research, advocacy and multilateral organizations.
The coalition, known as the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative, a collaborative international initiative with ten co-organizers, warns, however, that world leaders must use the upcoming Rio+20 global sustainable development conference to dramatically scale up the “whole landscape” approach—if planet-wide food and environmental crises are to be averted. The whole landscape approach will figure prominently in discussions at Rio+20.
“Today, the world is stuck in a vicious cycle that locks farmers, governments, companies and communities in the pursuit of short-term, narrowly defined solutions to food, energy and water conflicts as they emerge,” says Sara Scherr, president and CEO of EcoAgriculture Partners, a co-organizer of the Initiative. “We are often solving one problem while exacerbating another, using blinkered crisis management approaches.”
“The whole landscape 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,” says Stephen Muchiri, chief executive officer of the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation.
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 percent annual increase in crop yields has slowed in recent years, while climate change is predicted to lead to increased climatic variability, more frequent extreme events and reduced water availability in many areas. In much of the tropics, these changes could decrease maize and wheat yields by 10-25 percent.
According to the report, “Landscapes for People, Food, and Nature: The Vision, the Evidence, and Next Steps,” whole landscape approaches offer a way to reverse these declines. The coalition has so far identified more than 300 landscape-oriented initiatives where alliances are being built among farmers, ranchers, pastoralists, tourism operators, forest owners, conservation managers and private industry—many of whom have been adversaries in the past. Data from 23 landscape initiatives outlined in the report show major impacts in agricultural production, improved ecosystems and household and community benefits, including:
•A previously conflictive situation near the Turrialba Volcano region in Costa Rica has been turned around through a shared landscape strategy that is improving agriculture, biodiversity, forest and water resources. The grassroots-led strategy coordinates activities in a large watershed, among several hydroelectric companies farmers in a key commercial vegetable growing region, tourism operators and recreational water users such as kayakers, forest conservation groups, herders and coffee growers.
•In villages along the Arvari River in Rajasthan, India, semi-arid lands depleted by drought and poor farming methods have been transformed by a landscape approach that involved a comprehensive effort to recharge the aquifer by deploying traditional community water harvesting structures and widespread tree-growing. Now farmers have an additional season of irrigation and crop production has rebounded. Yet, unlike the previous farming system, wildlife is benefiting due to the additional tree cover and a local river that had been dry for decades has come back to life.
•On the shores of Kenya’s scenic Lake Naivasha in the Great Rift Valley, over abstraction of water and land degradation is threatening the lake’s unique ecosystem. In addition, farm and livestock production, water quality and availability, and wildlife tourism over the entire region are under stress. Now, all those who use or have an interest in the lake and its catchment—local government, non-governmental organizations, commercial flower growers, small scale farmers, pastoralists, community groups and citizens—are cooperating to restore the catchment and ensure the sustainable use of the lake’s ecosystems.
•On the Arizona-New Mexico border, in the American Southwest, previously conflicting ranchers, conservationists and government agencies joined forces to redesign range management strategies, leading to increases in the quantity of grass available for livestock. By conserving natural habitat on private ranches, they are also bringing back many threatened species like the Chiricahua leopard frog and the ridge-nosed rattlesnake.
•In China’s northwestern provinces, centuries of erosion and land degradation had exacerbated poverty and caused environmental damage extending hundreds of kilometers to Beijing and the Pacific Ocean. Landscape planning and spatial targeting tools were used to target practices such as tree planting, terracing and land leveling in the locations where they could yield the greatest benefits at the lowest costs. Local farmer groups and municipal governments implemented these activities as part of broader landscape and regional strategies. Within 10 years, per-capita grain output in the region had increased by 62 percent, while household income had nearly tripled. Meanwhile, as perennial vegetation cover increased from 17 percent to 34 percent across the plateau, erosion and dust storms greatly diminished and the level of sediment flow into the Yellow River decreased by more than 100 million tons per year.
•In Africa, one of the biggest landscape development projects ever attempted is now underway involving a multinational effort working with communities to restore woodlands, protect agricultural soils, and improve livelihoods and agricultural productivity. The initiative stretches 7700 kilometers from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east. Dubbed the Great Green Wall of the Sahel, the project is intended to serve as a bulwark against desertification that can restore farmlands and natural ecosystems while lifting communities out of poverty.
•More than 90 percent of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest was lost to urbanization, agricultural intensification and extensive exploitation. A whole landscape approach has brought about a dramatic turnaround through the Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact, which has the ultimate aim of restoring 15 million hectares of forest by 2050.
•In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame has championed a national landscape restoration strategy as the best—if not only—hope for improving rural livelihoods on a heavily degraded, densely-populated land base that contained less than 10 percent forest cover, mostly on farms. They have now reached 20 percent of land under tree cover and aim to reach 30 percent by 2020.
Landscape approaches consider not just how farmers can grow more food but how to increase forest cover and improve water quality of the entire region in ways that benefit multiple sectors over the longer term and sustain livelihoods of local communities. They are increasing the “bottom line” of what landscapes can provide over and above food production, including bringing back dead rivers and streams, increasing irrigation water and water access, regenerating forests and reducing poaching and human-wildlife conflict.
“Landscape initiatives can empower smallholder farmers in developing countries to increase food security in the face of climate change, while contributing more effectively as stewards of the environment," said Kanayo F. Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a co-organizer of the Landscapes Initiative.
According to the report, these approaches draw on key advances made in the past two decades, including various types of eco-friendly farming practices developed by such institutes as Bioversity International, the World Agroforestry Centre and other groups. These include conservation agriculture, agroforestry, integrating crop and livestock production, precision fertilizer and water application, and improved grazing land management—all of which have both production and environmental benefits. For example, in Kenya, conservation agriculture practices increased crop yields 60 percent while nearly eliminating surface water runoff and soil loss. Agroforestry increased maize yields by 280 percent in Malawi while increasing the supply of fuelwood, mitigating climate change and sustaining hundreds of native plant species.
Scientific advances in remote sensing and resource monitoring tools have also made it possible to assess resource use and availability across a landscape and to design win-win management strategies. Another key to the success of whole landscape approaches is effective communication, negotiation and conflict resolution among stakeholders. New economic tools are rewarding farmers financially for the ecosystem services they provide to others in the landscape through their improved practices.
The knowledge base, institutional models and experienced landscape champions are all now in place for a dramatic scaling up, according to the report. “Whole landscape approaches have the potential to reshape land use at a global scale …. Multiplied across dozens of initiatives per country and hundreds of initiatives per continent, [they] may begin to tackle regional or even global challenges.”
Islands of Success in a Sea of Unsustainability
According to the report, whole landscape approaches are still providing only islands of success in a sea of unsustainability. “Total progress does not add up to a response commensurate with the size of the challenge. 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.”
For example, Brazil has fostered dramatic expansion of soybean production into tropical grasslands known as the Cerrado. “The conversion of native Cerrado into croplands led to a large increase in agricultural production, but it illustrates what happens when there is a single-sector approach to development,” said Bernardo Strassburg, executive director of the International Institute for Sustainability in Brazil. “Production did indeed grow steeply, but the approach used caused massive habitat loss and a huge increase in carbon emissions. An alternative strategy should be pursued in the future, as Brazil is projected to experience the largest expansion in agriculture of any country worldwide over the next four decades. It is important that this expansion—in the Cerrado, the Amazon and the Atlantic rainforest—allows farming to develop in balance with other important uses and values across the landscape.”
Among the independent voices supporting the whole landscape strategy is His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, a leading proponent of efforts to link programs to reduce deforestation, increase agriculture production, address climate change and make food supply chains sustainable. “The world desperately needs private, public, civil society partnerships that can support transitions to sustainability at a landscape scale,” he says.
The coalition seeks to catapult landscape partnerships into the center of agricultural and environmental policies and programs, starting with Rio+20. It is calling on governments, funders, farmers, land managers and businesses to adopt and strengthen whole landscape approaches; design supportive in-country policies; encourage businesses seeking sustainability options to incorporate landscape approaches; develop new forms of financing; improve the quality of research on landscape approaches; and create links among stakeholder groups.
“The world has a voracious appetite for food, water and energy,” says Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary-general and executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a co-organizer of the Initiative. “A narrow focus on sector-specific solutions to satisfying that appetite will ultimately lead to disaster. We must not miss the opportunity of Rio+20 to establish broad, integrated approaches that serve multiple interests.”
Partners in the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative are modeling the whole landscape approach. Conservation International is working in Latin America, Asia and Africa to help farmers, communities, governments and other partners to combine protection of natural areas in agricultural landscapes with use of improved farming practices to ensure sustainable, resilient production systems. Mapping by the World Resources Institute has identified 2 billion hectares suitable for landscape restoration. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization is supporting many landscape initiatives, such as multi-use watershed management in the Fouta Djallon Highlands in West Africa, the Kagera river basin in East Africa, and in Haiti.
Courtesy: Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative; Ecoagriculture Partners.