Forests and Food: Thoughts on Our Fear of Working Together
Last week the Yale chapter of the International Society of Tropical Foresters webcast its annual conference, this year focused on Food and Forests: Cultivating Resilient Landscapes. This series of presentations and panel discussions provided a captivating window into the world of forestry expertise, which at times is challenged by increasing requests and requirements to collaborate with the agriculture and food security sectors. In her keynote address, former Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) director general (and current special consultant to the Packard Foundation) Frances Seymour expressed concern about abolishing the barriers between forestry and agriculture.
According to Seymour, “the case for integrating forestry and agriculture across landscapes is abundantly clear.”* But, Seymour noted, there are real risks involved with merging forest interests with agriculture in a new “landscapes” category. Her worry was reinforced through years of fighting for resources for forests as the head of the lone forestry organization within the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) system. “Taxonomy matters in bureaucracy. [...] There is some risk that the forestry part of the figurative landscape would be politically and institutionally overwhelmed by the agricultural part.”
The following two days of discussion and presentation on the issues of food and forests in many ways provided a convincing answer, in the affirmative, to Seymour’s question: Can we safely dismantle the barriers between agriculture and forests? An encouraging number of the young forestry researchers among the panelists seemed invigorated by the challenge of framing forestry concerns within discussions of “landscape” interventions and by the opportunity to collaborate across sectors. Indeed, many presented original research with just such a focus.
In the session titled “Reconciling Interests at the Landscape Scale,” for instance, panelist Jeff Stoike, a doctoral candidate in Yale’s forestry program, presented research he is conducting in rural villages in the Atlantic forests of Brazil on the political ecology of the Brazilian Forest Code. His research seeks first to understand the social and economic situation of these small-scale agriculturalists and the constraints or opportunities that influence their forest use. Understanding the impacts of forest policies on food security and rural poverty at the household level is vital to integrating forestry research and forest interventions into landscape approaches.
However, as Seymour mentioned in her address, there is a gap in the “empirical middle,” between the local and the global levels. In other words, more research is needed on the linkages between malnutrition, health, livelihoods, deforestation and climate change at the landscape scale. The anxiety around landscapes felt by today’s forestry researchers reflects a high level of discomfort, and a lack of training, in working beyond or between disciplinary or sectoral boundaries. Of course, this new paradigm of cross-sectoral and landscape-scale research poses similar difficulties in many other disciplines, from agronomy to hydrology to zoology.
Jonah Busch of Conservation International put the challenge this way: ”We’ve got a big ask of agricultural landscapes. We want to see food production and food security. We want to see rural development. We want to see good governance. We want to see climate results.” We will need multiple interventions for these multiple goals, and they will likely come from their traditional sectors. Examining the interactions between all the variables in the landscape, rather than just those traditionally counted in that particular sector, is the additional step required by the landscape approach. It was evident at the ISTF conference that many young forestry professionals are taking that mandate seriously. With young foresters contributing invaluable forestry expertise while also embracing the value of the landscape approach, we can craft the projects, programs and policies that will help landscapes deliver all of the outcomes we need.
* The importance of the landscape approach in forestry was reinforced Tuesday, when the Guardian reported on the World Bank’s Internal Evaluation Group (IEG) upcoming report on the past decade of forestry lending that said that the Bank’s lending had failed to reduce rural poverty, and that integrated, community-based forest management had been neglected by the bank, despite its record as the most effective form of forestry management for poverty reduction. See this story in the Guardian UK for more.