Event Coverage

Re-thinking investment in landscapes to aid sustainable development

Combining innovation in both public and private investment in household enterprises is the key to restore and maintain healthy landscapes.

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WARSAW, Poland (17 December 2013) — As scientists strategize about how best to introduce a holistic, “landscapes” approach to balance tradeoffs between conservation and development, policymakers and practitioners are considering how they can “invest” in landscapes, and whether they can be billed as investment opportunities.

Such topics were discussed at an event hosted by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF).

Around the world, investments are being made in agricultural development, hydropower, mining, and road construction projects, which will affect vast areas of land. Green growth and climate-resilient growth policy agendas are also capturing the attention of large-scale investment programs, primarily for infrastructure.

“Will these investments bring sustainable development, healthy ecosystems and equitable societies?” asked Deborah Bossio, soils research area director with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) at the event, which was held on the sidelines of U.N. climate talks in Warsaw, Poland.

“Perhaps our goal, rather than haggling over definitions, should be to ensure that large investments already taking place are implemented in ways that are more sustainable,” Bossio said.


In the years since the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, focus has turned to increasing production while also mitigating the negative impacts of agriculture. Climate change has sharpened this focus.

Speakers at the GLF session argued that policymakers must now go even further than setting targets to reduce negative impacts to achieve sustainable food systems. Policies must now address the complex overarching problems related to the ways people, institutions and regulatory frameworks interact, while considering both the negative impacts of climate change on agricultural production and the negative impacts of agriculture on climate change.

“Looking at the big picture also means focusing on more than climate change; it requires moving towards sustainability while considering the instability of food systems due to economic disturbances and the degradation of natural resources,” Bossio said.

“We believe that if we regard the landscape as the main unit of activity, then we can integrate the uses that make up the landscape and look at supporting its ecosystem services.”

Re-thinking investment can take many forms.


A major watershed management project in Nepal aims to improve livelihoods by managing water, reversing land degradation and improving forest management, said panelist Luna Bharati, a senior researcher of hydrology and water resources with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

The Strategic Technical Assistance to Support the Building Climate Resilience of Watersheds in Mountain Eco-Regions Project, Nepal, coordinated by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Nepal’s Department of Soil Conservation and Watershed Management, will take an agro-ecological approach towards stabilizing upland hill landscapes while bolstering the resilience of the region’s agricultural system by integrating natural resources, including land, trees and water, Bharati said.

Continued dialog is necessary to develop a common language about investment and to explore innovation

Deborah Bossio

This approach is new — in the past, upland watershed development efforts focused only on soil conservation and forest management. IWMI and ADB were able to persuade the government of Nepal to try this integrated approach by providing clear evidence of the benefit that could be gained by managing water for productive purposes up slopes, not only in lower areas. If it works, it will be immediately rolled out throughout ADB and watershed programs run by the government of Nepal.

The goal is to improve water availability for farmers dependent on rainfed agriculture in a region with both uplands and lowlands subject to water insecurity due to extreme seasonal variabilities in rainfall. About 85 percent of rain falls in the area during the four-month rainy season and rushes into valley tributaries, leaving the uplands area water-scarce in the dry season, Bharati said.

Plans include creating a cascade of small farm ponds for irrigation, infiltration ponds to recharge springs and streams, building dams in small mountain streams and creating terraces in the land. Integrating management of water, land and forests is a key component of the strategy.

This multifaceted approach focused on improving people’s livelihoods exemplifies the meaning of a landscape approach: It provides for integrated management of the land, vegetation and water resources for better overall outcomes for people living in the landscape.


Population has more than trebled in Malawi over the past 50 years, taking its toll on forests as farmers search for new land, said Sosten Chiotha, regional program director with Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) in southern Africa.

About 84 percent of employed people in Malawi are dependent on the natural resource sector, Chiotha said.

Government-funded fertilizer subsidy programs have proven that Malawi has the political will to enact large-scale food security projects. New programs to aid in the creation of a more sustainable food system could include incentives for conservation agriculture, including integrated soil fertility management, crop rotation, tree planting, mixed cropping and integrating cropping with livestock production.

Private investment in Malawi currently flows to large-scale timber and tea estates.  Organizing smallholder farmers into formal associations might encourage private investors who often overlook small landholdings due to uncertainties in land ownership, Chiotha said, adding that public-private partnerships into timber and water supply can create compensation schemes encouraging households to improve their surroundings, which provide vital goods and services.

Combining innovation in both public and private investment in household enterprises is the key to restore and maintain healthy landscapes in Malawi, Chiotha said.

Yet neither this scenario nor the one in Nepal bridges the divide between investment capital and sustaining landscapes.

“Continued dialog is necessary to develop a common language about investment and to explore innovation,” Bossio said, until public and private entities build market mechanisms and incentive structures to produce the desired sustainable futures for agricultural landscapes.

For further information on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Deborah Bossio d.bossio@cgiar.org or Louis Verchot at l.verchot@cgiar.org

This work is supported by the CGIAR research program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.

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Topic(s) :   Food security Community forestry Landscapes