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Progress is being made on building sustainable landscapes, but how to measure it?

Gender equity and land tenure – and comprehensive data – are key

From citizen science to satellite imagery, gathering accurate data on the states of landscapes is crucial for addressing climate change. Axel Fassio, CIFOR
24 June 2020
24 June 2020

Monitoring and evaluating the cause-and-effect relationships of inputs, interventions and outputs in agriculture has been helping make food systems more responsive to people’s needs and landscapes more sustainable. But the frequency and intensity of disruptions to those systems – from climate change to COVID-19 – is presenting challenges.

Participants at the recent Global Landscapes Forum digital conference, which carried the theme of food, highlighted several aspects of acquiring and using data on sustainable land use in its series of sessions focused on “measuring progress.” Discussions revolved around the importance of gathering data; of making it both accessible and useful to diverse actors, particularly in developing countries; and of addressing gender and land rights in transitions to more sustainable land management practices. 

“The good news is that most solutions for a transition to sustainable land use are already known,” said Eric Lambin, an environmental scientist who works at both Belgium’s Université Catholique de Louvain and Stanford University. “They’re already implemented in pilot projects with positive impact somewhere in the world.”

“We’ve learned a lot on what makes an effective upscaling experience,” he added. “It involves a multiplicity of actors, national and local governments, CSOs, private business, and most importantly, local land managers.”

In Ghana, for example, the Nature Conservation Research Centre (NCRC) is using LandScale, an assessment framework developed by the Rainforest Alliance together with other partners, to monitor sustainability initiatives in two cocoa-producing regions. As a multi-stakeholder, transparent process, it will provide a way for private companies to demonstrate how much progress is being made in meeting their Cocoa and Forest Initiative (CFI) commitments as well as Ghana’s own Climate-Smart Cocoa standard on climate-appropriate farming practices.

Companies can’t verify themselves according to just their own measures, pointed out NCRC’s director of programs and research Rebecca Ashley Asare. “So we are using LandScale to help them stay accountable.”

A young avocado tree grows in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Informed decision-making about crop production is crucial to creating sustainable landscapes. Axel Fassio, CIFOR
A young avocado tree grows in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Axel Fassio, CIFOR

Lay of the landscape

Key to the monitoring project is its holistic landscape approach, said Ashley Asare, as the focus shifts from individual farm boundaries to local communities and surrounding landscapes. “The fate of the world’s forests, climate resilience, sustainable production: these are not farm-scale issues. We need to go to a landscape scale. And it won’t be possible to achieve our forest commitments if we don’t.”

However, as other speakers pointed out, the information coming from scientific research isn’t always useful or even available. “We have a huge amount of data, but it’s not accessible and not usable by decision-makers, policy-makers, community leaders, NGOs, and other people that can actually use it,” said Christine Lamanna, a climate change decision scientist at World Agroforestry (ICRAF). Scientific papers behind journal paywalls and raw data that requires technical skills and computing power to be turned into information are a couple of the obstacles she cited.

In response, ICRAF created Evidence for Resilient Agriculture (ERA), a systematic review of agricultural technologies. From a pool of more than 6,000 scientific research papers, ERA extracted data from over 1,400 papers specifically on Africa. But those studies left out entire swathes of the continent, highlighting what she calls “data deserts,” for which there is very little information.

What’s more, some technologies got more attention than others. A large percentage of data was on fertilizer use, for example, while far less elucidated practices such as tree-management, alley cropping and crop diversification.

“There’s a big disconnect between what’s been studied or tried,” said Lamanna, “and more Indigenous practices or locally relevant crops. Even whole farming systems have been skipped. So what this does is set a clear research agenda for those national, international or regional research groups to start gathering the evidence we need for this agricultural transformation.”

Indeed, for Maria Brockhaus, a forest sciences professor at the University of Helsinki who has focused much of her research on the U.N.’s global forest-based climate change mitigation program known as REDD+, the politics of data and data-gathering needs to be taken into account. “Numbers shape our world view, quantify our world, and with that, of enabling markets (and) economic transactions… so, we have to acknowledge the politics of numbers,” she said.

“Not understanding power and power imbalances will have trade-offs and will bring risks for all of the REDD+ quality processes, from political agenda-setting to implementation to evaluation.”

Women make up almost half of the agricultural labor force in developing countries, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. Axel Fassio, CIFOR
Women make up almost half of the agricultural labor force in developing countries, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. Axel Fassio, CIFOR

The rights way

In a session that looked at progress on gender equity and land tenure, speakers described several successful projects that linked ecosystem restoration with the land rights of women and youth in Kenya and Burkina Faso.

Violet Shivutse, founder and coordinator of Shibuya Community Health Workers, described how the organization expanded its work from helping families deal with HIV/AIDS to finding ways for widows to remain on land from which they were being evicted by male relatives. Pursuing women’s land rights through inheritance, she said, “is still a very long process and not something that will address the issues of land and food security in women’s households very quickly.”

Working with Kenya’s department of agriculture, the organization developed community-driven land-lease guidelines that allowed women and young people to earn a living as well as improve soil quality and incomes. Conflicts over land have been greatly reduced, and agricultural productivity has risen. As a result, the guidelines are now being developed into a legal framework.

In Burkina Faso, where only 4 percent of land tenure is formalized, traditional land-use customs mean that men get to decide where women are allowed to farm, said Larissa Stiem Bhatia, project coordinator of TMG Research. “Often this plot has low soil quality, and after women have restored the soil, it often happens that they are withdrawn from that plot. This is referred to as ‘forced Rotation.’ ”

A TMG project in the village of Tiarako, however, brought in trusted facilitators to help negotiate an alternative arrangement whereby women can keep their plots and reap the benefits of their restoration efforts. “Forced rotation is now considered the old method,” Stiem Bhatia said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardizes livelihoods and food security across the African continent, tenure rights play a significant role, said Shivutse. “In this COVID time, when people can’t leave home and go out to look for food, when there’s a shortage in livelihoods, [farming] is actually providing an alternative livelihood for women.”

Indeed, in terms of making progress, Marcos Montoiro of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) pointed out that last year, legal recognition of equal use and ownership rights for women became part of the Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Land Governance for Achieving Land Degradation Neutrality.

Previously, he said, “the issue of land tenure and land governance was not discussed in depth. It came from civil society. Civil society organizations took this as one of the most important things that we should address if we want to secure sustainable land management.”


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