Amid multiple global crises, global forestry and agroforestry centres “reset” with engagement landscapes

New people-and-nature approach eschews one-size-fits-all

By Cathy Watson

As COVID-19 heaps further damage upon a world already reeling from crises such as climate change and biodiversity loss, two centres focused on nature-based solutions are building “engagement landscapes” for more durable resilience.

Leaders at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry describe these engagement landscapes as discrete geographic areas where CIFOR-ICRAF will concentrate for transformational change. Larger and longer term than projects, engagement landscapes involve myriad partners and a focus on nature.

“We are building new and consolidating existing partnerships for place-based reasearch and impacts. We know it is complex and difficult and that surprises are inevitable. But it is timely, and it will work,” said CIFOR-ICRAF director of science Robert Nasi.

“For too long we thought we could simplify nature and impose solutions,” said CIFOR-ICRAF director of innovation, impact and investment Ravi Prabhu. “But we now know that it is much smarter to listen to both nature and the people who live in these landscapes.”

According to the newly minted CIFOR-ICRAF 2020-2030 Strategy, an engagement landscape may be a new geographical area or one where either or both of the centres already work, like the Sahelian parklands. All will capture critical dimensions “such as challenges arising from political economy, governance, policies and the needs of differing social groups”.

In CIFOR-ICRAF’s 30-plus countries, engagement landscapes are releasing a new energy. Delia Catacutan is one scientist with her shoulder to the wheel. Her “engagement landscape” is the Asian drylands.

Few think of Asia as arid, but even Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar with their rainforests are among the 38 Asian states with large expanses that receive scant rain and degrade easily.

“Very little attention is given to these areas that tend to be poor and have soil with little organic matter,” said Catacutan. “With technical, political and implementation partners, we plan to restore 2 million ha.”

The Andhra Pradesh engagement landscape, which was severely damaged by high input chemical agriculture but is now undergoing a natural farming transformation. Photo by C. Watson

ICRAF’s coordinator for SE Asia said that the concept of working across a landscape is not new. However, the use of the word “engagement” is novel.

“We speak of ‘learning landscapes’ where knowledge is co-produced with farmers. But ‘engagement’ has a more social appeal. It connotes action.”

Javed Rizvi who works on engagement landscapes in India and Sri Lanka said that one of their biggest benefits is that the focus is not on a single problem.  “We focus holistically which is better for inducing transformational change,” said ICRAF’s South Asia director. “These are complex socially-differentiated agricultural areas.”

CIFOR-ICRAF has actual or potential engagement landscapes in at least 15 geographies, including: Central Asia, perilously reliant on meltwater from glaciers that are shrinking; San Martin in Peru where deforestation resurged in 2018;  Pará in Brazil, a priority for tackling the Amazon tipping-point; and East and Central Africa’s borderlands, home to millions of refugees.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, under FORETS, a European Union-funded project, CIFOR-ICRAF is conducting research for development and building foresters’ capacity in the Yangambi landscape. It faces grave threats, among them, shifting cultivation and demand for resources such as charcoal, timber and wild meat in the city of Kisangani degrading a 235,000 ha biosphere reserve.

For Paolo Cerutti, the senior CIFOR scientist managing the project, engagement means that ”you get into the ring for the long term.”

“An engagement landscape is as innovative and successful as the people you are able to bring to the planning table and through implementation,” he said. “Currently, local government, private sector, farmers and non-governmental organizations exist in silos. The engagement must build bridges across sectors for both nature and people.” 

Fergus Sinclair traces thinking on engagement landscapes back to an Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research-funded project in Viet Nam’s steeply sloping northwest. After the project engaged more deeply with more farmers on more of the landscape, there was a step change in government support for agroforestry.

“La Nguyen, our project head, realized that sparsely spread farmer trials were not very visible,” explained the ICRAF principal scientist. “But when he got a third of the farmers in a valley to adopt, policymakers flocked to see the transformation, and he was inundated by requests from neighboring farmers for planting material for themselves. It was catalytic.”

The northwest Viet Nam project began as an “exemplar landscape” but is evolving into an “engagement landscape” as more and more farmers adopt agroforestry. Photo by C. Watson

If addressing a whole landscape more comprehensively can lead to greater adoption of a practice that benefits both livelihoods and nature, a project that is relatively limited in scope can also grow into an “engagement landscape” as the community demands more of it and partners and donors pile in.

This has been the case in India, where the government of Andhra Pradesh is promoting a natural farming approach without synthetic inputs. ICRAF has been examining its scientific basis with funding from philanthropist Azim Premji. Encouraged, other donors offered support. It is now an engagement landscape.

It was also there at a workshop on reversing desertification that the characteristics of an engagement landscape were fleshed out. They include being community driven, having “sufficient scale to allow problems to be addressed without artificial reduction of complexity”, and taking “the problems of the context as the departure point for innovation rather than applying a more general technology and expecting stakeholders to adapt.”

In short, engagement landscapes are big, long, people-led, nature-positive, action-oriented, science-informed multi partner undertakings that concentrate in a geography to address not just the destruction of nature that led to COVID, but damaged ecosystems, hunger and other existential challenges.

Davison Gumbo is a senior CIFOR scientist in Zambia and a world expert on Miombo, Southern Africa’s woodlands. He has plenty to worry about. They are, he said, experiencing, the “usual scenario. The trees and grasses are going.” Nevertheless, he is optimistic about engagement landscapes.   “If properly delineated they can bring that vertical spread of institutions and partners that is essential for impact. And let’s remember. Nature is the center piece of the landscape.

Cathy Watson is Chief of Partnerships for CIFOR-ICRAF.