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Will We Ever See the End of Land Grabbing?

By Ben Goldfarb

Compared to other limited resources, from fossil fuels to fresh water, we don’t pay much attention to the stuff we’re standing on. But as the human population climbs beyond seven billion and living standards improve, productive land is increasingly put-upon. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly 20 million hectares of arable land, an area the size of Cambodia, are sacrificed to development annually, and another 12 million are lost to desertification, a process that will only accelerate as climate change intensifies.

As productive terrain vanishes, rival land uses may come into competition for limited space. “Both the tea industry and the grain industry are looking to expand into the same areas in Africa, but there’s a finite amount of land available,” says Ann-Marie Brouder, Principal Sustainability Advisor at Forum for the Future. As journalist Fred Pearce documents in his book The Land Grabbers, when industrial sectors rush to claim available land, ecosystems and rural livelihoods are often collateral damage. In South Sudan, for instance, diverse industries, from South African brewing to Norwegian forestry to Egyptian private equity, are trying to get their hands on arable land; the Egyptian firm plans to irrigate its newly acquired farmland via a massive canal that would drain wetlands and destroy pastures.

But is this patchwork paradigm, in which disparate land uses compete for dwindling space and biodiversity suffers, the only option? Instead of battling to control scraps of earth, could different sectors, from agriculture to energy to conservation, come together to figure out what goes where? What if global land use less resembled toppling dominoes and looked more like a chess board, with each piece playing a role in a strategic, integrated whole?

The first step towards using land more wisely, says Mark Gough, Director of Sustainability at The Crown Estate – one of the largest land owners in the UK – is better understanding the diverse benefits the ground can provide. Too often, says Gough, land use decisions are based on the bluntest of instruments: projected profits. Meanwhile, less easily quantified forms of wealth, like ecosystem services and human health, aren’t integrated into the equation. “Because we don’t value human and natural capital correctly, they’re still seen as trade-offs,” Gough says. “You have to value the total contribution of land to society, including its social and environmental aspects.”

The Natural Capital Project, a California-based collaboration between NGOs and universities, is one of the organisations reforming the calculus of land planning. Among the project’s innovations is InVEST, an open-source software package that calculates how proposed development and conservation plans influence the value of ecosystem services, such as timber production, crop pollination and carbon sequestration. Since its inception in 2007, InVEST has been applied to over 20 scenarios, from helping Hawaiian landowners develop sustainable agriculture to evaluating how coastal wetlands protect Dow Chemical’s facilities from storm surge.

According to Mary Ruckelshaus, Director of the Natural Capital Project, one of the most effective ways to derive multiple benefits from land is actually to focus on water. InVEST has guided the creation of numerous water funds, in which private industry voluntarily pays to protect watersheds; in the Andes Mountains, such partnerships have conserved nearly two million hectares and helped improve water supply both to cities and to businesses such as sugar cane growers and bottling companies. “Companies have learned to prioritise where within the watershed they should put their investment, and what activities to invest in, whether it’s better fencing, changes in logging practices, or riparian protection”, says Ruckelshaus. Such an approach, she adds, can double or even quadruple companies’ return on their investment.

But while InVEST is limited to analysing regional initiatives like water funds, the consequences of land use decisions can be national, and even international, in scope. The Amazon Rainforest, for example, has received more attention from conservation groups than perhaps any ecosystem worldwide, and to good effect: rates of deforestation have fallen almost 75 percent since 2004, and nearly half the rainforest is now protected. Thwarted by conservation, the agricultural industry that once threatened to raze the jungle has turned its attention to the Cerrado, the grassland that sprawls across over two million square kilometres of eastern Brazil.

As a result, the Cerrado is today the site of an agricultural explosion that The Economist has called “nothing short of miraculous.” In just a few decades, Brazil has transformed itself into the world’s largest supplier of beef, poultry, sugar cane and, soon, soya. Yet while Brazil’s grasslands don’t garner as much attention as its forests, the Cerrado is a biodiversity hotspot in its own right, home to jaguars, anteaters, and giant armadillos. In recent years, over 60 percent of this unique ecosystem has been converted to farmland and pasture.

What’s more, savannas around the world may soon be subject to Cerrado-style cultivation. “Those Brazilian companies will begin to move into Africa, particularly Angola and Mozambique,” says Pearce. “They’ll be trying to take over land there to do what they’re not allowed to do in Brazil anymore.”

Such global land conversion is often spurred on by misguided governmental policies, biofuels providing a case in point. In the US, for example, the Renewable Fuel Standard mandates the escalating use of corn ethanol in gasoline; in 2012, despite droughts and food price spikes, up to half the nation’s corn crop was fed to cars. Thanks in part to the EU’s own biofuels mandate, palm oil plantations have infamously supplanted forests and peat lands throughout Southeast Asia, exacerbating the climate change that the policies were designed to mitigate, and, claims Oxfam, contributing to global hunger by driving up food prices. Any large-scale efforts at land planning will likely have to address these far-flung impacts. A recent analysis by Chatham House suggests that biofuel policy reform could include stipulations to bar biofuels from land recently used for food production, or allow governments to relax their biofuels mandates during run-ups in food prices.

Another solution, says Iain Watt, Principal Sustainability Advisor at Forum for the Future, is to integrate biofuels into multi-use landscapes, rather than growing them in monocultures. “Even a suboptimal energy crop can increase a farmer’s resilience if it’s incorporated in a good rotation”, says Watt. “You might have a piece of land that over a five year period can provide a bit of food, a bit of energy, and a biodiversity benefit as well.”

The recent conversion of a number of coal-fired power plants to biofuel suggests that farmers may soon be able to bank on biomass feedstock such as elephant grass, along with waste from crops and forestry. “I see a lot of potential for cellulose-based ethanol [produced from crop waste],” says Mark Driscoll, Head of Food at Forum for the Future. “Farmers already look at it as a potential source of diversification and additional income.”

Even palm oil might not be so disastrous under the right circumstances. According to researchers at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), situating palm plantations on already degraded land can provide strong yields to growers and prevent further deforestation. However, the definition of degraded land remains a hotly contested topic: new research suggests that previously logged forests may contain a surprising amount of biodiversity.

The chief arbiter of such questions is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a certifying body that grants approval to palm growers that adhere to best practices. But while the RSPO is fine as far as it goes, it addresses only a single commodity, not an entire landscape. “Certification is good if you’re only looking at impacts within your certified region,” says Watt. “But it doesn’t offer much help in terms of substitution and indirect impacts. You can’t call the palm oil industry sustainable unless it fits within broader forest governance that protects standing rainforest across Southeast Asia.”

Could a form of certification exist for a vast, integrated landscape? The Forests Dialogue, a partnership between groups including the WWF and the World Bank, is currently developing a set of principles that would seek to achieve that goal. While the guidelines are still under construction, they may steer both producers and consumers towards well-managed landscapes in which the ‘4Fs’ – food, fuel, fibre and forests – sustainably coexist. “If these principles are adopted by a broad group, let’s say the Consumer Goods Forum, you affect the entire supply chain,” says Gary Dunning, Director of The Forests Dialogue. “This is an opportunity to look at the landscape as a whole, to go beyond the forest and prioritise land-use decision-making.”

While certification programmes rely on voluntary compliance from companies, the private sector may need a push to adopt holistic land management. “We’d like to see governments be more coordinated in their approach, and give common incentives to all farmers to take a landscape perspective”, says Dunning. In countries like Costa Rica such incentives have included payments for ecosystem services, which provide landowners subsidies for conserving water, carbon and biodiversity. At the same time, adds Watt, excessive governmental involvement – say, strictly designated production areas – could be “unpleasant and draconian.” How can governments and concerned NGOs encourage integrated land planning without compromising local autonomy?

Simply bringing stakeholders together to share strategies, exchange knowledge, and discuss opportunities, says Brouder, may get us partway there. Xiaoting Hou of The Forests Dialogue describes an orchestrated meeting between three Brazilian farmers, including one who practiced diverse, multi-use plantings and frequent crop rotations and one who intensively cultivated a huge soya bean monoculture. “The large farmer had thought he was a sustainable producer, but after he saw these other examples he wanted to try out their methods,” reports Hou. “Whether or not he’ll actually do it, he’s been exposed to a different land use approach.”

But while such knowledge transfer is an encouraging step toward holistic management, the parable of the Cerrado illustrates that humanity has a long way to go before it can forecast, let alone control, the consequences of its land use decisions. To borrow a metaphor from climate crusader Bill McKibben, the problem of integrated land management calls not for a silver bullet, but for silver buckshot: an array of potential solutions, refined through rigorous trial and error.

To that end, software packages like InVEST may grow larger scale in their predictive abilities; land management techniques like watershed protection may help humans derive more value from individual parcels, and reforming perverse incentives such as biofuel mandates may help prevent policies implemented on one continent from destroying ecosystems on another. Devising certification programmes that reward not single commodities but holistic landscape management will drive producers to consider the full impacts of their activities. And creating forums for different sectors to coordinate activities and share best practices will help industry more wisely steward the land in its care.

Most important, says Mark Driscoll, is ensuring that smallholders, the people whose lives are most touched by land-use decisions, retain control over their own resources. Jim Elizondo is one example of how autonomous landowners can spark dramatic innovation. In 1982, Elizondo pioneered a silvopasture system on his ranch in Mexico in which cattle grazed not in treeless pastures but among groves of edible, nitrogen-fixing Leucaena trees. The results, says Elizondo, were stunning: his new techniques conserved soil, cut water use in half, and created habitat for pest-eating birds. And most important, at least from a rancher’s perspective, beef cows yielded more meat, milk cows produced more milk, and the rejuvenated land was able to hold up to three times as many cattle.

These days, Elizondo manages a ranch in Florida and teaches courses to landowners interested in adopting silvopasture. “Generally, people don’t want to change,” says Elizondo. “If you tell ranchers that the trees create a microclimate that’s 15 degrees cooler and holds more water, they don’t believe it. But if you give them a handheld thermometer and show them, they’re convinced.” At all scales, from individual landowners interested in holistic management to governments and corporations trying to integrate land uses in a global system, experimentation will birth solutions. “You can’t change a ranch in a year,” says Elizondo. “You start by planting a few acres.”

Ben Goldfarb is a reader in forestry at Yale, and Editor of Sage Magazine.

Photo: MarkNim/iStockphoto

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