Conservation in agricultural landscapes

Agriculture has shaped most of the world’s cultures, economies and landscapes. With about 40% of the world’s population – three billion people – classified as ‘small-scale farmers’, agriculture is vital to livelihoods, delivering development opportunities for billions of people and food for virtually everyone on the planet.

Agriculture uses a staggering 40% of the world’s land area as well as 70% of global fresh water withdrawals. It also emits a third of greenhouse gases. It presents a more significant threat to species survival than any other business sector.

Making food production sustainable in the context of human population growth and climate change is therefore one of conservation’s greatest challenges

At worst, unsustainable agricultural practices undermine the very ecosystem services on which producers, rural populations, and ultimately all of us, depend, reducing water quality and quantity, increasing vulnerability to pests, diseases, floods and droughts, and adversely affecting pollination, soil formation and nutrient cycling.

As our demand for food and land increases, long-term survival will be contingent on shifting to sustainable and adaptable agricultural systems and diets that can support people without detriment to the planet. This is particularly crucial for those parts of the world where immense biological richness coincides with rural poverty and development pressures. In such places, the growth of large-scale plantations and unregulated or unsustainable agricultural activities poses a particularly grave threat to biodiversity and ecosystems – and the services they provide.

If well managed and well planned, however, agriculture has real potential to help conserve biodiversity, use natural resources sustainably, improve livelihoods and increase food security.

Moving towards sustainable agriculture

Around the world Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been successfully supporting sustainable farming initiatives, increasing productivity without compromising the long-term health of ecosystems, improving access to markets for smallholder farmers, safeguarding livelihoods, lifting marginalised rural communities out of poverty and working with some of the major players in the agricultural sector to minimise their environmental footprint.

We work both at a landscape level, seeking holistic land use for competing needs, and at the local level, supporting small-scale farmers who grow food staples and cash crops. Our aim is to link productive farming systems based on appropriate land-use planning with clear governance and land tenure, improve resilience to climate change, and maintain the ecosystem services on which we all depend.

Crucially, we collaborate with a variety of partners to achieve results, from national agricultural extension agencies to local agroforesty groups.

Rice agriculture. Credit: Tim Bergman/FFI
Credit: Tim Bergman/FFI

Smallholder engagement

We work with numerous smallholder farming systems in every region where FFI operates, tailoring our approach to suit a range of different conditions.

Our local partner in Belize has become one of Central America’s most experienced Inga alley cropping agroforestry exponents, successfully supporting farmers to adopt this sustainable alternative to slash and burn. The government is now looking to roll out this revolutionary concept on a national scale.

In Cambodia we have begun the journey of helping communities to use sustainable rice intensification systems and have achieved early results with rapid uptake.

In Liberia we have established the classic farm field school approach to experiment with locally appropriate conservation agriculture techniques in order to reduce deforestation and generate carbon credits.

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Landscape-level approaches

FFI has been championing a landscape approach within agricultural supply chains for over ten years, during which time we developed and refined the Biodiversity Risk & Opportunity Assessment (BROA) tool, which offers practical guidance for identifying and managing risks associated with dependencies on biodiversity and ecosystem services. The tool was developed in partnership with Tropical Biology Association, Earthwatch Institute and British American Tobacco, and together we have supported its application in 20 countries. You can download the BROA tool here.

FFI has also been an active member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) since 2007. This certification scheme aims to ensure that palm oil production is sustainable and benefits local communities, and that it conforms to an agreed global benchmark and rigorous supply chain standards. While recognising the shortcomings and compromise required in any multi-stakeholder platform, we view it as a crucial means of influencing agricultural practice at a landscape level.

In West Kalimantan, our Indonesia team has been involved in orang-utan and peatland conservation projects since the 1990s. FFI has conducted High Conservation Value  (HCV) assessments in oil palm concessions within these landscapes in order to safeguard important community forests from conversion to oil palm plantations and other development. We are now working with a number of national companies to help implement their HCV management plans in order to ensure that these values are maintained.

FFI has also taken the opportunity to influence the emerging palm oil sector in West Africa and Myanmar. We led the Small Producing Country National Interpretation of RSPO Principles and Criteria for Liberia and Sierra Leone, and introduced the concept of sustainable palm oil and certification to the new government and businesses in Myanmar. In 2016 we successfully called for a moratorium on oil palm development in the country’s last remaining lowland rainforest until the impacts could be better understood and more robust policies and land use planning put in place.

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Restoring plantation landscapes

National policies are now making landscape-level restoration a reality and FFI is working to restore degraded peat forest in Sumatra’s Kampar Peninsula, in Indonesia. The project is designed to rehabilitate the landscape, secure sustainable livelihoods for forest communities and provide a blueprint for wider ecosystem restoration in the context of government plans to restore and protect some 2.5 million hectares of forest. More than two million native trees are being planted over a 10-year period.

Farming in a changing climate

In 2011, FFI began piloting a climate adaptation planning tool for site-level application, in order to refine the approach within five complex agricultural landscapes. We have built stakeholder capacity at the local level to increase landscape resilience, maintain biodiversity and natural systems and put in place appropriate mitigation measures. The process is publicly available to download here.

At one such site on the freshwater island of Ometepe (a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Lake Nicaragua where we have worked for over a decade), farmers are being encouraged to harvest rainwater and experiment with crop diversification to enhance their resilience to increasingly unpredictable weather patterns.

This type of adaptation planning will assume greater importance as the effects of climate change take hold across the globe – not only as a means to improve food security but also as a way to protect important ecosystems (and the services they provide) from agricultural expansion driven by climate change.

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