For healthy and productive agricultural environments, we need a landscape approach that identifies and builds on the interdependencies between agricultural production, ecosystem services, governance, and human wellbeing. The Alliance’s 2019 work in sustainable agriculture and landscape management and restoration took us around the Global South, from restoring degraded landscapes in Africa to supporting green businesses in the Amazon. Our researchers conducted new research on land restoration, delved into the essential role of gender in restoring landscapes, and contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark report on climate change and land.
The Alliance also raised awareness on the interdependencies between food production, biodiversity, and both human and environmental health. This resulted in a proposal supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), adopted by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) to assess the Nexus on Biodiversity, Food, Health, and Water. Also, the Alliance’s contribution to the EAT-Lancet Report and to the 2019 Report of the FABLE Consortium assessed how far countries are in terms of achieving their targets for sustainable land use and food systems.
To help the climate, put energy into land restoration
Burning fossil fuels rightly takes much of the blame for climate change. The way humans burn through resources on land plays a major role as well. Awareness of this grew in 2019, as forest fires raged across the globe, and climate activists and scientists pointed to diets and agriculture as drivers of warming.
Degraded grazing land in the Colombian Andes. CIAT/N.Palmer
The timing then could not have been more appropriate for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to release a special report on Climate Change and Land. The massive report laid bare just how much land contributes to climate change, and how, under better stewardship, it has the potential to mitigate our climate crisis.
Among the report’s many key takeaways is that land absorbs 22 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. But deforestation, desertification, land degradation, and unsustainable agriculture are quickly filling the terrestrial carbon sink. “We are receiving a free subsidy from nature,” said Louis Verchot, a lead author for the IPCC report and an Alliance scientist. “The report shows that this subsidy will not go on indefinitely.”
With 500 million people living in landscapes undergoing desertification, and with soil being lost at a rate 10–100 times faster than it is being formed, land restoration initiatives are gaining traction across the globe.
Verchot and colleagues published an analysis last year of 154 land restoration projects in Latin America, from northern Mexico to southern Argentina. The study examined the potential for climate change mitigation and provides a roadmap for evaluating the long-term effectiveness of different restoration approaches.
In Ethiopia, some $1.2 billion dollars per year have been spent annually on land restoration initiatives, giving scientists a large laboratory to study the effectiveness of different strategies. A study showed investments work: yields on restored land can increase up to 170 percent.
Farmers are working to restore degraded land in Debre Berhan, Ethiopia. CIAT/G.Smith
But climate change and land use still vex some of Ethiopia’s efforts. “Various land restoration practices and technologies provide various degrees of success, but they are site-specific,” said Wuletawu Abera, an Alliance scientist and the study’s lead author. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution.”
Connecting Space to Village: Geospatial information for decision-making in the Amazon
The Amazon Basin, one of the planet’s most precious environmental reserves, is under threat from adverse human activities and the changing climate. The resulting forest loss, increasingly contaminated water, and exposure of communities to unprecedented fires and floods have diminished the ecosystem service capacity of this globally essential ecosystem. Improved geospatial information for on-the-ground decision-makers could be a crucial tool for improving environmental stewardship in the Amazon.
Led by the Alliance, SERVIR-Amazonia is the newest hub within the global SERVIR initiative. The first year of SERVIR-Amazonia included assessing the needs for geospatial information for environmental decision-making in Peru, Colombia, and Brazil. Our conversations with more than 600 potential users and more than 70 decision-makers generated over 50 ideas for the development of specific geospatial data, information, and capacity-building services.
“What makes SERVIR-Amazonia unique is not only the size and the scale of the problem that the Amazon faces but also the level of expertise and the technologies that are already available to address it,” says Dr. David Saah, a senior scientist at SERVIR-Amazonia, and Director of Geospatial Analysis Lab at the University of San Francisco.
Activities have already started in Peru, Guyana, Colombia and Ecuador. NASA-funded experts are building capacity in Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite technologies for monitoring deforestation and mangrove forests. Also, four NASA-funded Applied Science Teams will embark on 3-year research projects that will support SERVIR-Amazonia service developments.
SERVIR-Amazonia is also supporting an unprecedented effort of the Peruvian Government called “Mercurio 2019” to combat the illegal mining in the Madre de Dios region. SERVIR partner Conservación Amazónica (ACCA) works with the government of Peru to improve identifying the geographical location of potential illegal mining activities.
Funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and with science and technology support from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), SERVIR-Amazonia is implemented by a consortium led by the Alliance and a network of local and international partners serving the Amazon region, mainly the Spatial Informatics Group (SIG), Conservación Amazónica (ACCA), and the Institute for Forest and Agriculture Management and Certification (IMAFLORA).
Soil and water management in the digital era are key to healthy landscapes
Soil fertility and landscape restoration are increasingly prioritized by countries across the tropics. Regardless of their population or geographic location, they all face a similar challenge: providing food security while restoring landscapes, or at the very least avoid further degradation. But the similarities often end there. From El Salvador to Ethiopia, farmers often receive blanket recommendations that do not account for the particularities of local climates, preferred crops, and soil characteristics. As a result, interventions often include incorrect soil fertilization recommendations or off-target restoration investments, which then cause interventions to fall short of their intended aims.
An entrepreneurial farmer employs water harvesting to prevent erosion, Ethiopia. CIAT/G.Smith
To help fine-tune soil fertility and land-restoration recommendations to different landscapes – which can vary significantly within a single growing area, not to mention a country or region – the Alliance works with big data analytics, digital soil mapping, and water management tools to create site-specific recommendations. Poor access to data on soils and agronomy, however, limits the application of these solutions. In response, Alliance researchers and their partners in Ethiopia created a partnership to demonstrate the importance of increased data sharing and enhanced access.
A maize farmer handles dry soil, El Salvador. CIAT/N.Palmer
The Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture, inspired by and involved with this work, created a national data sharing policy in June 2019 to create a legal framework to support these data-sharing efforts. Today, this policy is accelerating the collection of datasets and the application of big data analytics to develop the appropriate national fertilizer recommendations. The Alliance is part of the coalition leading this work. Our partnership helped create a sub-Saharan-wide tool for spatial soil data access and developed the Global Soil Data Manager, which is also in use.
In Tanzania, new practices are increasing legume productivity and are providing increased food security through staggered harvests. Our leading studies on micronutrients including the recent analyses of economic benefits continue to attract new connections with the fertilizer industry.
In Asia, the assessment of soil microbiome, capacity enhancement for microbial understanding, and utilization of soil microbes in agriculture have been a key focus within the Common Microbial Biotechnology Platform (CMBP). This facility is attracting interests from national universities in the region.
Campaigns to restore degraded landscapes are gaining steam but serious shortcomings persist at the heart of the restoration agenda: a lack of attention to the socio-political dimensions. This can leave aside the most vulnerable, and accentuate existing inequalities for those who could benefit from restored land, including women.
Research fellow Mawa Karambiri with a research participant from Burkina Faso. Bioversity International/M.Karambiri
In the Sahelian region of Burkina Faso, an Alliance restoration study noted that women were underrepresented in research because they are largely excluded from tree-planting initiatives. But the women’s cooperatives in the study showed that they plant many useful trees on the land they work, among other restorative practices, leading to income-generating opportunities and benefits for the environment.
Widows who are members of a women’s self-help group have been allocated collective land to improve their livelihoods. Bioversity International/M.Elias
Green businesses: $100 million green impact fund in Brazil; new investments in Kenya and Peru
2019 was a banner year for the Alliance in Brazil. We opened a new office in the capital, Brasilia, expanded a successful private sector partnership program to more areas, and were the cornerstone investors in a $100 million-impact investment fund for sustainable businesses in the Amazon.
The Althelia Biodiversity Fund Brazil is a unique opportunity to support new economic models that promote biodiversity while using its core expertise to evaluate, understand, and share the learning that this model generates, globally. It is novel in many respects.
It provides flexible venture and growth finance for sustainable businesses that want to have a transformational, positive impact on Amazon biodiversity and local communities. Through the Alliance’s support for this investment fund, we hope it will bring new opportunities for businesses that have the potential to both conserve natural capital and create sustainable economic growth and livelihoods for hard-to-reach communities in the Brazilian Amazon.
“If as an institution we are to deliver impact at scale, we must connect with the rapidly emerging sustainable finance sector and bring our knowledge products and technical capacity to bear on large-scale development initiatives,” said Andy Jarvis, the Alliance’s Associate Director General for Research Strategy and Innovation.
The Partnership Platform for the Amazon (PPA) connects private sector companies around sustainable development and conservation. CIAT/S.Mattson
In addition to supporting the impact fund’s rollout, the Alliance established an office in Brasilia to coordinate our work across Brazil. With Catalyzing and Learning through Private Sector Engagement for Biodiversity Conservation (CAL-PSE), the Alliance formed a unique, new partnership approach with the support of USAID. This initiative falls under USAID Brazil’s private sector engagement (PSE) strategy to conserve biodiversity; which is part of the mission’s Partnerships for the Conservation of Amazon Biodiversity (PCAB), a 10-year bilateral collaboration program with the Government of Brazil. At least six different private sector-led projects are facilitated through CAL-PSE, and soon these efforts will fall under the Partnership Platform for the Amazon (PPA), a rapidly growing collective action network of private sector companies whose aim is to develop and identify innovative solutions for sustainable development and conservation of the Amazon’s biodiversity, forests and natural resources.
During a PPA field visit, researchers meet with cocoa processors. CIAT/S.Mattson
Our interest in mobilizing novel investment for landscape restoration and nature conservation, climate change mitigation, and agriculture development objectives extend beyond Brazil. In Peru, the Sustainable Amazonian Businesses (SAB) project recognizes the importance of generating economic value without deforestation. With this focus, we developed deforestation-free strategies with stakeholders in the oil palm and cacao value chains. These strategies, supported and endorsed by the regional government of Ucayali, provide an example of profitable deforestation-free business models. This pilot project contributes to the aim of the Peruvian government towards the development of public-private coalitions to reduce emissions from deforestation.
A similar approach started in Africa. In Kenya, a landscape restoration model was developed to revitalize agricultural production and restore areas affected by severe erosion processes.