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Ecoagriculture - the harvest of the future

By Oscar Arias Sanchez - posted Tuesday, 15 January 2002

The environment ministers of the nations of the Caribbean and Latin America gathered in Rio de Janeiro recently to discuss an agenda for the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. A major theme of next year’s World Summit in Johannesburg—also known as Rio + 10—will be the critical issue of poverty in conjunction with conservation. Where poor and hungry people have few options other than to encroach on the environment for a day’s pay, conservation efforts will be stymied. This issue must be as familiar to Brazilians as it is to Costa Ricans: the need for more food and better livelihoods continue to sidetrack conservation efforts worldwide.

There is another way. A recent report identifies a new approach emerging around the world, which scientists call "ecoagriculture." Instead of working against each other, farmers and environmentalists work together to find farming methods that both produce more food and preserve the environment. From grazing lands to coffee plantations to rice paddies, farmers and scientists are finding ways to preserve biodiversity within largely agricultural landscapes. As environment ministers continue to meet about Rio + 10, they would be wise to examine this groundbreaking approach to conservation.

The report—a joint effort by Future Harvest, a global nonprofit organization that promotes research in agriculture and the environment, and IUCN, The World Conservation Union—brought together agricultural and environmental scientists to provide for the first time a comprehensive summary of the interactions between wild biodiversity and agriculture around the world. Entitled Common Ground, Common Future, the report points out that the most popular approach to protecting wildlife has been to fence off large areas for preservation where farming is restricted. This approach makes sense at one level, and debt-for-nature swaps were a priority for my administration in Costa Rica.


However, research shows that nature reserves alone will not solve the problem, as endangered species and hungry humans often occupy the same land. The effectiveness of reserves depends greatly on whether the uses of surrounding lands support conservation objectives. Moreover, almost half the world’s major nature reserves are now being heavily used for agriculture.

Indeed, the need for more food—and more farming—is urgent and growing in the developing world. More than 1.1 billion people live within the 25 most threatened, species-rich areas of the world—dubbed "biodiversity hotspots" by scientists. The majority of these hotspots are also areas with very high malnutrition rates. In many of them, the human population is growing more rapidly than in the world as a whole.

Clearly, the answer to biodiversity conservation cannot be to stop growing food. Nor is it to keep farming the old way. The Future Harvest report cites six ways in which farmers can change their agricultural practices.

These strategies include:

  1. establish networks of wildlife habitat in non-farmed areas and connect these with larger protected areas;
  2. integrate perennial plants into farming systems to mimic natural habitats such as forests and savannas;
  3. deploy farming methods that reduce pollution;
  4. increase agricultural productivity on lands already being farmed to reduce further conversion of land to agriculture;
  5. modify soil, water, and vegetation management in crop fields and other productive areas to enhance their value as wildlife habitat; and
  6. establish protected areas near farmlands, ranches, and fisheries that also benefit local people.

Case studies are found around the world, where these strategies are being used successfully to produce more food while also protecting endangered species. One example comes from Brazil’s Mata Atlantica, home to lion tamarin monkeys found no where else in the world, as well as hundreds of bird species and rich flora. As a result of five centuries of population growth and land clearing, only seven per cent of the original forest remains. Today, small-scale dairy farming is one of the most important economic activities in the area, but the practice has put farmers at odds with conservationists because the cattle require ever-expanding areas for pasture.


Since the mid-1990s, the non-governmental organization Pro-Natura has provided technical assistance to poor dairy farmers to improve farm productivity; in exchange, the farmers are helping to reforest and regenerate part of their land. Farmers saw their milk yields triple and their incomes double. With the increase in productivity, farmers have reduced the area devoted to pasture. More than 60 hectares of pasture on 16 farms have already been converted back to forest. In addition, more than 50,000 seedlings have been planted on farms and in rural communities.

Shifting to ecoagriculture on a large scale will require a change in mindset for many farmers, environmentalists, and policymakers who have often been at odds. However, the payoff is great. Environment ministers in Brazil and across South and Central America should examine this new approach to growing food to help solve an important dilemma that has dogged conservation efforts for decades. It offers hope that humans and wildlife can share common ground and prosper in a common future.

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This article originally appeared in the Brazilian newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo in Portuguese, and on the Future Harvest website, in English. It has also appeared in The Canberra Times.

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About the Author

Oscar Arias Sanchez, 61, Nobel Peace Laureate 1987, is an ambassador for the organization Future Harvest. He is a former President of Costa Rica.

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