Silvopastoral systems can boost ecosystem and farmer wellbeing while mitigating climate change.
Despite government commitments to reduce net deforestation to zero, millions of farmers depend on agricultural land converted from forests. Unsustainable agricultural practices lead to poor soil health, creating pressure to clear more land for cultivation and reinforcing the cycle of deforestation and degradation. Silvopastoral agriculture could reverse this destructive trend. Trees, shrubs and improved grasses on grazing land help minimize erosion and improve soil health while providing shade and feed for livestock. This translates into increased productivity, stocking rates and revenues. It also improves the prospects of smallholder farmers and helps mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration.
This can only be achieved through collaboration between farmers, scientists, investors and governments. Such a framework is being implemented by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT, now part of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT) with WLE support to address the massive problem of deforestation in the Amazon. In Peru and Colombia, within whose territories almost a quarter of the Amazonian rainforest is contained, the Sustainable Amazonian Landscapes project has applied a multi-scale landscape approach to the conversion of farmers to silvopastoral systems.
Aligning with national commitments on net zero deforestation, researchers are going beyond an understanding of restoration limited to planting trees to incorporating environmental and human wellbeing. They are working with local rural communities, regional and national governmental authorities, and research institutions to support farmers with production strategies to deliver ecosystem services and socio-economic benefits while mitigating climate change. The project designed, evaluated and implemented alternative agricultural options, then assessed changes with sustainability indicators, identified pathways and improved monitoring.
The project co-designed and jointly implemented sustainable production alternatives with 42 farmers across 262 hectares in Colombia and Peru. It then used this network of pilot farms to disseminate practices and knowledge among farmers. In exchange for technical support to convert conventional agricultural systems to silvopastoral systems, farmers agreed to conserve or restore other parts of their farms, including intact forest and water sources – which also opened up the possibility of connecting landscapes across farms. Though these agreements were not legally binding, the commitment of long-marginalized farmers should not be underestimated. In fact, the Sustainable Land Use Systems project and BioSmart have found that the opportunity to receive permanent technical assistance and support in their transition from conventional farming is empowering for smallholders.
But sustainability embraces many dimensions – from the biophysical to the financial. In Colombia, these pilot farms enabled FINAGRO, a second-tier agricultural bank, to develop a prototype of a soft loan to incentivize conversion to sustainable silvopastoral systems that was subsequently granted to 14 farmers. This included an incentive to release pastureland for restoration, with guidelines that could be used to scale-up silvopastoral systems nationally under Colombia’s National Sustainable Livestock Policy.
The ultimate goal of restoration through silvopastoral practices is to reduce pressure on forests and create sustainable landscapes that benefit both people and the environment. A landscape approach is essential so researchers and decision makers can avert unintended consequences or ‘leakages’, for instance when changes in herd composition and size lead to grazing pressure elsewhere. Accordingly, safeguards need to be in place, such as measures to avoid using the male calves produced by dairy systems using silvopastoral practices as input to beef systems.
Restoration will not succeed simply through inclusion in government climate change strategies. Evidence is needed to demonstrate that sustainable land management works for forests, soils and farmers. The evidence gap that the project worked to fill, and the enthusiasm of farmers in engaging with researchers to co-design their farms, indicate there is a need for government support. The Sustainable Land Use Systems project and WLE are exploring silvopastoral scaling-up in Colombia, and will provide recommendations to secure government support. In El Salvador, a ten-year restoration project is using innovations supported by WLE on digital mapping and soil fertility to guide restoration activities. As in Colombia, technical assistance is about more than transferring information about innovations – it is about accompanying farmers on a journey towards sustainability, one that combines scientific knowledge with practical knowledge and local context to provide land management options attractive to producers in Latin America.