Why Both Conservation and Development Approaches are Necessary for Food Systems Transformation
On the surface, poverty, species decline, hunger, extreme weather events, gender inequality, pollution, access to education, and global pandemics may not seem to have much in common – beyond that they all have devastating impacts on people and communities. But studies show that habitat destruction, driven by urbanization, industrialized agriculture, and climate change, accelerates biodiversity loss and limits access to key natural resources. In turn, this threatens the way of life of many indigenous peoples and local communities who rely on forests, grasslands, soil and water for their livelihoods. Further, habitat destruction, and the expansion of livestock production are some of the largest identified drivers of zoonotic disease emergence. And when people get sick, it is harder to use natural resources sustainably and plan for the long term: money gets diverted to health costs rather than long term investments, like education or sustainable natural resource management. The complexity of these challenges becomes more apparent once you start connecting all the dots.
Such interrelated, global challenges require integrated solutions at scale. The conservation and development communities need to look for ways to collaborate if we are to have a greater chance of tackling these complex and interconnected problems, and address their root causes. The CARE-WWF Alliance is an example of this kind of marriage: merging human wellbeing and nature agendas.
The CARE-WWF Alliance works with local communities to create innovative approaches together, to locally manage and conserve natural resources – such as forests and fisheries – while supporting and developing sustainable livelihoods. With communities and government partners, CARE and WWF develop and implement programs with a wide range of activities, from capacity-building in sustainable agriculture to financial inclusion for women, to livelihood diversification and ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change impacts. Integrating these rights-based activities aim to address the root causes of poverty and environmental degradation that communities face.
One of the priority challenges the Alliance is tackling is our global food system: the complex global web of food production, distribution, and consumption that affects the conservation of local resources and the well-being of communities. Our global food system has deep flaws that often reinforce inequality and injustice, and undermine both nature and human rights. Simultaneously, our food system has the potential to drive interconnected solutions to global challenges like climate change, poverty, inequity, and global health risks such as malnutrition, hunger, and even pandemics.
The complex challenges inherent in our food system can be seen in Nachingwea District of Tanzania, where most communities survive on subsistence farming amid forests and rivers that serve as important corridors for charismatic wildlife migrating between nature reserves. Both the region’s biodiversity and communities’ traditional livelihoods and future prosperity are threatened by climate change impacts. The CARE-WWF Alliance sought to address the combined environmental, social, and economic challenges through an integrated initiative promoting gender-responsive poverty-alleviation approaches to natural resource management and resilient agricultural development. The project, which ran from December 2015 to June 2019, focused on climate-smart agriculture, diversified livelihoods and incomes, community-based conservation of forests and wildlife, and more inclusive governance.
This integrated approach led small-scale farmers (64% women) to adopt climate-smart agriculture practices that increased yields of their cash crop, sesame, by 94% over three agricultural seasons. In addition, the development of Village Savings and Loan Associations empowered members (73% women) to save enough capital to establish 47 small and medium-scale enterprises, many of which contribute to nutrition security and environmental sustainability. Moreover, just two communities engaged in participatory forest management earned US $31,306 over two years, enabling investments in forest management as well as ten community-prioritized development activities. Realization of local development priorities, like building a preschool and ensuring health insurance for vulnerable elders and youth, cemented the local understanding that sustainable natural resource management is the foundation for sustained human wellbeing.
Finally, the program fostered the enabling conditions for women’s health, rights and participation. It accomplished this through the strengthening of water committees and repair of boreholes to improve access to clean water, as well as a campaign to increase awareness and prosecution of gender-based violence. By 2019, communities recorded an impressive 35% increase in women taking leadership in natural resource organizations. Again, the interconnectedness of these issues is key to understanding the root causes and tackling them in a way that will create sustained benefits for people and nature.
If global conservation and development organizations could scale the type of approach seen in Nachingwea, the results would be transformational. Last week’s UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) was a crucial opportunity for stakeholders to collaborate and create impact at scale. The relationship between CARE and WWF has allowed us to amplify the invaluable relationship between equitable livelihoods and sustainable production. Creating space for systems thinking and integrated solutions at global venues like the UNFSS and moving forward to other global convening events like COP, facilitating unlikely partnerships among sectors, and generating financial support for these collaborations is how we can and must tackle problems at their roots. As we take the lessons from the UN Food systems Summit, and world leaders gather at global policy forums in the coming months it is imperative they push for structural change and create more integrated, resilient, sustainable, and equitable systems.