Majority of rural communities in India are dependent on farming, forest and common lands to fulfil their livelihood needs. As rural farm livelihoods heavily depend on natural resources like land and water, the farming communities have been adept in practicing farming in harmony with nature.
The pressure on natural resources has been increasing. Land is now subject to competing demands, not only from agriculture sector but also from sectors like industry and urban development. The governments often acquire land for ‘development’ purposes including a range of activities like mining, dams and highways.
The only way of meeting the increasing demand for food and other agriculture products for the growing population has been enhancing crop productivity. Bringing more land under cultivation is neither possible nor feasible. The production model of improved seed-fertiliser-pesticide technology therefore focused on short term increases at the farm or plot level to increase the efficiency of the resources used. Agriculture was seen as an independent entity whose efficiency had to be enhanced. In the process, everything else in the ecosystem, like the wild flora and fauna, were considered as competitors for the limited resources available. Central to this process was an immense focus on achieving food security, ignoring the role of ecosystems in sustainable food production.
Intensive agricultural systems have profound ecological effects. Millions of hectares of forests and natural vegetation have been cleared for agricultural use. In the last couple of centuries, India has lost over half of its forests, 40% of its mangroves, and a significant part of its wetlands. Soil erosion, salinization, desertification, and other soil degradations associated with agricultural production and deforestation have reduced land quality and agricultural productivity. Around 57 per cent of the total land area degraded on account of environmental and manmade reasons, such as soil erosion due to water runoff and loss of vegetative cover, over-use of chemicals in agriculture, and more intensive cultivation. The mode of irrigation has undergone a significant shift in the last 40 years—groundwater has replaced surface water as the major source of irrigation, now accounting for over 60 per cent of gross irrigated area. The over-exploitation and degradation of resources has set in which negatively impacts livelihoods and health.
Need for landscape approach
According to Global Footprint Network, in 2003 in India, humanity’s Ecological Footprint (its demand on nature) exceeded global biocapacity (nature’s ability to meet this demand) by 25 percent.
Ecological Footprint accounts track the area of biologically productive land and water needed to produce the resources consumed by a given population and to absorb its waste.
Agriculture is one part of the landscape, but has a profound effect on the ecosystem. Achieving food security therefore will require the conservation of the ecosystems providing these foods. There have been attempts to build and strengthen ecological synergies through various approaches like organic agriculture, conservation agriculture, permaculture, agroecology etc. However, all of these approaches trying to reduce the ecological footprint focused on farm scale, and not at the larger landscape level.
Landscapes encompass a diversity of interactions between people and environment, and between agricultural and non-agricultural systems. Healthy landscapes not only exhibit healthy ecosystems, but also sustain livelihoods and communities.
A continuing and growing demand for agricultural and wild products and ecosystem services will require farmers, agricultural planners and conservationists to reconsider the relationship between production agriculture and conservation of biodiversity. A fully integrated approach to agriculture, conservation and rural livelihoods, within a landscape or ecosystem context is what is needed in many regions.
Rural communities have been taking up a number of initiatives, either on their own or with the support of an external agency in conserving their landscapes and ecosystems. They often have strong economic and social rationales for supporting biodiversity conservation. It may be to stabilize yields, to reduce production costs, to protect their right to forest and their products; to conserve natural resources crucial to farming, or conserve landscapes of special cultural or religious significance to them.
Traditional systems of resource management have conservation values and principles ingrained within them. It is critical to understand the values of these initiatives and provide locally appropriate legal recognition and support, rather than imposing alternate models on the local communities and undermining their conservation efforts. The community conservation initiatives at the mouth of the Devi river in Odisha clearly illustrate this. (Sweta Mishra, p.9).
In southern Odisha state, while the landscape and livelihoods of family farmers are threatened by industrial development in the shape of large dams, changing rainfall patterns and government indifference, the tribal communities are able to conserve their land for their own benefit with a little support from Agragamee, an NGO. These grassroots efforts show that there are alternatives which now need to be recognised, supported and promoted further for the benefit of many more marginalised farming communities. (Vidhya Das, p.6)
Some types of landscapes like the Orans (community forests in Rajasthan), which hold a religious significance, are better managed by the local communities. Engagement of the local community in natural resources management has made a tangible difference to awareness on biodiversity, has instilled respect for the land and its multiple uses, and has improved local eco-systems across the Siliserh Chhind. As many as 125 Orans have been restored covering parts of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh. (Aman Singh, p.13)
At the landscape level, it is important for the communities to work collectively to conserve biodiversity as well as to avail its benefits. Local communities in Chitravas village in Rajasthan followed an approach that restored the health of the ecosystems, strengthened on and off farm incomes, while safeguarding forests. The collective strengths of the community were reflected in the improved governance over natural resources and also in improvements in biomass, water and soil health. (FES, p.21)
In Bangladesh, where land is scarce and flooding gets worse year after year, local communities are trying creative ways of sustaining their livelihoods. Farming families are using the seasonal islands and floating gardens to grow crops and survive (Nazmul Choudhury and Nirmal Bepary, p.33)
Healthy landscapes for sustainable livelihoods
Healthy landscapes provide a sustainable stream of ecological goods and services to the agricultural sector. Proper management of agricultural activity is critical to maintaining and restoring healthy landscapes. Landscape approaches can create more ‘space’ for equitable outcomes by identifying synergies between local livelihood benefits and benefits for agricultural economies and biodiversity, and by justifying stronger rights for poor producers over natural resources. Being context specific, these systems will require the local communities to organise and work with other interested groups to achieve equitable outcomes.
The ‘landscape’ approach is increasingly becoming necessary to make agriculture and rural livelihoods resilient and sustainable, especially in the light of climate change conditions. This is especially important in countries where landscapes do not have clear demarcations of land use for agriculture, forestry and pastures. Maintaining healthy landscapes is fundamental not only for feeding and nourishing the people, but also for ensuring that the planet remains a thriving home for various other life forms.
– Sara J Scherr and Jeffrey A McNeely, Biodiversity conservation and agricultural sustainability: towards a new paradigm of ‘ecoagriculture’ landscapes , Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. Feb 12, 2008 ; 363(1491): 477–494.
– Nicholls, T., Elouafi, I., Borgemeister, C., Campos-Arce, J.J., Hermann, M., Hoogendoorn, J., Keatinge, J.D.H., Kelemu, S., Molden, D.J. and Roy, A., Transforming rural livelihoods and landscapes: sustainable improvements to incomes, food security and the environment, October 2013, AIRCA White Paper.