David Brazier/IWMI
Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This post is part of an online discussion on large-scale land interventions that runs through December 14, 2014. Can these initiatives fulfil their promises? Read more here and comment below or send an 800 word response to a.waldorf@cgiar.org.

Can we rely on large-scale land interventions to fulfil their promises? How can we better understand and influence investments for large-scale land interventions in areas where agriculture is a critical land use?

Let me contribute to this discussion using large-scale reforestation of degraded or marginal farmlands as an example. The commonly accepted promise of a large-scale land intervention, such as reforestation, is that it will overcome environmental degradation and improve rural livelihoods.

Photo: Sam Beebe on Flickr Photo: Sam Beebe on Flickr

The emphasis on large-scale interventions is important because this is the scale at which many ecological processes operate (e.g. hydrological flows, restoration of threatened wildlife populations) and therefore the scale at which interventions must take place if change is to occur and ecosystem services are to be generated. But interventions that exceed a certain scale can foster economic benefits; for example, forest areas must be large enough to create a resource big enough to support a forest products industry and allow sustained harvesting.

Large-scale interventions that deliver positive outcomes are entirely possible irrespective of whether these cover single large contiguous areas or involve many smaller areas within the landscape. But, sadly, this is not always the case. In too many cases large-scale schemes have failed to achieve their objectives.The reasons can include (i) the adoption of unsuitable policy settings, (ii) the establishment of faulty institutional arrangements or (iii) the use of inappropriate methodologies.

Examples include granting of rights to overseas investors in preference to locals in many parts of Africa leading to what has been referred to as “land grabs”, top-down land use planning with only limited reference to local views in Vietnam in the early stages of land allocation or the use of timber plantation species and methodologies in the early stages of restoring forest cover across degraded lands in China where the objective was not timber production but the provision of various ecosystem services.

In order for large-scale interventions to have a greater chance of success, the following may be needed:

Supportive Policies

Large-scale interventions are more likely if they take place within a supportive policy framework that:

  • enables change by removing disincentives for landholders to act; for example, by granting land tenure to customary owners or resident land users, by popularizing tree growing, by removing unnecessary regulations such as requiring permits to harvest trees planted on private land,
  • provides financial and non-financial incentives to landholders to participate and collaborate in overcoming degradation,
  • regulates certain land use practices that cause degradation or prevent it from being overcome (e.g. prevent steep land being cleared, limit grazing pressure, require that certain areas such as riparian strips must be reforested).

A recent example of the importance of having appropriate policies was the flourishing of forest regrowth across large areas of Niger that occurred when an earlier policy promoting tree clearing was revoked. The policy change led to an improvement in farmer livelihoods and a reduction in wind erosion across an area of perhaps five million hectares without the significant expenditure of any government funds.

Supportive Institutions

Institutions are important to ensure policies are implemented and to allow coordination amongst landholders across a landscape. A well-known risk of large- scale interventions is that the rights of local land users are over-ridden by central planning agencies for the sake of a supposed national benefit. Suitable institutional arrangements are needed to ensure appropriate policies are developed and implemented and that the rights of local communities are respected.

Some institutions will have a national or regional perspective (e.g. How much land for agricultural production and how much for other purposes? Just where in a landscape to intervene? How to achieve the best return on the public funds invested?). Others will be more local in their focus (e.g. farmer groups concerned with sharing knowledge about tree-growing or forest management, marketing cooperatives, conservation groups, etc.).  This network of institutions involving government agencies, industries and communities can then achieve both a top-down as well as a bottom-up perspective on land use planning. In this way they resolve land use disputes, enable trade-offs to be made, help distribute incentive or compensation payments, monitor what happens over time and, ultimately, ensure that the costs as well as the benefits of large-scale interventions are shared.

An example of the development of supportive institutions comes from Brazil where a unique mixture of public and private bodies have joined together to carry out the large-scale restoration of the Atlantic forests. Some of these organisations have a largely regional focus, while others are more localized, but the evolving institutional arrangements have drawn them together. Interestingly, government agencies are involved but do not drive the process.

Appropriate Methodologies

The most appropriate methodology to use depends on the objective but also on ecological and economic circumstances at particular sites. For example, the species and techniques developed to use in industrial plantation timber schemes may not necessarily suit the ecological or economic situation of all landholders in spatially heterogeneous landscapes.  In some cases the primary purpose of reforestation may be to help make agriculture sustainable (e.g. windbreaks and shelterbelts, riparian strips to protect rivers) but in other cases the purpose may be to diversify income sources and reduce risk.

In many landscapes a variety of new methodologies and silvicultural tools will need to be developed to cater to a diversity of situations. In short, large-scale interventions require the sharing of a national vision as well as local perspectives and the development of policies, institutions and tools to implement these visions. I have explored some of these issues further in a recent book: Large-scale Forest Restoration on Earthscan from Routledge.


I am extremely interested in the effects of reforestation on grain crop, especially using SCI methods, increases in yields.

Much depends on the landscape context in which reforestation occurs and the ways in which it is carried out. Reforestation in a completely denuded landscape may be beneficial but may be less so in a landscape that still retains some forest cover.
Large contiguous areas of reforestation may cause water table to decline and this may have negative consequences for cropping in some location. but positive outcomes in others. Planting trees (or enabling regrowth) in smaller patches or as scattered individual trees may reduce such changes to water tables while also yielding other marketable goods. Trees planted as windbreaks may increase crop yields in area subject to wind erosion but not in areas where wind erosion is less problematic. That is, the relationship between reforestation and cropping is not simple. Perhaps we should be thinking of this not just in terms of a single variable like crop yield but in terms of overall farm income, exposure to risk or in changes to landscape functionality?

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