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Can't we all just work together?: Q&A with Ecoagriculture Partners

Sara Scherr, president and CEO of Ecoagriculture Partners, explains “the whole landscape approach,” which she says is a way to improve biodiversity, ecosystems, and livelihoods simultaneously.
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An employee at Saudi Star rice farm working in Gambella, Ethiopia. (Jenny Vaughan/AFP/Getty Images)

Sara Scherr is president and CEO of Ecoagriculture Partners, an organization that promotes “the whole landscape approach” as a way to improve biodiversity, ecosystems, and livelihoods simultaneously. A report released earlier this month in advance of the Rio+20 conference analyzes the effectiveness and sustainability of this approach.

Q: Could you explain what the whole landscape approach is?

The whole landscape approach means that the people with different interests in a landscape sit down and, rather than fight with one another about it, assess the situation together, do collaborative planning, and try to implement the kinds of investments and land management practices that they use in ways that will at least not hurt, and ideally help the production of the products that come from that land.

Q: Do you have an example of a place where the whole landscape approach is working?

Well, I work a lot in Kenya, and one of the fascinating things about Kenya is that only about 20 percent of their land is really suitable for doing farming. That’s where all there farming comes from. And it’s mostly located in the highland area, which is actually where the main water towers are for the whole area. There are also really large ports and agricultural areas that are located next to or in the middle of major wildlife reserves that are foundations of the tourist industry in Kenya. So you have a situation of a rapidly growing population in a very constrained land area that also is really important for water supplies, and for the tourist industry.

What was happening for many decades is that the agricultural investments weren’t paying attention to those watershed issues, they weren’t paying attention to the wildlife issues, and they weren’t even paying attention, often, to soil degradation issues. And they started to have a serious decline in production. They’ve been really trying to turn that around in recent years by increasing growing agroforestry, by using conservation farming techniques, by having community plans that will protect certain areas near the water sources. In the places where they are doing these things agricultural production is going up, it’s much more secure and much more drought resistant. At the same time, they are improving the cover of the soil, and they are also providing a much better habitat for species. So it’s really showing an example of a win, win, win, strategy for changing food security.

Q: How do you plan on spreading this even further, and making it more mainstream?

We are doing a couple of different things. I would say one of the most important things we’re doing is setting up a network of all these different landscape groups. They come under lots of different names—some of them are groups whose entry point is biodiversity, for some their entry point is land degradation, but they’re all interested in learning together about how to do this more effectively, both from a technical point of view and from a social organization and governance point of view.

We are doing capacity building together with all of our partners, training programs, technical assistance programs, study tours to visit with one another to see how they are doing it. We really want to push this horizontal knowledge between innovators, because the real advances have been made by people in the field who have been trying to solve their own problems locally, and they haven’t been getting very much external support.

We are also trying to work with governments in different parts of the world who already say they want to do this approach. It’s being recognized that this solving things one sector at a time is just not working in most of the developing world, and its not working in the developed world, either. So you start to have these governments who are actually setting themselves up to try to support the whole landscape approach, and they are still figuring out how to operationalize that.

Q: How could this lead to getting rid of hunger in these areas?

If you look at a map of the world and you look at where the hungry people are, where acute things like famine and drought recur, or areas where people can’t be certain that they will get enough food from their land, what you see is that a lot of those areas are the most important biodiversity areas of the world. They’re located in the most important watersheds in the world, so if they’re not paying attention to their farming practices, they can have really negative repercussions on watersheds. These problems are getting worse by the day.

In Ethiopia, which has really chronic problems with hunger and food security, most of the people experiencing that are in areas of severely deteriorating soils and severely deteriorating water resources. And in these places where they go in and make these collaborative investments and interventions in restoring the vegetative cover, in restoring their pasture land, and in increasing the organic matter in their soil, what you get is actually relatively rapid turn-arounds in terms of reduction in hunger and improved nutritional status of children.

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