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Land-use intensification in forest-agriculture frontier landscapes

DEV Key Contact: Adrian Martin

Project Dates: Dec 2016 - Dec 2017

Project Status: Open


This frontier landscapes project is funded by ESPA to assess the effects on ecosystem services and poverty alleviation of land-use intensification in forest-agriculture.

Agricultural intensification refers to interventions to increase the outputs per hectare of crops or livestock. Whilst intensification can occur through local demand for innovation, it is increasingly imposed through policy interventions in forest-agriculture frontiers. 'Sustainable intensification' and 'land sparing' are examples of popular policy narratives that respond to concerns over future food security and planetary boundaries. Agricultural intensification also features in global development goals and strategies, such as the Sustainable Development Goals and efforts to accelerate a Green Revolution for Africa.

Some of the most rapid change is taking place in forest-agriculture frontier, often characterized by mosaic landscapes in transition from subsistence to cash-cropping economics, from longer to shorter fallows, and from lower to higher levels of purchased inputs. These rapidly changing social-ecological systems are also places where poverty alleviation and environmental conservation are priority objectives. However, previous reviews of such transitional landscapes finds that intensification generates more income but also leads to negative outcomes including loss of human and social capital, deforestation, and biodiversity loss (van Vliet et al. 2012). At present we know very little about the trends and patterns of such outcomes, the contexts in which they take shape, or how to improve policy.

This knowledge gap about sustainable agriculture and landscapes is well suited to being addressed through an ESPA synthesis, firstly because concerns for sustainable agriculture have been central to the ESPA empirical portfolio (Mace 2014) and secondly because ESPA conceptual approaches provide insightful ways to interrogate the wider body of empirical cases. Thus we draw on ESPA studies but also draw on ESPA framings of ecosystem services, human wellbeing and trade-offs to guide our synthesis of the wider empirical evidence. We propose to synthesise an interdisciplinary body of refereed and grey literatures, primarily through a narrative synthesis approach, with potential to also use statistical metaanalysis or Qualitative Comparative Analysis as a secondary approach. The synthesis will ask how agricultural intensification shapes the changing trade-offs between land use, ecosystem services and poverty alleviation. One particularly novel point of departure is the emerging findings about how land use change, and in particular agricultural intensification, changes how ecosystems are valued by different stakeholders, such that ecosystem services valued under traditional agricultural systems may become less valued (or even become perceived as disservices) under intensified and commodified systems. 

We propose to work with an interdisciplinary working group of experts with strong engagement with key policymakers and practitioners in organisations working on agriculture, conservation and development. Engagement will ultimately lead to knowledge exchange activities that are intended to bring about uptake of research findings and benefits to the wellbeing of the poor. We propose to do this through co-produced knowledge products (including a policy brief and a short film), workshops, dissemination at global events and interaction with global science-policy platforms such as IPBES. Regarding the latter activity, the project working group has partly been selected for a wide spread of contributions to these platforms and therefore direct opportunities to be part of wider processes of communicating science to policy. 

Project Directors: School of International Development (DEV), University of East Anglia

Research Partners:

  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Copenhagen
  • Basque Centre for Climate Change
  • University of Barcelona