Painting a picture of the future agroforestry research landscape

Writer: 
Walter van Opzeeland

The term landscape originates from the Dutch word ‘Landschap’. It was introduced by Flemish and Dutch painters in the 16th century for paintings of natural or rural areas. Landscape painting became a major genre during the golden age of Dutch painting in the 17th century, with painters depicting ‘a bird’s eye view’ of landscapes with people, animals, houses, trees, water and often-dramatic cloud formations that are typical for the Netherlands.

“This vision of landscapes inspires our thinking on future forest and tree resources management,” said ICRAF’s director general Tony Simons during a keynote speech at the IUFRO/FORNESSA conference held at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Nairobi from 26 to 29 June 2012. “Just as the Dutch painters portrayed landscapes as ‘a whole’, we see forest and agricultural landscapes not as ‘segregated’—fields, forests and parks—but as mosaics of ‘integrated landscapes’, for example agroforests. This notion has profound implications for how to manage our landscapes in the future,” Simons argues, “because our institutions still manage these resources as if they are segregated.”

To come up with suggestions for effective landscape policies, scientists first have to find out what is happening at the landscape level. Land health surveillance systems quantify and monitor soils, and help scientists to understand trade-offs among landscape ecosystem services. This analysis gives insight into potential ‘tipping points’ at which land management becomes unsustainable—and what to do to prevent this. Simons cites the land health surveillance research by ICRAF scientist Keith Shepherd that helped to produce the Ethiopia soil information system and a soil carbon map of western Kenya. He also mentions the work of ICRAF scientist Meine van Noordwijk, who is looking at ways of improving landscape ecosystem services by rewarding the rural poor for the environmental services they provide (Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES).

This research has laid the foundation for a new ‘landscape approach’ to natural resource management. An approach that aims to balance production, biodiversity, ecosystem services and functions that all compete for the same scarce resources. To gain a better understanding about how this works, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) has started a ‘sentinel landscapes’ research network. In this long-term research programme, scientists use a common set of research instruments to study and compare six landscapes in Africa, Latin America and South East Asia.

“Research at landscape level has already revealed some clear results about the extent of the damage to our natural resources,” Simons says. One study in West Africa, for example, found that child mortality rates correlate with most degraded areas. However, Simons warns, “Managing landscapes is going to cost billions of dollars. In Africa currently only eight kilos of fertilizer is used per hectare, whereas in China they use two hundred kilos for the same area.” A World Bank report estimates that by 2030 governments in Africa will have to spend US$20 billion annually to support farmers with sustainable land management practices. In Asia this amount is even higher, an estimated 131 billion US$.

 The African kiwi

How this landscape approach could work in practice, was the topic of a presentation on ‘Emergent tree resources for Africa’ by ICRAF scientist August Temu, presented during the ‘Agroforestry: Science, Policy and Practice’ session at the conference. When the scientists looked at the data of African forests and expansion of agricultural land, they made an interesting discovery: “Contrary to common belief,” Temu says, “there is a tendency for tree density to increase with population density.” The scientists point out two reasons for this. First, although most attention goes to rainforests in Africa, more abundant dry forests and woodlands support a much higher number of people, around150 persons per square kilometre compared to an estimated six for rainforests; second, people are now planting more trees on farmlands. As the global demand for tree products and services rises, a greater focus is being placed on Africa’s tree and forest resources. Agroforestry -trees on farms- could help meet this demand, the scientists claim, and even create ‘win-win’ outcomes in terms of profits and ecological services (e.g. the Parkland systems in the Sahel). But for this to become a reality a large number of hurdles have to be overcome, ranging from the availability of tree-based technologies and an appropriate policy environment, to capacity building in growing, harvesting and marketing of tree products. Despite the challenges Temu believes in the potential of commercial tree products for Africa, “The forest is rich, thousands of useful species are still in the wild. It all depends on our ability to find new species and domesticate them. We might even come up with an African wild variety as successful as the kiwi.”

Other articles by Walter van Opzeeland:

Secrets of the Central African bush trade.

Can REDD make Africa greener?

Read other related stories.

Walter van Opzeeland

Walter is an independent communications consultant with almost ten years experience in writing about agricultural research for development in Africa. He worked as a global communications officer for the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) from 2003 to 2006. For the past five years he he has been working as a freelance communications and project management consultant for various international organizations and NGOs in East-Africa. Walter has a Masters in Industrial Engineering & Management and he did a postgraduate course in Journalism, both in the Netherlands.

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