August 6, 2021

Developing Technologies Can Revolutionize Sustainable Landscape Management

Juan RamosEcoAgriculture Partners

Conflict, climate change and a Covid-based economic downturn put enormous pressure on communities and the lands they need to thrive. But better land management that harnesses powerful information technologies can help people counter these massive global challenges, public-interest technologists said during a recent virtual meeting.

During the July 15, 2021, roundtable on “Information Technology Solutions for Landscape Partnerships,” panelists laid out the problem and offered the tools that could assist local groups worldwide in their drive to create more sustainable relationships with nature. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization and EcoAgriculture Partners sponsored the event. 

“We really need to invest in, and scale-up, innovative tools that could help producers, land managers, policymakers and all stakeholders from farm to fork,” said Jocelyn Brown Hall, Director, FAO North America, in her opening remarks highlighting the findings of the recently released 2021 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report. 

The meeting brought together expert panelists developing digital solutions to serve landscape partnerships that seek to manage their landscapes sustainably. They discussed what they’ve learned from communities about what technology can and, crucially, cannot do to support landscape partnerships to achieve their goals for nature and people. 

IT’s role in helping landscape partnerships succeed

Many landscape partnerships are excited at the chance to use IT solutions that will help them work more efficiently and effectively. The roundtable, part of an ongoing series of FAO-EcoAgriculture Partners discussions focusing on agriculture, landscapes and climate change, attracted 130 participants from 65 countries. View the event recording and the notes from the chat.

Hall emphasized that FAO’s strategic framework aims to support the 2030 agenda by transforming agricultural and food systems using science, technology, and innovation – while ensuring accessibility. She concluded that having the right tools and technology will be critical to expand the 1000 Landscapes for One Billion people initiative. 

Sara Scherr, President and CEO of EcoAgriculture Partners and Chair of the 1000 Landscapes For 1 Billion People initiative, said the turnout provided evidence that landscape partnerships are hungry for technological support to manage their region. Currently, “hundreds and thousands of landscape partnerships are essentially on their own for doing this now,” Scherr said. “Many do not have access to technology that can help them deal with the challenges of landscape partnerships.”

Introducing Terraso, the 1000 Landscapes for One Billion People digital platform

Panelists presented several powerful new tools that could change landscape management. One of those still under development by the 1000 Landscapes initiative partner Tech Matters is called Terraso. Amaya Webster, the platform’s program manager, stressed its open-source and collaborative design. “We’ve been working hand-in-hand with our landscape partners, lending them our technological expertise as advisors and offering technological solutions like mapping and storytelling tools that they can test and give feedback on,” Webster said. 

Her team has been engaging with landscape leaders in Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia and Europe for over a year. Many practitioners have similar challenges, she said: 

  • Community input and engagement
  • Project management and collaboration
  • Storytelling
  • Data collection and sharing
  • Mapping and land-use planning

Derek Caelin, Terraso product manager for Tech Matters, said many barriers stand in the way of using current technology in landscapes. A few of those are language, internet connectivity, technology complexity, data sovereignty and financial resources. “Many existing tools are actually not designed with landscape leaders in mind,” he said. 

Caelin shared what landscape partners working with Tech Matters have requested most for any prospective technology solution:  

  • Build it to work with our technology and our capabilities
  • Ensure we control the data we gather about our place
  • Provide maps we can use
  • Help us communicate with our community and the world 
  • Help us get the money and resources we need

Terraso is “ultimately going to be an open-source tool, which means the code will be freely available for everybody,” he said. “We want to bring in the best technologies run by technologists who are building it the right way.” 

Innovators push what’s possible for landscape partnerships

Other innovators showcased their work supporting landscape partnerships during the roundtable. 

Erik Lindquist, FAO forestry officer, highlighted his team’s land monitoring platform, SEPAL, which uses big-data analysis. “We want to democratize access to data and tools for analyses at different scales,” he said. “Then we can all agree on the facts and focus on the solutions.” 

Emily Jacobi, founder and executive director of human rights technology developer Digital Democracy, shared her group’s work supporting frontline communities. The organization’s mobile and desktop tool, Mapeo, puts those communities at the center with characteristics like being offline-first, data shareability, community ownership of data, a simple, customizable interface, and adhering to the principles of Indigenous Data Sovereignty

Jacobi says Mapeo has been used to map and monitor more than 4 million hectares of territory in eight countries. Digital Democracy has taken its learnings so far to develop a sharing platform through the Earth Defender’s toolkit to provide tools and case studies for different local partners. 

Heiner Baumann, the co-founder and managing director of Precision Development, Inc. (PxD), shared his organization’s growing agricultural advisory work. They now serve more than 5 million farmers in nine developing countries. PxD’s mobile-based software analyzes data and offers recommendations for farmers and other groups across landscapes on avoiding over-using fertilizer and pesticides. It also promotes practices that prevent soil erosion and degradation. Because of PxD’s service, Baumann said, “behavior change is happening, and we see positive results on yield gains and very high benefit-cost ratios.” 

Building an IT toolbox that landscape partnerships can use

The roundtable dialogue highlighted that IT intervention creators must be mindful of balancing between the demand for their innovation, the resources required and the scale at which they can be deployed. Also, developers must build any solution with the end user’s guidance to fit the context of each unique landscape, partnership and farmer. 

The panelists all said they’d identified similar needs and barriers that must be addressed, through open-source technology that are democratically accessible, if we are to scale innovations across landscapes. Finally, they agreed there is a critical need for sustainable financing models for these solutions and that the boost to ecosystem services value provided by landscape partnerships far outweigh the investment costs.

But the interest the innovators have seen coming from landscape partnerships worldwide is enough to show they are on the right path. Failure to provide the tools these groups need is not an option, the group said.

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