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The role of ecosystem services on food security and nutrition in the Amazon

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

Today, May 22nd, is the International Day for Biological Diversity. Visit WLE and IWMI for more information on biodiversity.

It is now well established that it is imperative to understand how and under which circumstances ecosystem services contribute directly and indirectly to human well-being, including food security, nutrition and health of the rural poor. Food, nutrition and health of small-scale farming families throughout the world depend to a major extent on the benefits obtained from nature, ranging from the provision of a wide diversity of food resources, fuel-wood for cooking and medicinal plants, to the sustenance of agriculture and disaster risk reduction.

 Indigenous community in Lower Caqueta basin, Colombian Amazon.    Photo: Gisella S. Cruz-Garcia

In this regard, the project ‘Managing ecosystem services for food security and the nutritional health of the rural poor at the forest-agricultural interface’, also called ASSETS, was established with the aim to document the relations between ecosystem services, food security and the nutritional health of local communities living in the forest-agriculture interface. The project analyses ecosystem services through the lens of FAO’s four pillars of food security: availability, access, utilization and stability, along a gradient of deforestation. Three contrasting places were chosen for ASSETS: the lower Caqueta basin in the Colombian Amazon, the Ucayali region in the Peruvian Amazon, and the Lake Chilwa catchment in Malawi. The several rural communities chosen in these study sites not only show differential access to forest resources, but also face, to different degrees, the consequences of deforestation, new agricultural production alternatives and extreme climatic events such as floods and droughts.

There is almost an absence of deforestation in the Lower Caqueta where indigenous communities from various ethnic groups depend, to a major extent, on forest resources to satisfy their basic needs. In this region, Yucuna, Tanimuca, Cubeo, Miraña and Macuna families practice hunting, gathering, fishing and slash-and-burn agriculture. Their diet is composed by cassava with fish (or wild animals) and they consume a wide diversity of wild and domesticated fruits. They build their houses and craft diverse utensils, such as baskets and brooms, using forest plant resources.


Conversely, although Ucayali is also part of the Amazon basin, it presents an alarming rate of on-going deforestation as observed in satellite images (i.e. by Terra-i) and reflected in adaptive livelihood strategies of mestizo and indigenous (Shipibo-Conibo) communities. Despite the fact that Pucallpa has suffered a high and sustained pressure on its forests during the past decades (due to e.g. illegal logging, palm oil and livestock expansion), there are still major forest resources, playing a crucial role for local livelihoods and disaster risk reduction, which surely need to be conserved. At the same time, communities in Ucayali present diverse levels of dependency on forest-related ecosystem services, for instance, varying with the access to markets and forests.

Image prepared by Alejandro Coca

On the other hand, Lake Chilwa catchment has been already dramatically deforested and local communities struggle day to day to fulfil their basic needs. Moreover, extreme events such as droughts and soil degradation aggravate the situation in this region.

ASSETS is interdisciplinary by nature, including the use of participatory methods, household and dietary surveys, modelling, economic valuation and risk analysis, aimed at investigating the three major research themes:

  • Drivers, pressures and linkages between food security, nutritional health and ecosystem services;
  • Crises and tipping points involving past, present and future interactions between food insecurity and ecosystem services at the forest-agriculture interface;
  • and the science-policy interface.

The outputs of this study will ultimately propose alternative types of ecosystem services management to be reflected on the adoption of adequate multi-sectorial policies (health and food policies, ecosystem management and biodiversity conservation strategies) that reduce food insecurity, increase nutritional health, and ultimately improve the well-being of the poorest families living in the forest-agriculture interface.

The project will permit us to understand how benefits provided by ecosystems in the forest-agriculture interface are allocated within and across communities. This knowledge is expected to contribute to the design of better policies and practices that aim to achieve a sustainable, efficient, and equitable allocation of water, land and other resources that are main topics of interests of CGIAR Water, Land and Ecosystems Program (WLE). Undoubtedly, other WLE projects and initiatives will benefit of the different types of analyses and models to be developed in order to understand the ecosystem services versus food security and nutritional health linkage.

This project is conducted by an international consortium including the University of Southampton, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Conservation International, the Basque Center for Climate Change and the University of Malawi Chancellor College. ASSETS is part of the ESPA initiative funded by DFID, NERC and ESRC from the UK; and belongs to the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.

Research at CIAT is led by the Ecosystem Services Research Theme part of the Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area, and is conducted in the Colombian and Peruvian sites. We are starting to get the first results from the field in Colombia and we are coordinating the start of fieldwork activities in Peru. There are three more years to go for ASSETS and much more to come.


Role of ecosystem services on food security, nutrition and livelihoods is true for all geographical regions and most impacted are the poor, who in majority are small & marginal farmers.
Globally more funds should be invested for securing ecosystem services to achieve the MDGs and address Climate change

Interesting topic! Thanks for sharing this information! You efforts putting this blog together was worth the while. Another good post Gisella.