Blurring the boundary between forest and farm, looking at smallholder systems in West Africa

Smallholder systems are complex mosaics, integrating diverse land uses from forestry to agriculture.

Yet policies often draw a sharp dichotomy across landscapes – forestry on one side, agriculture on the other. The resulting mismatch between policy and actual behavior can have unintended consequences for the environment and livelihoods, or mean that opportunities are missed to better support smallholders.

A new Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) project in collaboration with ICRAF and Tree Aid – and supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) – is attempting to alleviate this discrepancy by increasing understanding of the real, ground-level integrated management systems of smallholders and facilitating dialogue between smallholders, policy makers and development practitioners.

“We are targeting the poorest smallholders and women living in mosaic landscapes that combine forestry and farm land uses in Burkina Faso and Ghana. Our research will focus on developing strategies to support adaptive processes important to households in these landscapes,” said Peter Cronkleton, CIFOR Senior Scientist and director of the project.

Smallholders living in mosaic landscapes depend on diverse environmental services and management behavior to provide food security, income and energy. They also produce large quantities of forest products that are crucial to rural populations, especially the poor and households vulnerable to climatic shocks. However, government policies that focus on specific sectors often target competing goals such as conservation or intensified production, introducing distortions or constraints that negatively impact smallholder livelihoods.

“Because conventional policy approaches do not take into account the diversity of land use and integrated production practiced by smallholders, the adaptive nature of these systems for providing resilience to rural livelihoods is underappreciated and these systems’ crucial importance for the rural poor – especially women – is missed,” Cronkleton said.

The West Africa Forest Farm Interface Project (WAFFI) project, supported by IFAD’s Agricultural Research for Development Program, will evaluate how such systems in Burkina Faso and Ghana offer livelihood options for rural people, and identify science-based strategies to strengthen the ability of those systems to supply income and secure food sources.

Cronkleton said, “The goal is to equip policy makers and practitioners with the evidence-base and practical knowledge needed to support smallholder livelihoods strategies and natural resource management systems – adapted to local mosaic landscapes.”

Property rights and access to natural resources are key issues for many smallholders, especially where state ownership overlaps with customary rights, as in Burkina Faso and Ghana. For example, women’s access to resources often depends on customary tree tenure systems that are poorly accommodated under formal property regimes. Without clear authority over important resources, the rural poor struggle to contest infringement on their land and customary rights.

And this is where informed policy becomes key.

“By facilitating greater engagement between farmers, policy makers and practitioners, the project will empower women and the rural poor to sustainably manage the forest-farm interface to improve their livelihoods and incomes,” Cronkleton said.

The project, which started in 2016 and extends to 2018, combines approaches from the biophysical and social sciences with participatory efforts to address the needs of targeted smallholders. Focusing on two multi-village sites in Burkina Faso and Ghana, the WAFFI project recognizes that landscapes that integrate cropland, forests and livestock require integrated institutions and policies.

The project will contribute to and be informed by CIFOR’s, ICRAF’s and Tree Aid’s current and previous work with smallholders in forests and on farms in West Africa, and fruitful collaborations with partners like IFAD. CIFOR is at the forefront of approaches that consider inclusive, mosaic landscapes, and the project is a component of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, allowing for scaling up to consider the contribution of trees and forests to smallholder livelihoods.

“Thanks to this collaboration with IFAD, we expect that evidence generated by this research will contribute to strategies, approaches and actions that take into account the voices of the poor and marginalized to support the livelihoods of smallholders managing the forest-farm interface for improved income, food security and equitable benefits,” Cronkleton said.

For more information about this initiative, please contact CIFOR team leaders and focal points Peter Cronkleton ( and Mathurin Zida (