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Understanding the relationship between Forests and Agriculture: the need for a landscape approach

Author: Richard McNally. Source: Landscapes for People, Food and Nature

The agriculture sector sustains the livelihoods of millions of smallholder families and is at the centre of national policies to alleviate rural poverty. However, this need for land for agriculture is also the main driver of deforestation and land degradation. A major challenge is how to encourage pro-poor agricultural development while mitigating deforestation and associated greenhouse gas emissions. There continues to be a lack of depth of understanding of the relationship between the forest and agriculture sectors, which can and has led to erroneous or partial solutions.

The Netherlands Development Organisation SNV has produced a report under the REDD+, Energy and Agriculture Program entitled Finding the right balance: exploring forest and agriculture landscapes. It provides insights into the relationship and helps decision makers identify and introduce appropriate interventions that can balance objectives in the forestry and agriculture sectors. Stronger regulation and planning at a landscape level are critical ingredients in order to achieve this.

Agricultural intensification and forest protection

One commonly cited option to reconcile agricultural development and forest protection, which has garnered much support, is through agricultural intensification; the basic idea is that if we can increase agricultural yields per area in order to meet growing global food demand this will reduce the need for more land and hence avoid further encroachment into forested areas.

Agricultural intensification provides huge benefits and can help increase the income of many poor farmers, but it also poses serious risks to forests, primarily by increasing the returns from agriculture and thus increasing incentives for expansion.

While this hypothesis likely holds at the global level, at the local level a number of factors will condition what impact agricultural intensification will have on forested areas.

What is clear is that this relationship can only be properly understood on a case by case basis. In most cases, agricultural intensification strategies need to be combined with stronger regulation and enforcement mechanisms and/or efforts to increase forest rents in order to effectively reduce deforestation.

Addressing this challenge will also require innovative, integrated solutions, while optimizing the land allocation for conservation and agriculture. This highlights the critical need for a landscape approach.

A landscape approach

In order to balance the competing land use goals of agriculture and forestry, it is important to understand the dynamics which drive land-use change across the landscape. A landscape approach also permits alignment with local or district planning processes, enables cross-departmental or ministerial dialogue and facilitates the negotiation of priorities and trade-offs. The case of Brazil clearly shows how the landscape approach in combination with strong regulation and enforcement mechanisms can successfully be applied to increase agricultural production and reduce forest conversion.

Brazil’s success story

Between 2006 and 2011, Brazil managed to reduce its deforestation rate by more than two-thirds from the 1996-2005 average, making the country the largest contributor to reducing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Over the same period, Brazil made major social improvements in reducing poverty, hunger and inequality.

Pastoral land near Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil. Photo: Kate Evans for CIFOR

This accomplishment was made possible through the successful application of a landscape approach.

Key elements of the country’s strategy were a moratorium on deforestation from the beef and soy industries and the zoning of degraded lands for further agricultural expansion. The measures, in combination with stricter law enforcement and strong political leadership, enabled both industries to continue to grow without encroaching into forested areas. Brazil has shown that balancing forest and agriculture objectives in the landscape can be achieved with a strong regulatory framework and an enabling policy environment.

Brazil’s success in reducing deforestation included zoning of areas of degraded land and areas where conversion must be avoided. In line with this approach, SNV has developed a Siting Tool which enables the zoning of areas suitable for sustainable agricultural expansion within a forest-agriculture landscape. Application allows the user to prioritize areas suitable for sustainable agricultural expansion and areas where forest should be conserved, as well as a suite of options in-between.

The solutions will clearly differ from one landscape to the next based on the agriculture-forest interface and the underlying socio-economic, market and policy factors that underpin the likely impact of agricultural on forests.


The report Finding the right balance: exploring forest and agriculture landscapes is available for download here (PDF format). The authors welcome comment here.

Richard McNally is the Global Coordinator for REDD+ and for Climate Smart Agriculture for SNV, the Netherlands Development Organisation. He also manages the REDD+, Energy and Agriculture Program (REAP) which designs program and pilots activities exploring the interface between these three sectors.
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