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.

A forest transition in central Mexico?

In this new article, published in Restoration Ecology and led by Jordi Honey-Rosés (University of British Columbia), we examine land-use change in central Mexico and we relate such change to agricultural and socio-economic patterns. Recent land cover analysis reveals significant forest recovery around the world, suggesting that some countries may be in a forest transition. However, remotely sensed imagery does not reveal the driving causes of forest recovery, which may be due to active reforestation efforts or natural successional processes (passive reforestation).

Through fieldwork research conducted by ICTA-UAB former MSc student, Marlene Maurer, we aimed to distinguish these two processes in the priority temperate forests surrounding the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (342,773 ha) in the state of Michoacán. We combined an analysis of remotely sensed imagery with field interviews to examine the mechanisms and drivers of observed forest recovery.

Our analysis of the satellite imagery reveals a net increase of 3,798 ha of forest between 1986 and 2012, yet the rate of recovery is slowing. Interview data suggests that the vast majority of the recovered forests are the result of natural regrowth (passive reforestation), with most of this regrowth observed on previously degraded forest lands. Therefore, we estimate that between 58 and 429 ha have been recovered from active reforestation efforts in the 1986–2012 period. We find that reduced logging and grazing pressures are important drivers of forest recovery, while agricultural abandonment may be less influential than often believed.

These results speak to conservation policy and reforestation programs in different ways. First, they suggest that the cost-effectiveness may be a major constraint to scaling up active reforestation, particularly if the latter represents a small contribution to observed forest regrowth. Second, the findings indicate that previously degraded forest lands should be considered environmental assets in forest restoration programs, given its significant contribution to forest recovery. Last, and most importantly, we think that whenever site, landscape, and social environments allow for passive restoration, forest restoration programs should consider supporting, facilitating, or accelerating natural regrowth instead of active reforestation. Reforestation investments might be wisely spent supporting and maintaining the natural resilience of forests rather than on costly reforestation programs.

Photo copyright: Marlene Maurer.

REDD+ in the spotlight

The CoCooR research project has produced a 17-min video where we disseminate some of the project’s findings and where some other scholars, practitioners and funders share their views about REDD+. Specifically, the video defines REDD+, highlights its main funding sources to date, and a number of experts reflect on the challenges of REDD+ policy design in the global South, and of early action implementation initiatives, as well as the framework’s main achivements to date and its likely future.

We think that the video can be very useful to teach about REDD+, or to foster a discussion about this policy framework with university students and other audiences outside high education and academia. Therefore, if you are interested in REDD+, forest conservation, or in environmental governance and policy more generally, please watch the video and help us disseminate it. Feel free to post comments about it in this blog, or to use the social media to spread the word. The video can be watched in You Tube.

Image copyright: SIAS, Nepal

REDD+ Crossroads Post Paris: Politics, Lessons and Interplays

Red goes well with Xmas, or so they say. So I’m pleased to share with you today, the outcome of a new special issue, guest edited with my former colleague at the University of East Anglia, Heike Schroeder. Over the past two years, we have put together a large collection of articles exploring the politics, the early lessons and the institutional interplays of REDD+ preparedness in developing countries. The collection is freely available through open access, and you can download all the contributions here.

The contributions to the special issue suggest, first, that REDD+ design in the studied countries has generally lacked social legitimacy and sidelined key actors who can considerably influence land-use sector dynamics. Second, they show that REDD+ early actions have tended to oversimplify local realities and have been misaligned and local needs. Third, REDD+ efforts have remained constrained to the forestry or climate mitigation policy sectors and have thus suffered from a lack of policy harmonization.

As REDD+ moves from its preparedness to its implementation phase, Heike and myself argue that more research efforts should be aimed at analysing the power relations that underpin and determine the design and implementation of REDD+ policies and actions, the potential for and limits to the vertical and horizontal coordination of land-use policies and management, and the processes of resistance to or accommodation of REDD+ practices on the ground. In doing so, we advocate for multi- and transdisciplinary research that does not take for granted the benefits of REDD+ and which critically scrutinizes the multiple goals of this ambitious international policy framework, and where it sits within the broader Paris Agreement implementation agenda.

Picture: Women in Chiapas, Mexico, carrying fuelwood. Their community participates in a carbon forestry project. © Esteve Corbera