Impressions from a conference: Sustainable land management

By Joern Fischer

I’m currently at the final conference of one of the largest funding programmes worldwide focusing specifically on sustainable land management – funded by the German Ministry for Research and Education and briefly summarized here. This morning I joined a session on human well-being, social and cultural issues linked to ecosystem services. In this post, I just wanted to highlight some of the talks that I found particularly engaging.

The project GLUES presented its findings first. Stefan Schmidt discussed uncertainties in benefits transfer when valuing ecosystem services. A key problem is that most existing studies come from relatively wealthy settings, and so their transferability to poorer settings may be questionable. In terms of variables that explained uncertainty in transferability, ecological variables appeared to be most important. [Published in PLoS One].

Johannes Förster was interested in what kind of information on ecosystem services was actually relevant to decision makers. He argued that most of the time valuation is conducted, it is in fact still just a scientific exercise, but is not used to inform actual decisions. To this end, he contrasted insights from SuMaRiO (China), INNOVATE (Brazil), SuLaMa (Madagascar) and LEGATO (Vietnam – see here, for an overview of projects). In these different settings, what kinds of information do decision makers need? – Perhaps most importantly, Johannes pointed out that successful assessments require early engagement with stakeholders (or even co-design). Such engagement is needed to develop trust and a common understanding, as well as define goals and understand the scope and limitations of a given ES assessment. [The paper from this work was published in Ecology & Society]

Following these initial two talks, Regine Schönenberg presented work from the Carbiocial project. This project focused on Brazil, and Regine specifically examined the life histories of pioneers along an Amazonian highway – understanding these individuals’ life histories, she argued, could help to understand patterns of land use change. Drawing on the biographies of local people, so-called “leitmotifs” or key themes were identified. A first leitmotif thus identified was that local people in this area wanted to remain living where they were. A second one was that people were looking for agricultural advice, but the only free advice available came from agricultural multi-national corporations such as Monsanto or Cargill. A third was that local (non-ecosystem) services (including things like access to health care) mattered to people, and influenced their decision whether to move or stay. Similarly to Johannes in the previous talk, Regine emphasized the fundamental importance (in this case regarding policy effectiveness) of engaging local people and respecting their understandings of the world. [This work is published in the book Sempre pra Frente.]

Jimmy Cabbigat then provided a farmer’s perspective from the Phillippines, where he worked (as a stakeholder) with the LEGATO project. He shared his impressions of local irrigation systems. Traditionally, people had used communal irrigation for hundreds of years, in a spirit of helping one another to produce rice. However, with culture and socioeconomic context changing, traditional irrigation systems are deteriorating. He implied that maintaining traditional systems should be a high priority, and that research projects could play a useful role in helping to draw attention to such issues.

Regina Neudert presented findings from SuLaMa, focusing on livelihood challenges in SW Madagascar. She used household surveys, market surveys, and role playing with local people. Based on a clustering of revenue shares from household data, she identified six main types of livelihood strategy – groups using different combinations of farming, fishing, and livestock husbandry to make a living, and these groups also differed in wealth, education, and ethnicity. Notably, most households pursued multiple income-generating activities, which complemented one another in different ways and at different times of year. [Some of Regina’s work is published, e.g. here].

SuMaRiO, represented by Martin Welp, was up next, focusing (in this sub-project) on urban green space and human well-being in Aksu in NW China, particularly from an institutional perspective. Dust and sand storms are seen as the main problem in this city, and for this reason, large shelterbelt plantations were established in the mid 1980s. Amongst these shelterbelt, in turn, orchards have been established. Interestingly, these areas used to be purely government-sponsored, but have now become self-supporting and are being leased out to private farmers. Locally, the project is widely regarded as a success, but because water is used for irrigation, there are negative downstream effects (where water scarcity has been exacerbated). More generally, Martin argued, there was a continuum in urban greening being instigated by governments versus by communities.

To conclude, and although I was unable to cover all presentations in this blog post, this session highlighted (1) the popularity of the ecosystem services framework among scientists, (2) the importance of genuinely engaging with local realities and stakeholders in both research and policy, and (3) the contextual nature of solving real-world problems.

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