DevRes 2021: Takeaways that may help us in reaching SDGs in low-income countries

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This blog post is written by Adan Martinez Cruz, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Forest Economics and SLU Global coordinator.

From 14 June to 16 June 2021, DevRes 2021 allowed us to exchange insights on challenges and opportunities to accomplish the 2030 Agenda –with a focus on low-income countries. Originally scheduled for June 2020 to take place at Umeå University campus, DevRes went digital. The success of this adaptation strategy can be illustrated by the 500 registered participants from all over the world, the 125 speakers in 51 sessions, and the variety of topics covered.

I was fortunate to chair two sessions and I will tell you my takeaways from these sessions.

During the “Gender and inclusion in agriculture” session, we learnt about the relevance of empowering women to fight poverty among smallholder farmers in Nigeria, and about the role of ethnicity and gender in adopting agroforestry strategies in Vietnam. In particular, Mai Phuong Nguyen, who works at World Agroforestry, reported her findings from semi-structured interviews to 60 farmers (30 men and 30 females) across three provinces of northwestern Vietnam. These interviews explore preferences, constraints, and opportunities to adopt agroforestry practices among Thai and H’mong people. These two ethnic minorities rely on farming sloped land, which results on high levels of soil erosion –hence the need to explore the opportunities for adoption of agroforestry. The finding I wish to highlight here is the difference across gender in interest and perceptions about benefits from agroforestry –women are less certain about what agroforestry entails, and therefore are less interested in adopting agroforestry practices. This difference seems to be originated in the different channels of information that men and women have access to –while men have formal and informal learning channels, women rely mostly on informal channels. The implication is that formal agricultural extension services, which are not currently reaching out to women, must be tailored to inform women or otherwise agroforestry practices may spread at a slower pace than desired.

During the “Climate change –resilience, mitigation, and adaptation” session, we discussed how climate impacts efficiency of subsistence farming in Ethiopia, the effect of the Sloping Land Conversion Program on Chinese farmers’ vulnerability to climate change, and how capital assets enable resilience to water scarcity among small farmers in Indonesia. Francisco X. Aguilar, who is Professor at the Department of Forest Economics in SLU, and co-authors have explored the association between rural livelihood capitals (natural, human, social, financial, and physical) and the avoidance of, adaptation to, and inability to withstand water scarcity among 200 small farmers in South Sulawasi, Indonesia. Their findings illustrate not only heterogeneity in the association but also the relevance of social and human capitals as assets to enable resilience. In particular, physical and natural assets in the form of irrigation infrastructure and direct access to water sources were saliently associated with resilience to water scarcity; factors associated with capacity to adapt were more nuanced with social capital being closely linked. Years of farming experience as a form of human capital asset was strongly associated with resiliency.

DevRes aims to explore the challenges that require societal transformation in order to accomplish the 2030 Agenda with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As illustrated by the couple of findings I have highlighted here, DevRes 2021 delivered insights that we have taken with us in our pursue to design policies that empower citizens of low-income countries to accomplish by their own means the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs.

Smallholder farmers in Kenya know how to meet climate challenges, but lack the means to do it

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This article was written and first published by SIANI in collaboration with PhD Ylva Nyberg, Department of Crop Production Ecology, SLU. The findings and conclusions in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of SLU.

A more diversified farming system spread the risks better and has higher delivery of ecosystem services even if it needs more knowledge and labour. Photo: Ylva Nyberg.

Many smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are caught up in a negative spiral. Often farming on one hectare of land, they struggle to make ends meet and, in most cases, they cannot afford enough farm inputs, which leads to declining soil fertility of their farms, resulting in low yields. Many farmers have to look for casual jobs to get by. Poverty pushes them to reduce the number of meals they eat, so they also lack the energy to farm.

Climate change with its changing rain patterns, droughts and floods doesn’t make the life of smallholder farmers easier. Contrary to the popular belief, recent research by Ylva Nyberg, highlights that smallholder farmers are well aware of the climatic challenges and know how to adapt and cope. However, they would be reluctant to adopt sustainable agricultural practices due to the lack of access to credit, land, knowledge and labour.

Nyberg carried out her field work on smallholder farms across a gradient of landscapes in Kenya, from Kisumu by Lake Victoria to Trans Nzoia in the western highlands. She summarized her findings in her PhD dissertation which she defended at the Department of Crop Production Ecology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU. 

Initially, Nyberg embarked on her journey to gain a better understanding of how small farms can increase yields without damaging nature. She used a variety of research methods, such as group and individual interviews, tree density measurement, soil sample analysis and randomized control trials. During the group interviews, Nyberg explored whether the farmers had experienced rainfall-related challenges and if they had planned to adapt to changing rainfall patterns. She quickly learnt that smallholders were well aware of climatic changes and also knew many adaptation and coping strategies, though men happened to be better informed than women

Then Nyberg spoke with farmers individually to find out how they applied their knowledge of adaptation measures. The results varied in accordance with access to social capital. Men tended to have higher education, better access to agricultural advisory services and more time for social networking, and they also were able to use more adaptation measures than women, especially those who lack education. Farmers with regular access to agricultural advisory services used more adaptation measures, especially those measures that they perceived most effective.

During these interviews many farmers also mentioned that having trees and livestock makes them less vulnerable, providing insurances or savings. Therefore, Nyberg has also considered these parameters in her work. It appears that higher tree density increased the workload on farms, but the income that came from these farms was higher too. In addition, trees were important to all farmers by providing shade for recreation. High livestock density showed signs of higher soil nitrogen turnover, even though collecting and using the manure can be challenging. Low tree and low livestock density were often an indicator of high dependency on off-farm revenues.

Agroforestry was one of the practices found to positively affect maize yields as well as being perceived effective among farmers. However, agroforestry is also labour-intensive. Photo by Ylva Nyberg

Lastly, Nyberg compared farms that took part in Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project over four years with those farms that weren’t engaged in carbon farming. She found that maize yields were positively related to terracing of fields and to growing more trees on the farm, the so-called agroforestry. Farmers working with the Carbon Project used more sustainable management practices, had higher yields and better food self-sufficiency as well as more savings than farmers who weren’t involved in the project.

However, the farmers who participated in the Carbon Project had higher yields to begin with and the difference in yield between the two groups of farms were similar in the first and the fourth year. Thereby, the increases in yield cannot be explained by the project only, unless the neighbouring farms outside the project had actually learnt methods and started practising them as well.

Smallholders have great potential to improve their production in a sustainable way, but they lack sufficient labour, land, money or knowledge to adopt sustainable agricultural land management practices.

Nyberg suggests that policy should address the farming and food production system as a whole, increasing inclusivity, particularly in regards to women with poor education. Agricultural advisors should also promote packages of simple but effective measures, encourage diversified farming systems where feasible and focus on the limiting factors, such as access to credit, knowledge and labour. This way, farmers will have the means to practice sustainable agriculture. Only then smallholder farmers will be able to build sustainable livelihood, supply ecosystem services and be climate action agents.

Check out Ylva Nybergs PhD thesis here.

Agroforestry – an act to fight climate change?

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Written by: Agnes Bondesson, communication officer at SLU Global, Swedish University of Agricultural Sceinces

Agroforestry - pines and cotton
Agroforestry with pine and cotton
Photo: National Agroforestry Center/Wikimedia commons

22nd of April is every year dedicated to our beloved earth, so called Earth day. SLU has research projects in a wide range of areas and today it is time to give attention to one of them, agroforestry. This is a method where trees are planted among crops and animals and it is seen as a sustainable nature-based solution which can contribute to several of UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Agroforestry provides various ecosystem services which are beneficial both locally and globally in the fight against climate change. This way of farming can limit the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by binding carbon and nitrogen in vegetation and soil. At the same time, the cultivation system contributes to positive effects in the local area, as trees shade, bind soil and increase resistance to pests, drought and floods, as well as providing access to firewood and a variety of nutritious food. It creates a favourable microclimate around the trees for a variety of flora and fauna.

SLU has several research projects running about agroforestry, many in collaboration with other universities and organisations around the world. SLU Global asked Ulrik Ilstedt, researcher at SLU, a few quick questions about agroforestry.

1. How does SLU work with research in agroforestry?

There are many people at SLU who work with different aspects of agroforestry in low-income countries, both from economic, social and environmental aspects. I myself have worked mostly with how agroforestry can contribute to carbon binding and how it also affects the water balance. Especially the water balance has been a much debated issue where hydrologists have previously thought that all trees – in forest or agricultural land – have a negative impact on water supply as trees use more water than grass and crops.

For tree planting organisations and the general public it has been difficult to realise that forests are bad for water supply. Many people think of the forest as a sponge that sucks in water. Instead, we have developed a new theory in which we believe that indeed the trees’ soil-improving ability can contribute to more water entering the soil and groundwater but up to a certain limit. If the trees grow too fast and too dense, their water consumption will take over and there will be water loss compared to pure agricultural land.

2. What are the benefits in a global sustainability perspective?

You can get a productive and sustainable cultivation system that can at the same time maintain many environmental values, such as biodiversity, water regulation and carbon storage. Because the trees contribute to soil improvement, farmers who are poor can cope with less or no commercial fertilizer. There are also advantages to being able to get different alternative products from the same fields and to spread risks.

3. What projects are SLU currently running?

One of the larger collaborative projects led by one of my colleagues, Gert Nyberg, where several researchers from SLU work together with other universities, is about studying different aspects of an area in Kenya. The organisation Vi-agroforestry previously used the area to influence how the pasture was organised. Through a better organisation of the pasture with fences, grass and trees could come back into the area and the pasture became more productive. This collaboration project is now being developed in other areas with both Swedish and international partners.

I myself would be particularly interested in continuing with the water issue. We now know that it is possible to grow trees and at the same time increase the water supply. Can we improve the groundwater supply further through maintenance with for example what kind of trees we use, if we prune them and how the trees are spread.

4. If you mention some positive effects with agroforestry, what would it be?

Agroforestry can contribute to many of the Sustainable Development Goals, for example to combat poverty and hunger (# 1 and # 2), better access to water (# 6), to help us combat and manage climate change better (# 13) and to contribute to higher biodiversity (#15). Agroforestry can also contribute to give women more time and opportunity to develop and take control of resources.

More information:
News page at SLU website
Debate article at Aktuell Hållbarhet (Swedish)

Restoring degraded tropical landscapes with trees

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By: Aida Bargues Tobella, Postdoctor at the Department of Forest Ecology and Management; Tropical Forestry and Land Use Management Unit 

Land degradation is a major problem in the tropics. Such degradation entails a decline in the capacity of the land to produce and provide ecosystem goods and services, with negative impacts for human livelihoods, food security and the environment at large. 

Land degradation is a widespread phenomenon across the tropics. The Nyando River Basin (Western Kenya) is a regional erosion hotspot and one of the main sources of sediment and phosphorous into Lake Victoria. Photo: Aida Bargues Tobella

The establishment of trees on degraded lands is considered a fundamental tool in landscape restoration. Establishing trees is about more than just planting trees, and can include assisted natural regeneration (ANR) of forests, farmer-managed natural regeneration or direct seeding among other techniques. Similarly, the concept of landscape restoration is not limited to re-establishing lost forests and should be seen on a broader perspective, taking into consideration, for instance, the incorporation of trees into farming systems (agroforestry).

Faidherbia albida is a popular agroforestry tree which generates numerous provisioning and regulating ecosystem services. Photo: Aida Bargues Tobella

The potential benefits from tree-based restoration include enhanced water quality, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, soil fertility, and food and nutrition security. But, how much do we know about tree-based restoration? What are the trade-offs and synergies among ecosystem services from trees? What management practices and tree traits contribute most to promote specific ecosystem services? As we enter the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, answering such questions is pressing. 

Sesbania sesban improved fallows have a great potential to restore soil fertility and increase crop yields. Photo: Aida Bargues Tobella

In the research group on Tropical Forestry and Land Use Management at the Department of Forest Ecology and Management in SLU, we work towards advancing our understanding of tree-based restoration of degraded landscapes in the tropics. Currently, we have projects in six countries across the global tropics: Malaysia, Thailand, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Tanzania and Mozambique.

We currently have on-going research projects in six different countries across the global tropics

Rainforest degradation and restoration

The group has been doing research on rainforest degradation and restoration in Borneo for over 35 years. The INIKEA Sow-a-Seed rainforest restoration project in the Malaysian state of Sabah is a collaboration between the Sabah Foundation, SLU and the Swedish furniture company IKEA andit is unique in that it is one of the largest and most successful tropical rainforest restoration projects in the world. Since the startof the project in 1998, we have planted more than three millionseedlings, consisting of ca. 80 different indigenous tree species, and roughly14,000 ha of forest have been restored with assisted natural regeneration and enrichment plantings. 

In connection with the project, we have established a number of scientific experiments: 

  • In the SUAS experiment, established already in 1992, we aim to develop silvicultural methods that make management of natural forests environmentally and economically sustainable.
  •  In our three different species/genetic common gardens we seek to advance the present lack of knowledge on the economic and environmental values of indigenous species. Here we also study the importance of genetic variation in traits within and among species.
  •  In the Rainforest Restoration Experiment,we have established 84 plots in various forest types to evaluate where each of our four different approaches of restoration is most appropriate; 1) Passive protection; 2) ANR; 3) ANR with line planting and 4) ANR with gap-cluster planting.
  • In our permanent sampling plots inside the restoration area and surrounding landscape of large-scale oil palm and industrial tree plantations as well as undisturbed protected forests, we are evaluating ecosystem values, such as economic value, carbon sequestration, water quality and biodiversity among these land-use systems. 

These long-term forest management experiments in northern Borneo provide many opportunities for research. In the project Balancing production and ecosystem services from degraded tropical rainforests to aid the transition to a more sustainable bio-based economy, we are using data from these experiments to quantifybiomass production and a range of ecosystem services across multiple spatial and temporal scales. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, including aspects of economics, social science, silviculture, plant ecophysiology, ecology, human health,and biogeochemistry, we aim to identify sustainable management practices that can maximize the production of raw materials while at the same time minimizing adverseenvironmental impacts. Using this holistic approach, the overall objective is to obtain and communicate novel information to scientists, private, and government stakeholders about trade-offs between biomass production and ecosystem services to aid the transition to a sustainable bio-based economy.

Rainforest vulnerability to climatic water stress

The frequency and intensity of drought events are predicted to increase in tropical monsoon forests of Southeast Asia, ecosystems that are known to be biodiversity hotspots and a persistent carbon sink in the global carbon cycle. Such increases could drive rapid and large-scale shifts in forest structure and species composition as well as cause dramatic decreases in the amount of carbon stored by these tropical forests. We have recently started a research project thatbrings together scientists from Thailand, France,and Sweden, to assess the vulnerability of mature and secondary forests to climatic water stress. Such information is crucial to more accurately predicted how future climate change wouldaffect the cycling of carbon and water in tropical forested ecosystems. 

Trees and water in African tropical drylands

Another leading research topic of the group is how we can use trees to improve soil and water resources in African tropical drylands. Our previous research in the seasonally dry tropics indicates that an intermediate tree cover can maximize groundwater recharge, which is contrary to the predominant scientific view that more trees always lead to less water. But, under what specific conditions can more trees improve groundwater recharge? Together with scientists from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and Wageningen University, we are evaluating the extent of the optimum tree cover theoryacross African tropical drylands. To do this, we are primarily using data from the network of Land Degradation Surveillance Framework (LDSF) sites, which is hosted at ICRAF. To date, the LDSF has been employed in over 200 sites across the global tropics and therefore constitutes a unique dataset to test this theory. The overall aim of the project is to provide evidence to inform better land-use policies in African tropical drylands and identify management options that can increase groundwater resources. 

LDSF field campaing in Embu county, Kenya. Photo: Aida Bargues Tobella
LDSF field campaing in Makueni county, Kenya. Photo: Aida Bargues Tobella

Courses

Are you interested in these questios and want to learn more about tropical forestry and land-use management? At the moment we offer two courses within this field:

This year’s MSc course on Sustainable Forestry and Land-se Management in the tropics included a one- week field trip to Mozambique. Photo: Rosa Goodman
Participants of the course “Forest Management Forest Management, Land Use Change and Ecosystem Services in Degraded Tropical Landscapes” had the opportunity to visit the INIKEA Sow-a-Seed restoration project in northern Borneo. Photo: Niles Hasselquist

Who we are

Ulrik Ilstedt, associate professor; ulrik.ilstedt@slu.se
Gert Nyberg, associate professor; gert.nyberg@slu.se
Niles Hasselquist, associate professor; niles.hasselquist@slu.se
Rosa Goodman,associate senior lecturer; rosa.goodman@slu.se
Aida Bargues Tobella, postdoc;  aida.bargues.tobella@slu.se
Daniel Lussetti, postdoc; daniel.lusetti@slu.se