Conventional agricultural support programmes are offering technologies to smallholders, but these technologies are destroying the ecological base of agriculture, according to Pablo Tittonell, Principal Research Scientist in Argentina’s National Council for Science and Technology. Here he talks with Koen Kusters about agroecological principles and the future of smallholders in forest frontier landscapes.
You are critical of conventional agricultural programmes supporting smallholders, what is the essence of your criticism?
First, they haven’t worked. There has been a focus on improving agriculture through modern technologies for many years, but farmers are not adopting t hem. Why? Because the approach is based on the idea that the lack of technology is the problem, while it isn’t. The problem is much broader. There are political, social, economic and ecological factors at play. Second, the technologies we offer smallholders are destroying the ecological base of agriculture. They result in overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Some people claim that intensification of production will take away the need for agricultural expansion, but we see that in active forest frontiers of the Amazon region, higher yields are leading to increased expansion. So that is an illusion.
Some would say that increasing productivity helps to reduce pressure on the forest, when it is combined with regulation to prevent agricultural expansion, and its enforcement.
In the Colombian Amazon, the government cannot even control coca production and the guerrilla, while those are government priorities. In many tropical forest frontier areas, the density of institutional control is very low. They are often conflict zones, and enforcement is extremely difficult.
What is the advantage of agroecology over industrial agriculture, in the context of global biodiversity and climate challenges?
There is a tendency to see agriculture as an obstacle to achieving biodiversity and climate objectives, but you can turn that around. Agriculture can be the solution. It requires an agricultural system that is productive, affordable, profitable, produces enough healthy food, conserves biodiversity, and contributes to climate mitigation. This is the ambition of agroecology. It may take different shapes in different locations, depending on the local context, but it is always based on certain agroecological principles, such as diversity, synergies, efficiency and resilience.
The debate between proponents of industrial agriculture and proponents of agroecology seems to focus on whether to use chemical fertilizers and improved seed varieties that have been developed in a lab.
No, the debate is much wider. Agroecology is about much more than only agronomy. It is a movement to change the whole system. Also, it is a misconception that agroecology is banning the use of certain agricultural inputs. The question we ask is whether these inputs are improving the situation of the smallholders and the environment. The so-called improved varieties are produced by commercial companies and eventually result in higher pesticide use, and farmers who are in debt. I wouldn’t call that an improvement. And the benefits of genetically modified seeds are overstated. Look at golden rice; it has been developed to address Vitamin A deficiency, but you must eat a full bag of rice to get the vitamins of one carrot. To improve vitamin intake, you’d better increase the variety of your agricultural production.
In parts of Indonesia, smallholders have converted their diverse agroforestry systems into monoculture plantations of oil palms, which generate good incomes. They are showing little interest in diversifying their plantations.
Agroforestry is not always what people want or need. We need to be pragmatic. Some crops are difficult to grow with other crops. In such monoculture systems, it is important to look at diversity from another angle, specifically the soil. Take sugar cane, for example. If you grow sugar cane in cycles of three years, there is very little biodiversity in the soil, but this improves significantly in the case of organic sugar cane, which is replaced after only 20 years.
Is it also possible to apply the agroecological principles at the landscape level rather than the plot level?
Exactly, that is key. A big shortcoming with the expansion of organic agriculture in Europe has been that it was not done at landscape level. Certain principles of organic farming, like natural pollination, are very difficult to realize if your neighbour is operating an industrial farm. Again, this stresses the point that agroecology is about the whole system, including landscape governance.
Young people may be eager to leave remote areas, looking for jobs in the cities. Have you worked with young people? Do they even see a future in agriculture?
I did research in a village in the Patagonian Andes. For this, I was reading reports that had been written about the area in the 1980s. These reports were all mentioning that youth were leaving. They were predicting that young people would disappear. When I went there 30 years later, there were still plenty of young people. Many had left, and many had returned. These are the dynamics, and they may bring innovation to remote areas. Young people can be engines behind new economic opportunities. In Colombia, for example, we are working with young people to develop value chains from biodiversity — we call it bioeconomy. We are producing a lip balm, made from a native plant, which can be sold in large cities like Bogota. This is just one example, there are many other biobased products being developed.
In Puerto Rico, young people have started agroecological initiatives, but I have the impression these are often middle-class urban youth. Would youth in marginalized and remote areas in Africa be interested in such initiatives as well?
You are right about Puerto Rico. There, young people mainly, but not exclusively from urban areas are revolting against the dominant agricultural model, which has been destructive. I also agree that the situation in some parts of Africa is very different. Still, we should not underestimate these dynamics. Today, young people in remote areas are connected to the rest of the world. In some places they will walk five kilometres to charge their phones. They are aware of global problems, they know about their rights, they can be inspired by people from the other side of the world.
Much of your work takes place in the Amazon region. How do you envision these landscapes 30 years from now?
Outside of protected areas, I envision them as dynamic mosaics. As a smallholder you start with annual crops like maize, then you move into more permanent crops, like cassava. Then you slowly bring in trees like cocoa and palms, and after many years you get an agroforest. Eventually you may need to start from the beginning again. Ideally, you will end up with a landscape where you have this system in different stages of succession.
Do you think that partnerships between smallholders and companies can be beneficial?
Yes. However, in conventional partnerships, smallholders are often overly dependent on one commodity, which makes them vulnerable. Beneficial partnerships require companies that acknowledge the need for diversity at the level of smallholder systems. This should include maintaining food production for consumption within the territory, which is often forgotten when there is a gold rush on one commodity.
The members of the Tropenbos International network work with stakeholders at the landscape level, in support of smallholder agroforestry and community forestry. How do you see their role?
There is a need for basic agroecological knowledge, but we also need innovation platforms. These platforms should ensure that local knowledge is used in combination with scientific knowledge to support innovations. We call this co-innovation. The platforms should also facilitate the wider uptake of agroecological practices. For example, I have a student who is developing a system that will help make smallholders less dependent on the use of fire. This is very important work. But, what will happen after the thesis has been written? People in the village where he is doing his research may adopt the system, but what about the neighbouring village? This type of knowledge needs to be shared. Not only in the form of publications, but also through actual community engagement. I think that the Tropenbos members can play an important role there.
Pablo Tittonell is a principal research scientist in Argentina’s National Council for Science and Technology, with a seat at the Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria. He also holds a part-time WWF-endowed chair professorship on resilient landscapes at the Groningen Institute of Evolutionary Life Sciences in the Netherlands. He serves as an external professor at the Ecole Doctorale GAÏA of the University of Montpellier, France, and at the National University of Lomas de Zamora, Buenos Aires, Argentina. His areas of expertise include farming systems analysis and agroecology.