I recently spent two days in Amsterdam at the World Economic Forum’s “New Vision for Agriculture” Transformation Leaders’ Workshop, and came away thinking that perhaps the time was finally here to mainstream integrated landscape management (ILM).
The workshop I attended involved an unusually diverse group. They displayed the personal characteristics of leaders—inquisitive, willing to reach out to and learn from others outside their own circle, and action-oriented. At least a quarter of the 85 participants—from private agribusiness and food companies, financial institutions, social and environmental NGOs, farmer associations and research organizations—joined the highly interactive series of discussions about sustainable agricultural landscapes.
I was an enthusiastic participant in these discussions, which laid out a compelling rationale for why the Forum should indeed take on a leadership role in advancing ILM, and made concrete recommendations about how the Forum could help scale investment support for landscape partners and mobilize international business and policy leaders to become champions of the approach. Meanwhile, a part of me was simply incredulous that such conversations could be happening at a meeting organized by the World Economic Forum. What a change in just 15 years.
Local is a long way from the mainstream
In the year 2000, I was first inspired to shift my work to advancing integrated agricultural landscapes—the result of my involvement as an agricultural economist in several global research studies that revealed the centrality of production agriculture to ecosystem health and vice versa. With my EcoAgriculture colleagues, I started on a search to find people and places who were actually trying to create or preserve such landscapes. At that time, there was no support for their efforts even from most major conservation, humanitarian, or agricultural development organizations, let alone from mainstream political or market actors.
While collaborative landscape-scale partnerships between farmers, environmentalists and communities to resolve conflicts over natural resources, or to address shared threats of resource degradation, were emerging all over the world, they were not very visible. They were championed mainly by local leaders brave and persistent enough to reach across institutional barriers to find new solutions. The vast majority arose from grassroots efforts, with a few pioneering national or international organizations catalyzing other initiatives by supporting local actors.
This local energy, vision and leadership remains a central determinant of the success of ILM. But it became apparent soon after we began systematic study of these initiatives, that their ability to sustain ILM over time and to scale up action to fully address landscape challenges would require support from—and fundamental changes in—national and international policy, market and finance institutions. Much of our own work over the last few years at EcoAgriculture has focused on learning from innovators around the world and figuring out what those changes need to be.
Getting serious about sustainability
In the past five years, we have seen a rapid embrace by private consumer goods companies of ‘deforestation-free sourcing’, by national governments of national watershed and forest restoration initiatives; and by the international climate community of integrated landscape strategies for mitigation, adaptation and resilience. There are now serious conversations about alternative development pathways among influential policymakers, business leaders and financiers who recognize how feeble and fragmented our vertically-structured sectoral institutions are in the face of dramatic pressure on natural resources from population and market demand for agricultural products, water and land.
At the World Economic Forum’s annual conference in Davos, Switzerland in early 2016, different working groups around climate, agriculture, food security and water made recommendations to the Forum that they explore doing work on sustainable landscapes. While the WEF’s “New Vision for Agriculture” (NVA) aspires to achieve sustainability and benefits for smallholders, nonetheless many of their projects promote industrial input-intensive agriculture and have shown rather tepid interest in environmental outcomes. Now, confronted with their sudden and determined focus on landscape approaches, it is important to acknowledge and address some serious apprehensions.
Major reservations to overcome
Collaborative landscape management, in its myriad forms, has largely been a mechanism for empowerment of local stakeholders to voice their interests and act jointly to achieve a shared vision or at least agreed objectives for their landscape. While groups based outside the landscape often have a legitimate stake in the landscape, it is highly problematic if they conceive of ILM as simply a more efficient and effective mechanism to meet their own objectives and visions.
Will the outsiders be willing to negotiate the agenda, or will their impatience with that process and external market and political pressures move them to impose their own vision?
As international and national companies and national governments embrace ILM, and as their funding flows into these initiatives, what processes are in place to prevent them from hijacking the local landscape development agenda? Will marginalized groups within the landscape still have a role in making key decisions about landscape objectives and action plans? Will the outsiders be willing to negotiate the agenda, or will their impatience with that process and external market and political pressures move them to impose their own vision? An ill-conceived sustainable landscapes agenda might–unwittingly or not–provide a green rubber stamp to all manner of corporate malpractice in land use governance.
What the WEF could do
The World Economic Forum could provide an important arena to constructively address these issues. The WEF could bring local landscape leaders to Davos for an open discussion about managing the inevitable tension between local and international interests in a globalized economy and environment. The WEF could encourage international business and finance actors to co-design, with seasoned landscape leaders, global initiatives to support multi-stakeholder landscape partnerships that respect local visions for sustainability. The WEF could build on their long experience in forging public-private partnerships to help businesses navigate these new landscape partnerships responsibly.
The intentions of participants at the NVA Transformation Leaders’ Workshop–corporate, government, and civil sectors all–were sincere. They recognized the social, human rights and environmental dividends, along with the sustainable development efficiencies, of integrated landscape management. They were eager to explore real solutions that would require meaningful shifts in corporate behavior and international finance. For the WEF to get behind such a global sustainable landscapes initiative would be a powerful way to develop solutions that not only address global challenges, but also honor local peoples’ visions for their landscapes.
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