I worked for 25 years as an agricultural economist in tropical rainforests and hillsides, studying sustainable agricultural development in what were then called “marginal lands” for farming. I was answering questions like: “can farming be sustainable here?” and “given their importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, would these lands be better left in natural forest or grassland?” My view of the world changed abruptly in 2000, when I collaborated with two geographers to map and analyze the global extent of agricultural land, using remote sensing data. I was stunned to see that many of the most important habitats for wild biodiversity, watersheds, forest products, bio-energy, and stores of carbon (from vegetation and soils) were located in agricultural lands—not just those “marginal lands” but in the world’s main breadbaskets and rice bowls. Moreover, these maps showed that most of the world’s agricultural land—if not most of the production—was in mosaics of farmland and natural areas.
The question morphed to: How can we manage our farms and farming landscapes not just to supply food for 9 billion people over the next few decades, but do so in ways that also secure our water needs, conserve biodiversity, manage climate change, and sustain rural livelihoods? In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, EcoAgriculture Partners was established to address this rather different question.
We have found that an integrated agricultural landscape strategy acknowledges the diverse demands on our lands, and the limitations of narrow sectoral approaches. What are the key elements of such a strategy?
- Agricultural practices that have positive impacts on ecosystem services;
- Ecosystem management strategies that encompass the role of farmlands as well as natural areas;
- Social and cultural norms and institutions supporting sustainable food systems;
- Markets and policies that make these systems financially viable and sustainable;
- Governance systems that enable the diverse stakeholders in the products and services of our land base to define, negotiate, and implement a coherent vision.
Action is needed at all scales, from farm fields and forest patches to international policy. But the landscape is the scale where the interfaces of multiple demands on land and resources must be negotiated and managed. Foresters and conservationists are accustomed to thinking in terms of landscapes, but typically in relation to the forests and protected areas under their direct control. Farmers and agricultural businesses think more in terms of farms, fields, and supply chains. Thus it can be a struggle to collaborate in complex, multi-use landscape mosaics. [See Landscape Measures Resource Center]
But what creativity is resulting! All over the world, innovative leaders are collaborating across sectors and across social groups to address landscape-level challenges and opportunities. Farmers and farming communities are acting collectively to make their landscapes more productive and conserve ecosystems critical to their livelihoods. Indigenous peoples are managing their territories to ensure food supplies and protect their natural patrimony. Non-governmental organizations and governments are partnering with farmers to restore degraded landscapes, develop wildlife corridors, manage critical watersheds, and more recently to make agricultural landscapes more resilient to climate change. Market actors are embracing eco-standards for agricultural products that contribute to sustainable landscapes, and developing programs to reward farmers and farming communities for stewardship of ecosystem services in their croplands, forests, rangelands and wetlands. New models of territorial development and urban-rural foodsheds are seeking ways to link agriculture and ecosystem management within broader strategies for social and economic development.
But these innovative initiatives don’t yet fit comfortably into mainstream policies and institutions. To support the practice of integrated agricultural landscapes, in November 2011 EcoAgriculture Partners launched the 3-year Landscapes for People, Food, and Nature Initiative with eight other international co-organizers to foster cross-sectoral knowledge sharing, dialogue, and action. The Initiative will advance viable pathways for sustainable development in places where food production, ecosystem health, and human wellbeing must be achieved simultaneously.
We hope this new Blog will generate momentum for the Initiative and build a dynamic community around these landscapes. Featuring work done by the co-organizers, advisors, landscape leaders, and other innovators, it will provide a space to showcase specific landscapes, present updates on policy and research developments, and mobilize action. We encourage your active engagement and welcome comments to individual posts in order to stimulate a wide-ranging discussion and debate around the topics presented through the blog.
Scherr, S.J. and J.A. McNeely, eds. 2007. Farming with Nature: The Science and Practice of Ecoagriculture. Island Press; Washington, DC.
Wood, S, K. Sebastian and S. Scherr. 2000. Pilot analysis of global ecosystems: agroecosystems. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.