“What the hell is a landscape? And how exactly do you invest in one?” They were good questions, asked in the middle of the Global Landscapes Forum held in Warsaw last weekend, during the UN climate talks. I can’t say the forum answered them. Everyone had their own definition of landscapes and, well, you can’t really invest in a landscape as such: only in some of its attributes.
But the discussion was fascinating. Not least because academia and commerce found they were often talking a different language. It should be the beginning of a long conversation.
Scientists and other professionals at the forum argued that thinking about landscapes in their totality, as integrated wholes, is the only sensible way to do what we want: sustain communities, produce goods, soak up carbon, protect wildlife and maintain ecosystem services in a crowded and unequal world of competing resource demands.
“Landscapes are a real thing in the world, where people live and make their livelihoods,” said Sara Scherr of Ecoagriculture Partners, a consultancy. Dividing them up into different sectors like forestry, agriculture and environmental protection made no sense.
Scientific integration doesn’t integrate on their [bankers'] bottom line.
But suggest that to a banker or corporate executive and you get a blank stare. Scientific integration doesn’t integrate on their bottom line. Carbon sinks they understand; food production they understand; supply chains they understand; land that they can buy and put a fence around they understand. But landscapes?
Deborah Bossio of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture asked: “What does it mean to invest in landscapes? Can we sell landscapes as an investment opportunity?”
The Forum was full of good stories about what can be done to improve landscapes and the lives of those who live in them. Indian meteorologists are combining detailed data on village farming landscapes with weather forecasts to produce crop advisories for farmers. Add in better harvesting of the monsoon rains and the result is a quantum leap in village incomes, biomass production, and the state of their land. “It’s high tech at our end, but at the village level it is very simple,” said Crispino Lobo of the Watershed Organisation Trust.
In Ethiopia, 8 million people in former famine lands are more food-secure thanks to restoration of degraded watersheds. In Nepal, government projects are capturing surface run-off to replenish underground aquifers, allowing farmers to grow a second crop. In Costa Rica, reforestation is capturing carbon, shading cattle from the sun, protecting watersheds and promoting wildlife and tourism. In Niger, trees are reviving 5 million hectares of the Sahel and improving food security.
The World Bank’s vice-president for sustainable development, Rachel Kyte, wowed even skeptics of the Bank with her enthusiasm for finding ways to deliver “healthy, productive landscapes [that] slow climate change.” There were she said, “triple wins: food up, incomes up and emissions down.”
“There is an explosion of innovation,” said Scherr. “But we don’t know how to mobilize investment and finance”. Bernard Giraud of French food giant Danone agreed. “Technical solutions are at hand. They work well. But the issue is large-scale replication and attracting funding by reducing the risk for investors.”
And there was the rub. Everybody knows about the good things that need to be done. But where is the profit? Where is the value chain?
It is another version of the old environmental problem of the “tragedy of the commons”. The tragedy of the landscape commons, if you like. Or in modern parlance, we have the “wicked problem” of how to give individual, farmers, and private capital – the investors of their time, labour and cash –an incentive to work for the common good.
Right now, landscape management often isn’t working for the people who live there. Peasant farmers are walking away from their land. IWMI’s Luna Bharati said rural Nepal is seeing “massive outmigration to urban centres. Most people between 20 and 40 years old have left.” Hillside terraces and irrigation systems are collapsing. What price is landscape rehabilitation, watershed recovery and climate resilience if the people are gone?
In many places, corporate investors move in. When that happens the only hope is that they will see the landscape they enter as a long-term investment, and nurture it rather than destroying it.
Maybe. They have some incentives. They need brand images that aren’t trashed by the next Greenpeace extravaganza or Twitter storm. They need supply chains that don’t run into a brick wall when resources run out or the land turns to dust.
To have a successful future, corporations have to manage their returns on social and natural capital, as well as financial capital.
“The need for access to secure sustainable predictable supply chains is driving corporate behaviour the world over,” Kyte said. They are doing it out of self-interest, said Peter Bakker of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. To have a successful future, corporations have to manage their returns on social and natural capital, as well as financial capital, he said.
You can only manage what you can measure. Science can help here. If the carbon in soils and farm trees can be measured, then it can be conserved, and investment in improved farmland can be financed by carbon offsets. But when push comes to shove, managing a landscape for maximum carbon storage may not be the same as managing it for optimum farmers’ livelihoods.
Business sustainability and ecological sustainability can be different things. Social sustainability may be different again. And he who pays the piper normally calls the tune.
There could be perverse consequences from this commodification and financializing of the landscape. One large food multinational is trying to reduce its reputational risk by making its supply chain more transparent, which it is doing by cutting back the number of smallholders whose products it buys.
And markets can make mincemeat out of sustainability. Finance gets most interested when the potential for profitable trading is to the fore. Investment in “ecosystem services” could be packaged up and sold like financial derivatives. Anyone for a sub-prime landscape bond?
The obvious way out of this nightmare is to entrench the control communities have over their land. Kyte puts land rights high on her list of priorities for achieving sustainable landscapes. “Land tenure has to be a central part of the landscapes agenda”, she said. “Security of tenure allows long-term decisions.” And that means full tenure rights for women as well as men, she said. “In most poor countries women produce 80 per cent of the crops.” Yet often land titles are vested in their menfolk. That has to change.
At the landscape scale, governance, ownership and ecology are inseparable. But, even with the best will in the world, making that compatible with the investment strategies of rich people in faraway places looks hard. A pre-session Tweet displayed to plenary delegates said: “The biggest threat to the landscape approach is that it becomes institutionalized.” Maybe so. Or is that what we need?