August 19, 2015

Roles Policymakers Can Play to Green Commodity Agriculture

Lucila FernandezEcoAgriculture Partners

Environmental issues are like a knot of tangled yarn.

Within any given land area, there are many interconnections—between a country’s history, the area’s socio-political climate, its economic developments, the residing communities and their associated cultures, and regional and international interests—that all impact how natural resources (terrestrial and aquatic) are managed. As what happens when one attempts to loosen a ball of tangled yarn, tugging on one factor inextricably affects the others. In respect to land use, management decisions carry implications for the ecological vitality of the area’s associated ecosystems and the livelihoods of the communities in and around the landscape.

This post was originally published on the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Blog.
Many communities in East and Southeast Asia are dependent on the health of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems for agriculture, livelihoods, and for food. The management of natural resources has far reaching implications for the region.

Many communities in East and Southeast Asia are dependent on the health of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems for agriculture, livelihoods, and for food. The management of natural resources has far reaching implications for the region.

A cycle where economic growth and environmental health are in conflict

For example, to increase the growth of the agriculture sector, many developing countries have weakened community land rights and local governance control, encouraged clearing of natural habitats, and provided incentives to facilitate commercial concessions with little environmental oversight. While this helped to intensify agriculture and grow regional economies, it weakened the land’s ability to shield people and agribusiness from extreme weather events, retain sediments and limit runoff into waterways, and maintain the biological diversity needed to offset plant die-off and disease events.


Large-scale farming for exporting agricultural commodities is one of the many interests competing for natural resources in East and Southeast Asia. The practice of monoculture farming, as practiced in the depicted oil palm farm, negatively impacts communities and ecosystems in the larger landscape. Photo by Marufish on Flickr.

Multiple interests call for multiple actions to correct damaging patterns

Several East and Southeast Asian countries that have had the greatest success in promoting commodity agriculture over the past decades are now feeling the impacts of poorly managed land development. While growing agricultural certification has helped to introduce better practices in the private sector, it has been inadequate in the face of numerous continuing pressures for environmental degradation.  Policymakers are keen to promote environmental stewardship in the region, but struggle in determining the proper steps to greening their agriculture sectors. New strategies and practices are needed not only by diverse actors within commodity supply chains, but also by local and national government institutions, civil society, consumers and others.
A word from the author

Building flexible, mutually-reinforcing policy instruments can align environmental stewardship goals with economic interests

Steps Toward Green: Policy Responses to the Environmental Footprint of Commodity Agriculture in East and Southeast Asia highlights five distinct, but complementary, roles that policymakers can assume to align agricultural growth with environmental protections: Definer, Enabler, Funder, Regulator and Advocate. By designing policy around these roles, and their associated instruments, policymakers can make comprehensive strategies for halting and reversing the negative cycles now at play in agriculture that lead to environmental degradation.  These roles are defined as:

  • Definer: The government can embed vision of agricultural green growth in national and sub-national development strategies, agricultural sector strategies, and/or strategies for improving the competitiveness of particular sub-sectors.
  • Enabler: The government can actively support efforts for better production spearheaded by the private sector and civil society, for example through procurement policies that favor products from sustainably managed sources, data collection and analysis, research and development, advisory services, or by supporting certification practices.
  • Funder: Public revenues of national, sub-national or local governments can allocate direct investments or co-finance investments by private land managers, pay producers or communities for ecosystem stewardship benefitting the public good, or provide financial incentives.
  • Regulator: The government can motivate improved use of water, land, and forest resources through adequately enforced direct regulations. Some items that would be suitable for direct regulation are production practices, waste disposal, land uses, and zoning of production and processing, and requirements for habitat and land restoration.
  • Advocate: Government agencies can raise public awareness and mobilize action through information campaigns, calls for action by citizens, civil society and business, or convening stakeholder dialogues.

Coming soon, how to put these roles into concerted action

On September 15th, the Steps Toward Green book will be released as a tool for policymakers to learn how these roles have been implemented in practice, and how specific policy instruments can be applied on a case-by-case basis. Stay tuned to the blog to learn about how actors on the ground, and abroad, are working to green commodity agriculture, and how more strategic agri-environmental policies could amplify their impact.

Steps Toward Green BHFinal

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Lucila Fernandez is the Communications Associate at EcoAgriculture Partners. For questions regarding the upcoming book launch or blog series around East and Southeast Asian agri-environmental policy, please contact
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