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Degraded lands hold promise in feeding 9 billion, while preserving forests

Cattle in Brazil. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Cattle in Brazil. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Making productive use of degraded lands and boosting productivity of small-holder farmers are key to meeting surging global consumption of agricultural products while preserving critical wildlife habitats, said an agricultural expert on the sidelines of the Skoll World Forum for Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford.

Speaking ahead of a panel on “Transforming Markets to Save Forests”, Jason Clay, Senior Vice President of Market Transformation at WWF, told that there are an estimated 800 million to 1.6 billion hectares of degraded land worldwide that could be suitable for agricultural production. Cultivating these lands could reduce pressure on critical ecosystems including rainforests, peat swamps, and high-biodiversity savannas.

“We have good case studies out of Indonesia and Brazil showing that rehabilitating degraded land for agriculture can actually be more profitable than converting forest land,” he said.

Clay noted that Brazil at least 10 million hectares of such land have already been rehabilitated and planted with crops. The government aims to do the same on 25 million additional hectares by 2020. Ethiopia and China have more modest targets.

“Globally, we should aim for 250 million hectares by 2030,” he said, adding that potential for intensification was particularly high in low productivity cattle pasture.

Clay said that production on degraded lands could benefit both agribusiness and smallholders. He pointed to Indonesia, where a chief hurdle for establishing oil palm plantations in deforested areas that have been colonized by invasive grasses is concerns over land tenure. Local communities often claim such areas as their own, making forest concessions granted by the Ministry of Forestry easier options for industrial expansion. But conversion of such areas deprives communities access to forest resources and generates few local benefits from palm oil production. A solution that involved smallholders, spared forest, and enabled palm oil companies to expand would therefore be ideal.

Clay suggested that a benefits-sharing model similar to an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) whereby communities would grow oil palm on small plots and eventually own a stake in the mill they supply could improve equity and better align incentives between smallholders and companies. Carbon funds generated by avoiding deforestation could go toward funding improving crop yields via better genetic stock rather.

“We’ve got to figure out globally how smallholders can go to scale,” he said. “Joint-ventures between communities and companies are a possibility.”

Clay’s “Transforming Markets to Save Forests” takes place Friday in Oxford. Other panelists include Marcos Jank of UNICA, Brazil’s Sugarcane Industry Association; Daniela Mariuzzo of Banco Rabobank International Brasil; Gavin Neath of Unilever; and Pat Venditti of Greenpeace International.

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