Smallholders as landscape stewards - In conversation with Pablo Pacheco

Smallholders as landscape stewards - In conversation with Pablo Pacheco

the Netherlands - 12 April, 2022
Koen KustersKoen Kusters

Smallholders should be compensated for their role in protecting the environment, says Pablo Pacheco, WWF’s global forests lead scientist. Here he talks with Koen Kusters about the role of smallholders in tropical forest frontier areas, and the options to improve their livelihoods while maintaining ecological diversity in climate-smart landscapes.

How would you define a smallholder?

Smallholders are rural households whose livelihoods fully or partly rely on the piece of land that they control or own. Smallholders typically depend on their own family labour and may combine subsistence and commercial farming systems. In many situations they also depend on different types of non-farm income.

What different types of smallholders are there?

The most obvious factor used to distinguish smallholders is the size of the land they manage, and there are significant variations between regions. For example, in some parts of the Brazilian Amazon, smallholders may have up to 100 hectares, whereas in Indonesia, smallholders tend to have less than five hectares. Smallholders can also be categorized by looking at other factors such as the availability of family labour, their geographical location, access to markets and logistics, the type of production system adopted, and access to capital and services. When you look at these factors, we see many different types of smallholders, so it is hard to generalize.

How has their role changed over the last decades?

Artboard 26@2x.pngWhen we look at smallholders in forest frontiers in the tropics, changes are associated with the penetration of markets and commercial agriculture. These are areas in transition, and the livelihood strategies of smallholders are also changing. Large scale companies often play a role in these transitions. In Indonesia for example, the involvement of smallholders in establishing oil palm plantations was triggered by companies that built roads, set up mills, put market logistics in place, and attracted rural labour to work on their plantations. This stimulated local smallholders to establish oil palm oil plantations. Also, plantation workers turned into smallholders when they had earned enough money to invest in their own piece of land. In the Amazon we have seen a similar process associated with cattle ranching, where smallholders took advantage of the logistics and markets provided by mid- to large-size ranchers and slaughterhouses, and public finance.

Are there advantages to smallholder-based development?

There are. Landscapes dominated by smallholders tend to be more mixed and heterogeneous compared to landscapes dominated by large companies. Smallholders often tend to diversify their livelihood portfolios, which translates into more diverse mosaic landscapes. Also, in landscapes dominated by large-scale farmers or companies, we often see a concentration of land and income. So, there also is a distributional aspect associated with smallholder economies in more diversified landscapes.

As a researcher at CIFOR and WWF you have been studying the role of smallholders in relation to global conservation, development and climate objectives. What have been your main insights?

My main insight is that there are lots of tradeoffs. In areas far from cities, environmental integrity is high, but smallholders do not have access to services like health care and schooling. Thus, they struggle when they face a health crisis, or when they need to send their children to school. In less remote areas we see that smallholders have better access to services and may be better off, but they face challenges in maintaining the environmental integrity of their farming systems and the landscape.

Is it realistic to envision climate-smart landscapes where smallholders improve their livelihoods while maintaining ecological diversity in the landscape?

Such landscapes provide different social, environmental, and economic functions. The value of these needs to be acknowledged more explicitly, and smallholders should somehow be compensated for their role in quote-PP.pngprotecting the environment. While smallholders usually have a more intimate relationship with the land and nature, it is not always the case that they have certain intrinsic attributes that make them protect the environment. It is also likely that markets will continue to penetrate rural areas and transform smallholder economies. Smallholders have aspirations and needs too, which are also changing. They may want to have cell phones and motorcycles. And they want education and health care. Eventually, public and private actors will need to value and compensate smallholders for their role in protecting nature, to actively play a role as landscape stewards, and to secure key contributions of nature to the wider society. In addition, it is important for smallholders to continue increasing their political bargaining power vis-à-vis these public and private actors.

What are the prospects of agroforestry?

Agroforestry may help to sustain the livelihoods of smallholders and the environmental integrity of landscapes, and it may play a role in restoration processes. There are discussions about the possibility to introduce intercropping systems that could help smallholders to diversify their land uses and economies, and to also enhance resilience and reduce climate and economic risks. For example, there are proposals to intercrop oil palm with other crops in smallholder farms in Indonesia. This is technically possible, but I doubt whether smallholders will eventually adopt this practice, since they tend to see oil palm as a high-income and low-risk crop. That doesn’t mean that agroforestry is not a good option in other contexts. In some areas of Brazil for example, smallholders have had negative experiences when they were overly dependent on one crop, and they now prefer mixed agroforestry systems to help spread risks. But agroforestry is labour and knowledge intensive, which works against its wider adoption.

What about young people — are they staying in the countryside?

Many young people decide to leave, but that doesn’t mean that they disappear from the countryside altogether. Many spend a part of their time in the city, and a part of their time in their place of origin. They don’t want to lose links with their communities. However, if they decide to stay as farmers, their opportunities for accessing land may be constrained, and their search for a livelihood places additional pressures on frontier lands.

Will urbanization help with reducing pressure on the land?

Maybe, but many young people are struggling in the cities, since there are not many opportunities for decent jobs. Young people engage in informal economies with low quality and temporal jobs, especially those who have not received formal education or training. That may be part of the reason why they maintain links with their villages or communities.

Can smallholder economies benefit from these new rural urban linkages?

Yes, I think so. Many young people are now part of two worlds, and they can be a force for transformation. They may also help with developing a wider appreciation for the smallholder economies, and building more interconnected local rural-urban value chains. For example, if urban people have cultural attachments to the countryside, this translates into preferences for local food items, offering opportunities to strengthen local food markets. Also, people in cities tend to be more aware of the environmental benefits that properly managed landscapes may offer, such as regulating water flows and water quality.


Worldwide, the attention for restoration has been increasing. Can this create opportunities for smallholders?

Financial resources for restoration are increasing, but much of this will be private money. Will companies that are looking for carbon offsets be willing to pay for smallholder-based options? And will there be a business model that makes restoration attractive for smallholders? If there are no attractive restoration models for smallholders, it is likely that finance for restoration will target large scale plantations of fast-growing species. Smallholder restoration systems will be successful only if there are systems in place that reward the provision of additional social and environmental values.

We speak of smallholders when we talk about agriculture, while we speak of communities when we talk about forest management. Does the distinction make sense?

It is understandable, but it is a false distinction. Agriculture is assumed to be practiced in individual plots, but that is not necessarily the case. Smallholders may combine individual and collective management systems. In contrast, forestry is assumed to be undertaken by communities or smallholder groups, but this is not necessarily the case, as some forests may be managed by individual smallholders. An issue with many community forestry initiatives is that models of forest management were inspired by commercial operations involving large areas of forest. The promoters of those models tended to target community land, with a very limited understanding of local systems of forest management.

Is smallholder forestry an option?

There have been attempts to develop smallholder forestry, but they mostly failed because they were just replicating corporate forestry models with the use of heavy machinery. Smallholders were expected to do inventories and develop management plans, even for relatively small forest patches, and they were banned from using chainsaws. This obviously doesn’t work. But there are places where the model of forest management has been adopted to the local situation of smallholders, for example in Ecuador. Adapting forest management models to local conditions offers a lot of potential. Yet, this also implies that forestry agencies must learn to rely on the capacities of smallholders to manage their forests, and to work with them.

How do you see the role of the members of the Tropenbos International network in such developments?

There is a new generation of projects, often adopting landscape approaches, that aim to achieve positive impacts on carbon, people and nature. These projects have the potential to attract large amounts of finance. Tropenbos needs to share more widely its experiences with developing high quality interventions, to inform these new projects. Tropenbos needs to offer lessons about meaningful ways to involve local people, acknowledge local values, and tailor interventions to local aspirations and needs. Along with smallholder social organizations, we need to co-develop tailor-made solutions that better value the role of smallholders, while acknowledging the diversity of realities on the ground.

PPacheco photo_high resolution.jpgPablo Pacheco is WWF’s global forests lead scientist based in Washington DC, after previously spending many years as principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, Indonesia, among others. His main research areas include forest governance, smallholder and community forestry, landscape transformation, and sustainable and inclusive value chains.


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