Global conservation scenarios and the role of smallholders — In conversation with Mark van Oorschot

Global conservation scenarios and the role of smallholders — In conversation with Mark van Oorschot

the Netherlands - 31 March, 2022
Koen KustersKoen Kusters

Environmentally friendly smallholder farming can contribute to biodiversity conservation in tropical forested landscapes. But the question is whether such farming systems can be successful business models, says Mark van Oorschot. Van Oorschot is senior researcher on international biodiversity policies at the Department of Nature and Rural Areas of PBL— the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Here he talks with Koen Kusters about the role of smallholders in the context of global conservation objectives.

PBL recently developed two new global conservation scenarios. Could you sketch them?

We produced two scenarios for the upcoming meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, where a new global biodiversity governance framework will be agreed upon by members to the Convention, including targets for the coming decade. First, there is the ‘half earth’ narrative, based on the idea raised by some conservationists to protect half of the earth from human influence. In this view, the focus is on the intrinsic value of nature and biodiversity. The emphasis is on land sparing, and that agricultural production and nature are separated from each other. In agricultural areas, productivity is increased through sustainable intensification using modern technology to stay within global ecological boundaries, and indigenous peoples and local communities are recognized for their role in conservation and sustainable land use. The second narrative is called ‘sharing the planet’. This implies that nature is not only conserved within protected land, but is also integrated in wood and food production areas. This implies preserving natural elements within productive landscapes based on a more functional view on nature’s values and its contributions to people. The dominant production landscape is heterogeneous — a mosaic.

Artboard 29.pngWhat can you say about the different outcomes of these two scenarios?

We evaluated the long-term effects of the scenarios by using the IMAGE-GLOBIO integrated modelling framework. The starting point is that both scenarios aim to achieve global sustainability objectives in terms of biodiversity conservation, climate change and food security. And indeed, it was possible to design coherent storylines to do so, by combining a large set of measures in different sectors. But we also found that there are different tradeoffs. For example, in the half earth scenario we see that future deforestation is reduced and that more carbon is stored, but at the same time we also see that food prices rise because agricultural land becomes scarcer. In the sharing the planet scenario, yields are lower, requiring more agricultural land to meet demands, leaving less land available to set-aside for strict protection.

What is the role of smallholders in these scenarios?

The scenarios provide a background for the kind of agricultural systems we think are necessary to feed the world and meet the targets of climate and biodiversity conventions. The scenarios were not designed around the role of smallholders, so I can only speculate. In the half earth scenario, the role for smallholders is not clearly articulated, but I could imagine that it would imply some level of land concentration and agricultural intensification. Some smallholders might be able to adapt and scale-up, depending on whether they can acquire capital for investments, but many of them will probably have to find other sources of income. That doesn't necessarily mean they would leave the agricultural sector, because there may be employment in supply chains that serve both local and international markets. In the sharing the planet scenario, smallholders may have a more prominent role. They make use of nature’s services in diverse agricultural systems in mosaic landscapes, where there is less emphasis on agricultural intensification and quotemark.pnginputs. For smallholders, the overall question is whether they can generate enough revenue streams and income from their agricultural practices, and whether they will be fairly paid for producing sufficient and healthy food, and for providing ecosystems services such as carbon storage and clean water.

Do you doubt that smallholder farming will be economically viable in the future?

Indeed I wonder. The incomes of Dutch farmers have been under pressure, and consequently we have seen a steady increase in farm size in the last few decades, requiring large investments. In the Netherlands, small scale agricultural production has not proved to be a successful business model, so how could it be in the Global South? I realise that you can’t really compare smallholders in the South with Dutch farmers who are mostly focussed on producing efficiently for international markets. But we should acknowledge the fact that small scale agriculture can sometimes also function as a poverty trap, and that change is needed. You often hear 'small is beautiful', but I don’t think that that should be a starting point. I am not saying that small scale farming is never an option, but it may require a completely different form.

What would that form of smallholder farming be?

What we see in the Netherlands is the development of mixed enterprises with various revenue streams. A farmer may combine agricultural production, with recreation and marketing that emphasizes local production, trying to make value out of more sustainable production methods. A big question is what are the options for such small scale mixed enterprises in the South. I see most potential in the application of modern, locally appropriate techniques, giving a better family income. Hopefully, this can be combined with sustainable intensification, for example via regenerative agroforestry systems, that could improve smallholder resilience in the face of climate change and market fluctuations, while maintaining and improving ecosystem connectivity.

What type of support would smallholders require for this?

First of all, farmers need to be sure about land ownership before they can invest. Empowerment via cooperatives or even broader landscape partnerships can support this. We also have to set better prices for ecologically produced agrocommodities and pay and reward farmers for managing their systems in combination with, for instance, water and carbon services. Specific support programmes can be used to provide smallholders with knowledge and capital to invest in sustainable practices and adapt to new market dynamics, either local or global.

What is the value of the scenarios for an organization like Tropenbos International?

Scenarios can stimulate the thinking about the future of agriculture and smallholders. They provide insight into what needs to change in order to solve major global problems. They are a lens through which you can look, helping to get a clearer view of the choices that have to be made, in different regions and for different groups of actors. But, of course, scenarios sketch abstract archetypes. In practice, we have to look at local and regional sustainability needs, and then see how those can best be met. This is likely to involve a combination of the elements of both scenarios, depending on the local situation and context. In reality, I don’t really think it will ever be a case of ‘either or’. The next step for more detailed scenario development should involve ground truthing and reality checks. Tropenbos could be part of this challenge, bringing in valuable experience from the field.

Photo Mark.jpgMark van Oorschot is senior researcher on international biodiversity policies at the Department of Nature and Rural Areas of PBL— the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. He has worked on integrating the forestry sector in global models on land-use and biodiversity. In recent years he has focused efforts on evaluating Dutch international policies on the sustainability of supply chains for wood and agrocommodities, and on integrating values of biodiversity and natural capital into private and public decision making. 

This website uses cookies. More information.