Integrated Planning and Management of Land ResourcesFAOCSDUNEP
World Summit on Sustainable Development, South Africa 2002

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Looking Forward to Rio+10: Reporting Progress on Land and Agriculture

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Message 39

Subject: Message 39 - Contribution by Miguel Altieri Date: Tue, 20 Mar 2001 10:39:54 +0100 From: RIO10-Moderator To: "'RIO10-L@mailserv.fao.org'" Dear Colleagues: Let me elaborate a bit on how we get from here to there when dealing with issues of food security and natural resources management for the millions of resource-poor farmers yet untouched by modern science. Perhaps the most significant realization at the end of the 20th century is the fact that areas characterized by traditional and peasant agriculture remain poorly served by the conventional transfer-of-technology approach, due to its bias in favor if modern scientific knowledge and its neglect of local participation and traditional knowledge. The historical challenge of the international agricultural community is therefore to refocus its efforts on marginalized farmers and their agroecosystems and assume responsibility for the welfare of their agriculture. The urgent need to combat rural poverty and to conserve and regenerate the deteriorated resource base of small farms requires an active search for new kinds of agricultural research and resource management strategies. NGOs have long argued that a sustainable agricultural development strategy that is environmentally enhancing must be based on agroecological principles and on a more participatory approach for technology development and dissemination. Focused attention to the linkages between agriculture and natural resource management will help greatly in solving the problems of poverty, food insecurity, and environmental degradation. To be of benefit to the rural poor, agricultural research and development should operate on the basis of a "bottom-up" approach, using and building upon the resources already available: local people, their knowledge and their autochthonous natural resources. It must also seriously take into consideration, through participatory approaches, the needs, aspirations and circumstances of smallholders. This means that from the standpoint of poor farmers, innovations must be: Input saving and cost reducing Risk reducing Expanding toward marginal-fragile lands Congruent with peasant farming systems Nutrition, health and environment improving Although statistics on the number and location of resource-poor farmers vary considerably, it is estimated that about 1.9 to 2.2 billion people remain directly or indirectly untouched by modern agricultural technology. In Latin America, the rural population is projected to remain stable at 125 million until the year 2000, but over 61% of this population is poor and is expected to increase. The projections for Africa are even more dramatic. The majority of the rural poor (about 370 million of the poorest) live in areas that are resource-poor, highly heterogeneous and risk prone. Their agricultural systems are small scale, complex and diverse. The worst poverty is often located in arid or semi-arid zones, and in mountains and hills that are ecologically vulnerable (Conway, 1997). These areas are remote from services and roads and agricultural productivity is often low on a crop by crop bases, although total farm output can be significant. Such resource-poor farmers and their complex systems pose special research challenges and demand appropriate technologies that are: Based on indigenous knowledge or rationale Economically viable, accessible and based on local resources Environmentally sound, socially and culturally sensitive Risk averse, adapted to farmer circumstances Enhance total farm productivity and stability Many agroecologists have argued that the starting point in the development of new pro-poor agricultural development approaches is the very systems that traditional farmers have developed and/or inherited. Such complex farming systems, adapted to the local conditions, have helped small farmers to sustainably manage harsh environments and to meet their subsistence needs, without depending on mechanization, chemical fertilizers, pesticides or other technologies of modern agricultural science. The persistence of millions of hectares under traditional agriculture in the from of raised fields, terraces, polycultures, agroforestry systems, etc., document a successful indigenous agricultural strategy and comprises a tribute to the "creativity" of small farms throughout the developing world. These microcosms of traditional agriculture offer promising models for other areas as they promote biodiversity, thrive without agrochemicals, and sustain year-round yields. For years several NGOs in the developing world have been promoting agroecologically-based NRM approaches. Such organizations argue that a sustainable agricultural development strategy that is environmentally enhancing must be based on agroecological principles and on a more participatory approach for technology development and dissemination. Agroecology provides a methodological framework for understanding the nature of farming systems and the principles by which they function. It is the science that provides ecological principles for the design and management of sustainable and resource - conserving agricultural systems - offering several advantages for the development of farmer-friendly technologies. Agroecology relies on indigenous farming knowledge and selected modern technologies to manage diversity, incorporate biological principles and resources into farming systems, and intensify production. Thus it provides for an environmentally sound and affordable way for smallholders to intensify production in marginal areas. Since the early 1980s, hundreds of agroecologically-based projects were promoted by NGOs throughout the developing world which incorporate elements of both traditional knowledge and modern agricultural science, featuring resource-conserving yet highly productive systems, such as polycultures, agroforestry, and the integration of crops and livestock, etc. Such alternative approaches can be described as low-input technologies and practices, but this designation refers to the external inputs required. The amount of labor, skills, and management that are required as inputs to make land and other factors of production most productive is quite substantial. So rather than focus on what is not being utilized, it is better to focus on what is most important to increase food output- labor, knowledge and management. Agroecological alternative approaches are based on using locally available resources as much as possible, though they do not reject the use of external inputs. Farmers cannot benefit from technologies that are not available, affordable, or appropriate to their conditions. Purchased inputs present special problems and risks for less-secure farmers, particularly where supplies and the credit to facilitate purchases are inadequate. The analysis of dozens of NGO-led agroecological projects show convincingly that agroecological systems are not limited to producing low outputs, as some critics have asserted. Increases in production of 50 to 100 percent are fairly common with most alternative production methods. In some of these systems, yields for crops that the poor rely on most- rice, beans, maize, cassava, potatoes, barley - have been increased by several-fold, relying on labor and know-how more than on expensive purchased inputs, and capitalizing on processes of intensification and synergy. More important than just yields, it is possible to raise total production significantly through diversification of farming systems, such as raising fish in rice paddies or growing crops with trees, or adding goats or poultry to household operations in many countries. Agroecological approaches increased the stability of production as seen in lower co-efficients of variance in crop yield with better soil and water management. It is difficult, however, to quantify all the potentials of such diversified and intensified systems because there is too little research and experience to establish their limits. Nevertheless, data from agroecological field projects show that traditional crop and animal combinations can often be adapted to increase productivity when the biological structuring of the farm is improved and labor and local resources are efficiently used. In fact, most agroecological technologies promoted by NGOs can improve traditional agricultural yield increasing cereal output per area of marginal land from some 400-600kg/ha to 2000-2500 kg/ha. Enhancing also the general agrobiodiversity and its associated positive effects on food security and environmental integrity. Some projects emphasizing green manures and other organic management techniques can increase maize yields from 1-1.5 t/ha (a typical highland peasant yield) to 3-4 t/ha. Polycultures produce more combined yield in a given area than could be obtained from monocultures of the component species. Most traditional or NGO promoted polycultures exhibit LER values greater than 1.5. Moreover, yield variability of cereal/legume polycultures are much lower than for monocultures of the components. In general, data shows that over time agroecological systems exhibit more stable levels of total production per unit area than high-input systems; produce economically favorable rates of return; provide a return to labor and other inputs sufficient for a livelihood acceptable to small farmers and their families; and ensure soil protection and conservation as well as enhance biodiversity. Recent data gathered by Jules Pretty and his group at Essex demonstrates that more than 9 million households have used agroecological approaches regenerating about 29 million hectares throughout the developing world. This has been done with one tenth of what goes to the CGIAR yearly (CG's budget is about 330 million). Isn't time that donors bet on this new approach, which is more cost-effective, more directly touching the poor and with very little transactions costs? Miguel A. Altieri

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