Landscaping Food Security

Part one of a two-part series on the landscape approach to agricultural development.

Agricultural development is not exempt from technical jargon, long lists of abbreviations, and seemingly endless new “perspectives” that are often found in international development circles. Although not a new perspective, the “landscape approach” perspective in agricultural development and natural resource management has seen a reemergence in the last few years and is causing quite a stir. This has great implications for those involved in research, policy, and program implementation and management in developing countries. With the upcoming Global Landscapes Forum taking place this December in Lima, Peru, it is important to know exactly what the landscape approach is and how this approach can contribute to global development.

The landscape approach has evolved over many years and has only recently become more defined. According to a paper published in PNAS, landscape approaches “seek to provide tools and concepts for allocating and managing land to achieve social, economic, and environmental objectives in areas where agriculture, mining, and other productive land uses compete with environmental and biodiversity goals”. This involves many steps and requires involvement, feedback, and continuous evaluation from many stakeholders.

To better illustrate the value of the landscape scale in agricultural development it is best to take a real-life example. Out my backdoor are the Uluguru Mountains in Tanzania. At first sight, the view of the mountains gives the impression that there is not much organization in the farming community. However, this is certainly not the case. Because smallholder farmers typically farm less then 2 hectares of land, there are many more individual farm plots within a given area than is often seen in western agricultural communities.

Within a 100-hectare area within the Uluguru Mountains, you could potentially have between 50-150 smallholder farmer plots. On the same area, there are most likely parts designated for conservation purposes, parts that are culturally important to the Luguru people inhabiting the mountain, and parts that contain tourist attractions such as waterfalls and scenic viewpoints. On top of this very intricate web, this same area provides essential ecosystem services, such as the provision of water, to Tanzania’s largest city Dar es Salaam.

With this complexity in mind, it is easy to imagine that taking a one-size fit all approach to agriculture development is not ideal or even possible. Traditional agricultural research and development also does not suffice as this has largely evaluated management at the single plot and farm level. An option for working within this complexity is the landscape approach. This approach involves stakeholders with many competing interests getting together to find common goals. These goals then serve as the foundation for future projects, research, and initiatives to achieve these goals.

For example, in the above 100-hectare area of land, the city dwellers do not own, live, or work on the land, yet they benefit from practices on the land that don’t decrease the availability or quality of water. Also within the area, conservation groups may have priorities due to the high prevalence of biodiversity often found near smallholder agriculture in the tropics. On top of this, the farmers themselves are relying on the land for food, feed, and fiber for their family.

Taking a traditional development point of view, these three competing interest would largely be targeted by three different development organizations or programs; one working on food security with the farmers, one working on biodiversity conservation, and one working on gaining access to water for a nearby town. In this example, the landscape approach bridges these three interests by bringing them together to determine future goals and by finding ways forward that brings benefits to all stakeholders.

This could be achieved, for example, by the implementation of ecologically sensitive farming techniques that preserves biodiversity and increase farmer’s yields. In many cases, these practices can be more labor intensive or require larger upfront investments. Traditionally, this would be a deterrent to the farmer. However, the conservation group may be willing to pay farmers for this service as it helps them to achieve their conservation priorities in the area.

Additionally, the ecologically sensitive farming techniques could be implemented in a way that enhances water availability and quality to those in the city. The city could also contribute resources to aid the more labor-intensive farming techniques or provide technology that would make the implantations of these less labor intensive.

While this approach may at first sound very straightforward, it is still important to remember that after these goals are established, research is still needed to evaluate which farming systems or group of farming systems will achieve these goals. This requires new techniques that allow for the evaluation of farming practices and their effects at a much larger scale than has been common in the past. These new techniques are currently being created and evaluated by groups such as the GeoScience Lab at the World Agroforestry Center. This group has come up with the Land Degradation Surveillance Framework (LDSF) for assessing eco-system health at the landscape level in order to determine the effect of various land management options.

The landscape approach is a viable option to target and use synergies between various development programs working in the same area. While it involves trade-offs between the groups, the landscape as a whole could potentially benefit from this approach. Because of the landscape approach’s focus on a larger scale, it is necessary to develop methods and metrics that allow the evaluation of programs at this scale. If implemented correctly, the landscape approach could increase food security while maintaining biodiversity and providing essential ecosystem services.

In my next post I will discuss the LDSF method in more detail and provide some examples of how it is being used to better address food security and sustainable development at the landscape scale.

Image Credit: Kate Holt via Wikimedia Commons


Related posts