In search of data that tell a story

26 May, 2014 by (comments)

It’s pitch-dark by the time the small group of eager but weary scientists reaches the remote rural community of Hierbas Buenas. Already late for an appointment with local leaders, they’re nearing the end of a 3-day journey in the Peruvian Amazon, which has given them a glimpse of the varied places and people that will be the focus of their joint research in the months to come.

Once the visitors are seated in the meeting hall, a disembodied voice, speaking over the community’s public address system, invites residents to reconvene. Men, women, and children respond (including a young mother with her baby in a stroller), hoping the scientists have come to help solve the community’s many problems. After a polite welcome, local leaders share the story of their difficult ordeal in this harsh agricultural frontier.


Now that all the nearby forest has been cleared, they explain, the community’s 200 families no longer have access to forest resources, like wild game, and depend for their livelihoods on an area of about 500 hectares, planted mainly to citrus fruits and pineapple. After prospering initially, these enterprises have faltered, as a gradual decline in soil quality has left the plants more susceptible to disease and pest damage, causing production and incomes to plummet.

From their brief tour, the scientists know that other rural communities they have visited are faring somewhat better – at least for now. Some of these communities, like Hierbas Buenas, are situated along the road leading to Pucallpa, while another lies on the banks of the Ucayali River and its tributaries.

Though quite different from one another, the more resilient communities have in common several key advantages: including effective local organization, beneficial links with markets, and varying degrees of success in curbing deforestation. They have also established farming systems that mimic the original forest ecosystem and help maintain its vital functions (such as soil protection and the provision of useful plants, fish, and game), which the scientists call “ecosystem services.”

The gains are fragile in this fast-changing environment, however. And major efforts are needed to preserve the ecosystem services that buffer communities against the vagaries of agriculture and nature.

Representing CIAT and organizations in Malawi, Peru, Spain, the UK, and USA, the scientists have come to Peru’s Ucayali Region with the aim of testing a bold idea. In defiance of some 50 years of development experience, they argue that food security can be “delivered alongside healthy ecosystems,” in the words of an article they published recently in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Putting this new paradigm into practice is the central aim of the UK-funded project that has brought them here. Called ASSETS (Attaining Sustainable Services from Ecosystems through Trade-off Scenarios), it uses a combination of quantitative and participatory methods to reveal the intricate links between food security and ecosystem services on the frontier between agriculture and forests. Ucayali is an ideal place for this work because of the region’s complex and rapidly evolving dynamics, and wide scope for positive intervention.

Surprisingly, this is one of the first attempts to “operationalize” the ecosystem services approach since its debut in the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of the United Nations. The ASSETS project is exploring this approach in the Colombian Amazon and Malawi’s Zomba District as well as in Peru.

“Conventional thinking says that long-term food security is mostly about intensifying agriculture while minimizing ‘collateral damage’ to the environment,” said project leader, Guy Poppy, who is a professor at the UK’s University of Southampton. “On the contrary, we see ecosystem services – not as a potential casualty of agricultural development – but rather as a necessary condition for bolstering food security.”

Isn’t this just the wishful thinking of well-meaning environmental scientists? After all, deforestation in Peru and elsewhere is driven by powerful economic forces – commercial logging, oil and gas exploitation, gold mining, and the production of coca and other high-value commodities (e.g., palm oil, cocoa, and livestock products) – as well as by the modest ambitions of smallholder farmers.

“Science is pretty powerful too,” said Andy Jarvis, director of policy research at CIAT. “New analytical tools and methods will give us an unprecedented grasp of what’s happening to ecosystem services in this region and who benefits. The resulting data will tell the true story of these communities in a compelling way. And their story reflects the story of humanity’s mixed record in shaping the environment.”

A science-based story is especially powerful when it has influential listeners. And there are plenty of these in the Ucayali Region. With the support of the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAP, its acronym in Spanish), ASSETS project scientists conferred with a cross-section of local authorities responsible for agricultural development, environment management, and land-use planning in Ucayali as well as with key agencies in Lima. They will follow up on these contacts by supporting several policy development initiatives already underway

One clear message from local decision makers is that Pucallpa and the surrounding region are rapidly becoming an “epicenter of economic development,” as one official put it. They know this will put more pressure on the forest, and they’re eager to develop alternative scenarios, based on reliable and comprehensive data, which will help them and Ucayali’s citizens write a very different story from the chaotic tale that is now unfolding in this “natural paradise.”

The inhabitants of Hierbas Buenas, Pueblo Libre, La Unión, and other rural communities want to help frame this new story. Many of them took part in a previous study about the connection between human health and ecosystem health, which CIAT conducted in the region a decade ago. The resulting information and insights fueled a concerted local campaign, which led to the establishment of community health centers and other positive developments.

So, when IIAP experts brought in this new group of scientists, community leaders received their proposal to collect and analyze data – not as an academic exercise – but as an exciting opportunity to cultivate change for the better.

Research carried out by the ASSETS Project forms part of the CGIAR Research Programs on Water, Land and Ecosystems and on Forests, Trees and Agroecosystems.

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Filed Under: Latin America and the Caribbean, Regions