From little things, big things grow

Recently I started growing tomatoes and chilies up on my small rooftop balcony in Hanoi. The rain and constant humidity in Vietnam are a blessing for my tomatoes, which I’m overjoyed to report, started sprouting this week. The first signs of life on my rooftop have encouraged me to make plans to expand my little patch over coming months.

Now I’m sure you must wonder why my attempt at growing vegetables would warrant a blog being written about it. I’m certainly not the first person growing a few vegies at home. I keep talking about my tomatoes, much to the bemusement of my colleagues and friends. However, my decision to grow my own stems from a bigger idea. For me, this decision is as much about trying to understand what others endure, as it is a decision to be a bit more self-reliant. So why, in the grand scheme of things, do a few tomatoes on my balcony matter?

Photo: Liam Walsh/FFI

The fruit of Liam's labour start paying off. Credit: Liam Walsh/FFI

Many of the world’s poorest people live in close proximity to, or sometimes within the boundaries of national parks and protected areas. Many of these people are small landholders with insecure land tenure, simply trying to provide enough food for their families through subsistence agriculture. Conservationists have long acknowledged the need to work with local people in and around protected areas to find sustainable solutions to conservation problems. Visit any FFI project around the world and you’ll find that the livelihoods of local people are central to the work we do. In fact, working with local people is enshrined in FFI’s global vision:

A sustainable future for the planet, where biodiversity is effectively conserved by the people who live closest to it, supported by the global community.

However in spite of all the great work that FFI and other conservation organisations are doing around the globe to support local livelihoods, there is one hard question that all conservationists should continue asking themselves: Do we still focus on agriculture as a problem, rather than part of the solution?

Understanding the world of small landholders

I love nothing more than visiting an area where there are few people, where the sky remains hidden behind a canopy of trees, rather than roof tops. However I also acknowledge the luxury of thinking this way, of simply finding value in nature for its intrinsic qualities. Fortunately, I don’t have to rely on my small tomato crop for a livelihood. I have the luxury of growing food as a matter of choice. In Hanoi, I can wander down to a market at any time I please or simply stop in at a small restaurant for a cheap bowl of Pho. People living in and around protected areas do not have this luxury. For them, nature is harsh. Nature is something you struggle against to feed your family. Only through living a lifestyle of privilege, where we do not know such harshness, are we afforded the opportunity to value nature for purely intrinsic reasons.

In the past, rural people in developing countries have often borne the brunt of biocentric conservation strategies. These strategies have undermined livelihood opportunities and even basic human rights. They have also proven unsuccessful in the fight against extinction. If conservation efforts are to be successful we should be working with people to find sustainable ways to derive benefits from species and ecosystems. Addressing socio-economic issues in conservation, including livelihood development, food security and the rights of communities to govern resources on which they depend, is vitally important.

We have to recognise small landholders as potential stewards of the environment. We need to recognise the socio-economic and political forces that drive human consumption and influence the way in which small land holders use land and natural resources. The conservation importance of agricultural landscapes should not be ignored. There are agricultural systems, particularly those practiced by smallholders, that can support biodiversity far more than any industrial agriculture system would. We need to work with small landholders to find durable solutions that seek to reconcile food security with biodiversity conservation.

If conservationists all grew their own food, then perhaps we could understand just that little bit more about the daily struggle many people go through. It’s a small start, but hopefully by growing some of my own vegetables in Hanoi, I’ll go some way towards understanding the challenge many people living in rural areas continue to face.