The unexpected role of rural farmers in promoting environmental protection

Thursday, 11 February, 2016 - 09:28

Agriculture and the demand for food globally pose large challenges and potential threats for societies across the world. Fortunately, some alternative agricultural techniques are more protective of natural resources. One of these alternatives, known as the “integrative landscape management approach, enables different stakeholders to achieve not only agricultural or productive objectives, but also social, economical, conservation and environmental goals. This approach, also called “multi-functional landscapes,” highlights the importance of the managing productive practices (agriculture, livestock or forest production) in a manner that considers the history, geography, socioeconomics and ecological cycles of natural resources outside the farm. It requires that different users — for instance, a community in a forest or a group of people around a watershed — work together to achieve the goals of the landscape approach.

This model exists in different regions around the world, and is supported by governments, NGOs, and research institutions. And while farmers are often viewed as obstacles or “the target group for landscape projects — because agriculture is associated with deforestation, water contamination or depletion of natural resources — new research reveals that these producers can help to promote and scale up these integrative practices.
The research, led by Abigail Hart, researchers from Cornell University, the Rainforest Alliance and Ecoagriculture Partners, aimed to identify the important role played by rural farmers organizations in supporting the multi-functional landscape approach and the conditions that allow these movements to work as promoters. Writing in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, the researchers analyzed six separate farmer movements, of various sizes, in six different countries (Brazil, Bolivia, Canada, Netherlands, Peru, and the Philippines). They define these movements as “self-organized associations of agricultural producers who have convened to pursue collective action.” Using extensive literature review, consultation with experts, and primary accounts by farmers, the researchers studied the activities, practices, and the required conditions through which the organizations are  — or are not — promoting multi-functional landscapes.
When producer organizations such as these farmers groups are formed, their focus and values usually are not centered on environmental issues or landscape management. Instead, their primary concerns involve livelihood, economics, and rights issues. The study found that the agricultural and production practices implemented by the organizations are aligned with agroforestry, environmental integration, and conservation systems. Although not all the associations hold environmental goals within their values and main objectives, the practices that contribute to these objectives are widely used, because those practices secure the achievement of their economic and livelihood goals.
One exceptional example that illustrates the success in marrying different goals is the Rural Landless Workers’ Movementin Brazil. The initial foci of the organization were to increase food security and ensure lands for the members. Once the families were settled next to a protected area, the conservation groups feared the farmers were a threat for the area. Thanks to the use of environmental practices — such as biological corridors, agroforestry, education and protection of forest fragments — the organization contributed to the conservation goals, ameliorating the environmental conditions across the landscape. 
In addition to the practices that sustain environmental protection, the study finds, the associations become engaged and involved making decision for the management of the landscape along with other stakeholders; the multi-benefits for the landscapes are even greater. The farmers become empowered participants and promoters of the shared goals and benefits of the approach, which gives them more tools to implement practices with climate change mitigation potential from their own farms.
The context and the social environment in which the organizations work are fundamental for the success and amplification of their role. The organizations are more likely to contribute and gain from multi-goal landscapes management if are associated with other funding, research, and policy institutions. For instance, organizations that belong to or are connected with broader Producers Movements can better contribute to the diffusion of the management practices and scale up their experiences. In spite of these benefits, this could be a double-edged sword: The membership to these broader organizations can imply a commitment to agricultural practices rooted in the values of the Movements. Such a commitment to specific practices might lead to a decrease in the adaptability capacity of the smaller organizations, which is critical to working at a landscape level.
In summary, the farmers’ movements have the possibility to become key actors for the multifunctional-landscapes advocates, not just as implementers andreceivers of the techniques, but as main promoters of this integrated system off-farm boundaries. The benefits of having farmers playing this role can go beyond the productivity goals, allowing the stakeholders to simultaneously achieve ecological and social goals. And it is important to note that the extent to which the producer movements can influence the land management decisions is related with the institutional, political, economical and social context.
They also provide encouraging examples for professionals seeking to develop multi-approach solutions to complex land management challenges. The study presents interesting cases of successful integration between farmers and their landscape, enabling the achievement of ecological goals. Perhaps this can help to foster the view among policy makers and conservation professionals, that farmers can also be partners endorsing ecological objectives, and not mere receivers of knowledge or threats for the environment.

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