Large-scale irrigation as maladaptation?

Agricultural landscapes are dynamic environments which change in response to cropping and trade opportunities, available technologies and climatic conditions. In this article, led by McGill University researcher Amaia Albizua, we investigate farmers’ vulnerability to climate-related stressors and crop price volatility in rural Navarre, Spain. Specifically, we analyse the extent to which livelihood differences and vulnerability can be partly explained by the development of a large-scale irrigation project promoted by the Spanish and regional governments. Grounded on qualitative and quantitative data gathered across 22 villages, we demonstrate that small-scale diversified farmers appear the most vulnerable and least able to adapt to climate-related stressors and crop price volatility. In contrast, more market-driven, large-scale intensive farmers, who participate in the irrigation project, are the least vulnerable to these stressors. We argue that the irrigation project has increased the short-term adaptive capacity of irrigation adopters while establishing the institutional conditions for the displacement of small-scale farming. Therefore, we suggest that farmers’ vulnerability in Navarre can be explained by maladaptive irrigation policies designed to favour large-scale and market-driven agriculture. To access the article, click on link above or contact me at esteve.corbera@uab.cat. Picture copyright Amaia Albizua.

Conflict in REDD+ – Insights from the CoCooR project

Climate change policies need to become conflict sensitive in order to be effective in its environmental and social-economic goals. In this video, developed by The Netherlands Research Agency (NWO) in the context of the Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change (CCMCC) programme, I reflect on the main results of the programme’s funded project “Conflict and cooperation over REDD+ in Mexico, Nepal and Vietnam”, co-led by myself and Dr. Poshendra Satyal at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. The video complements a longer video developed by the project consortium and available here.

Co-managing fish leads to better ecological and social outcomes

In a new open-access article led by ICTA-UAB’s PhD candidate Laia d’Armengol and published in Global Environmental Change, we demonstrate that the world’s co-managed small-scale fisheries have done great but could do better. Through a systematic review of academic literature, we examined the context and attributes of co-management initiatives in small-scale fisheries, and their expected outcomes. We found that a supporting legal and institutional framework facilitates the emergence of co-management, because it contributes to clarify and legitimize property rights over fish resources. The data analysis also suggested that co-management delivers both ecological and social benefits: it increases the abundance and habitat of species, fish catches, actors’ participation, and the fishery’s adaptive capacity, as well as it induces processes of social learning. Furthermore, we found that co-management is more effective if artisanal fishers and diverse stakeholders become involved through an adaptive institutional framework. However, not everything was great: co-management initiatives cannot always deal with pre-existing conflicts, challenge power asymmetries and distribute benefits more equitably.

Post photo copyright: Laia d’Armengol.

Agricultural intensification, ecosystem services, well-being

In this new article published in Nature Sustainability, we demostrate that the combined social and ecological results of increased agricultural intensification in low and middle-income countries are not as positive as expected. Sustainable intensification of agriculture is seen by many in science and policy as a flagship strategy for helping to meet global social and ecological commitments – such as ending hunger and protecting biodiversity – as laid out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris climate agreement. However, there is limited evidence on the conditions that support positive social and ecological outcomes. In an attempt to address this knowledge gap, we have conducted a review of 53 existing studies into the human wellbeing and ecosystem service outcomes of agricultural intensification.

Overall, we find that agricultural intensification – broadly defined as activities intended to increase either the productivity or profitability of a given tract of agricultural land – rarely leads to simultaneous positive results for ecosystem services and human wellbeing. We argue that intensification cannot be considered as a simple “blueprint” for achieving positive social-ecological outcomes. While there is considerable hope and expectation that agricultural intensification can contribute to sustainable development, we find that only a minority of existing studies present evidence for this and that even these infrequent ‘win-win’ cases tend to lack evidence of effects on key regulating or supporting ecosystem services, such as moderating river flow or cycling soil nutrients. Therefore, we suggest that we should be cautious about the expectations we attach to agricultural intensification since, in the long term, agricultural intensification can undermine the conditions that may be critical for the support of stable food production, including biodiversity, soil formation and water regulation.

We sustain that it is important to look at how intensification is introduced, for example whether it is initiated by farmers or forced upon them. Change is often induced or imposed for more vulnerable population groups who often lack sufficient money or security of land tenure to make these changes work. Smallholders in the cases studied often struggle to move from subsistence to commercial farming and the challenges involved are not currently well reflected in many intensification strategies. Another important finding is that the distribution of wellbeing impacts is uneven, generally favouring better off individuals at the expense of poorer ones. We find that the infrequent ‘win-win’ outcomes occur mostly in situations where intensification involves increased use of inputs such as fertilizers, irrigation, seeds, and labour.

In the light of these findings, we believe that policymakers and practitioners should thus probably moderate their expectations of agricultural intensification outcomes and strive for improved and alternative practices that take into account aspects beyond food productivity. They should find ways to work towards and capitalise on the maintenance of regulating and cultural services, as well as wellbeing aspects other than income.

Why we (might) disagree over ecosystem services for poverty alleviation

In a new article published (open access) in Oryx (Howe et al. 2018), we expose why we might disagree over how best to pursue the provision of ecosystem services and the eradication of poverty.  We suggest that as the concept of ecosystem services is applied more widely in conservation, its users will encounter the issue of poverty alleviation and, subsequently, be tempted to conceal the trade-offs that the conservation of ecosystem services and poverty alleviation might entail. Modelling our argument on an earlier essay about conservation and poverty (Adams et al., 2004, in Science), we explore the different views that underlie apparent agreement.

We identify five normative positions that reflect different mixes of concern for ecosystem condition, poverty and economic growth:

(1) Ecosystems should be managed to deliver services in ways that facilitate biodiversity conservation;

(2) Ecosystems should be managed to deliver services in ways that maintain their functional integrity;

(3) Ecosystems should be managed to deliver services in ways that protect & secure the existing lives & livelihoods of the poor;

(4) Ecosystems should be managed to deliver services in ways that bring new benefits to the poor; and

(5) Ecosystems should be managed to deliver services in ways that maximize economic growth.

In the article, we depict the narratives, policy recipes, and the main advocates behind each position, and we suggest that acknowledging these helps to uncover the subjacent goals of policy interventions and the trade-offs they involve in practice. We think that ‘the policy rhetoric on ecosystem services and poverty alleviation, with its search for common causes, can serve to erase or obscure fundamental differences in goals or objectives. Failure to acknowledge differences between these positions obscures choices and risks undermining sustainable and just outcomes’. Therefore, we argue that recognizing the existence of such positions can ultimately support the emergence of more legitimate and robust policies.