In the Pastures of Colombia, Cows, Crops and Timber Coexist by Lisa Palmer: Yale Environment 360

In the Pastures of Colombia, Cows, Crops and Timber Coexist by Lisa Palmer: Yale Environment 360.

As an ambitious program in Colombia demonstrates, combining grazing and agriculture with tree cultivation can coax more food from each acre, boost farmers’ incomes, restore degraded landscapes, and make farmland more resilient to climate change.

by lisa palmer

Over the last two decades, cattle rancher Carlos Hernando Molina has replaced 220 acres of open pastureland with trees, shrubs, and bushy vegetation. But he hasn’t eliminated the cows. Today, his land in southwestern Colombia more closely resembles a perennial nursery at a garden center than a grazing area. Native, high-value timber like mahogany and samanea grow close together along the perimeter of the pasture. The trees are strung with electric wire and act as live fences. In the middle of the pen grow leucaena trees, a protein-packed forage tree, and 

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Lisa Palmer
In Colombia’s Cauca Valley, cattle first eat leucaena leaves, then tropical grasses.

beneath the leucaena are three types of tropical grasses and groundcover such as peanuts. 

The plants provide his 90 head of cattle with vertical layers of grazing, leading to twice the milk and meat production per acre while reducing the amount of land needed to raise them. His operation is part of a trend globally to sustainably coax more food from each acre — without chemicals and fertilizers — while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing biodiversity, and enhancing the land’s ability to withstand the effects of climate change. 

Livestock and their food needs take up 30 percent of land globally, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. In Colombia, where cattle occupy 80 percent of agricultural area, pastures have contributed to soil degradation and deforestation and, in dry areas, have hastened desertification, according to Julián Chará, a researcher at the Center for Research in Sustainable Systems of Agriculture, CIPAV, in

The cost and technical complexities of agroforestry are holding back the movement.

Cali, Colombia. But a new paradigm is emerging. Land conservation is happening alongside livestock production. 

In Colombia, Molina’s brand of so-called “sustainable intensification” is the favored agroforestry practice for livestock production. Agroforestry cultivates trees with food crops or livestock, while farmers make use of the trees’ ecological benefits. Plantains grow above shade-loving coffee. Valuable hardwoods like oak grow in alleys next to corn and wheat. 

“People don’t think of ranching when they think of agroforestry,” says David Cleary, strategy director for agriculture at The Nature Conservancy. “But what is happening in Colombia is a reminder that you have to have a broader definition of agroforestry and make it work with any number of agricultural systems. In Colombia, silvopastoral systems are favored because they can work for both smallholder farms as well as large, private-sector-style ranching.” 

In addition to the economic benefits of raising more food and timber products per acre, agroforestry is praised for its ability to help farmers, ecosystems, and animals contend with the effects of climate change, according to the World Agroforestry Center in Kenya. Although the advantages of agroforestry are well proven, the cost and technical complexities are among the factors holding back the movement, says Enrique Murgueitio, executive director of CIPAV. 

Like many in the tropics, Colombia’s farmers want to increase their productivity and income while reducing their vulnerability to weather extremes and degraded pastures, which have had devastating effects during periods of drought, Murgueitio explained. With silvopastoral systems, cattle ranchers can produce the same amount of dairy, meat, and 

Public-private partnerships have emerged to support the conversion to silvopastoral systems.

timber products in half the land area, according to research at CIPAV. 

Public-private partnerships have emerged to support the conversion to silvopastoral systems. CIPAV — along with Colombia’s Cattle Ranching Federation (FEDEGAN), The Nature Conservancy and the UN’s Global Environment Facility — have invested $42 million in a five-year project to boost sustainable agricultural production in Colombia, according to The World Bank. The money will help 2,000 ranchers with financing and technical assistance to raise cattle using agroforestry practices. Among the goals of the project are to increase incomes from milk and beef production and decrease the use of fertilizers and herbicides by 30 percent. 

The government of the United Kingdom also is providing an additional $25 million to support the growth of silvopastoral systems in Colombia and climate programs in Africa. 

Using intensive silvopastoral systems, Colombia’s National Development Plan for cattle ranching seeks to reduce pasture land from 38 million hectares (94 million acres) to 28 million hectares (70 million acres), while increasing cattle numbers from 23 million head to 40 million, according to CIPAV. Some ranchers have planted trees and shrubs on grazing land, while others use a “cut and carry” method in which farmers grow fields of trees and shrubs, such as the Mexican sunflower, and distribute the fresh cuttings to cows in pastures. 

On his family’s 700-acre El Hatico farm in the Cauca Valley of Colombia, Molina, 55, has reforested two-thirds of his pastures for silvopastoral grazing with the help of his brother, Enrique; his son, Juan José, 28; and farm hands. Some 110 acres remain conventional grassland with large canopy trees scattered throughout. 

Molina has trained cattle producers from other parts of Colombia, as well as Mexico and Costa Rica. Additionally, producers in Nicaragua, Panama, Brazil, and Rwanda, as well as more developed countries like New Zealand and Australia, are using intensive silvopastoral practices to increase livestock production and conserve land. 

At the heart of Colombia’s silvopastoral system is the leucaena plant, a legume tree whose shoots, leaves, and seed pods pack protein. It also grows like a weed. The plant’s leaves are feathery and allow sunlight to reach grass growing below, but its sturdy branches can withstand hefty browsing 

‘Ranchers have this belief that trees and pastures are not compatible,’ says one expert.

by cattle. Bacteria in the nodes of the leucaena roots also “fix” nitrogen up to three feet deep, which helps to fertilize the soil naturally. While conventional pastures require expensive applications of fertilizer and herbicides, silvopastoral systems thrive with little or no chemical additives or irrigation, says Murgueitio. Dense vegetation reduces weed growth and retains soil moisture. 

In Colombia, planting a silvopastoral system costs between $1,000 and $2,000 per hectare, depending on the combination of trees and shrubs used — 7,000 shrubs, or 5,000 shrubs and 500 trees. For farmers seeking an economic return, one of the immediate benefits of silvopastoral grazing is increased milk production. Within four months of establishing plants and fodder shrubs in her fields, Estella Dominguez said her cows were able to be milked twice a day for the first time ever. And with fewer fertilizers and weed killers to buy, she has made more money. Like Dominguez, most farmers earn a return on their investment in two years. 

With so many environmental, ecological, and economic benefits, why haven’t more farmers adopted the practice? 

“The biggest barrier is the Marlboro man image,” says Julián Chará, a researcher at CIPAV. Cattle ranching has a five-century history in Colombia. Historically, it’s been a low-cost activity involving one main ingredient: grass. “Ranchers have this belief that trees and pastures are not compatible,” said Chará. “Usually, a farmer will have a large tree in a pasture that provides heavy shade, and under it nothing grows because that’s where all the cattle gather when it’s hot.” The planting of trees and shrubs requires livestock producers to shift their thinking about the value of trees and think more about soil as a living organism that can grow layers of food for cattle, he explained. 

With evenly shaded pastures, dairy cattle stay cooler and eat throughout the day. Shade and dense brush retains soil moisture and nutrients and leads to evenly distributed deposits of manure, rather than all in one spot, Chará says. 

Until now, neither banks nor ranchers have wanted to invest in planting trees and shrubs in pastureland. High up-front costs have posed a barrier, in addition to the expertise needed to plant and maintain the trees. Amy Lerner, a researcher at Princeton University who has been studying agroforestry in Colombia, cited another issue. Most land ownership in Colombia is informal, she said. Because titles are not recorded by

Science-based silvopastoral systems are now beginning to show their potential as climate risks become clearer.

smallholders, banks cannot grant loans for planting trees and improving pastures. 

Nevertheless, investment in agroforestry systems is increasing, thanks to new incentives, real gains with sustainable grazing systems, and the risks associated with maintaining the status quo in an era of climate change. Fabiola Vega stumbled onto the idea of raising livestock with agroforestry methods in 2012 when she heard a presentation at a community meeting on how to sustainably raise cattle. Right then she decided to intensify her cattle production. Her farm, La Cabaña, is located in the Andean foothills of the northern Cauca Valley in Colombia. Previously the region was primarily known for its coffee plantations, but weather extremes and climate change have taken a toll, she said. 

“I was hardly getting a return on my coffee investment, so I bought a herd of cows to diversify,” she says. Then, with a $20,000 loan backed by the Global Environment Facility and the World Bank, she bought trees and shrubs and replaced barren hillsides — once planted with coffee — with Mexican sunflower bushes, leucaena trees, and guinea and star grasses. Her cattle thrived. The landscape now provides environmental benefits such as water conservation and forest cover, and her loan was discounted 40 percent by the GEF/World Bank fund. Vega, who bought La Cabaña 22 years ago with coffee profits, will only need to pay back $12,000. More importantly, she said her farm is now economically stable. The calving rate


Controlling the Ranching Boom in the Amazon


Clearing land for cattle is responsible for 80 percent of rainforest loss in the Brazilian Amazon. But with Amazon ranching now a multi-billion dollar business, corporate buyers of beef and leather, including Wal-Mart, are starting to demand that the destruction of the forest be halted.

of her cows was 100 percent this year. (The average for conventional cattle ranches is 52 percent, according to CIPAV). 

Enrique Murgueitio of CIPAV says that science-based solutions like silvopastoral systems are only now beginning to fulfill their potential as climate risks are becoming clearer. “Agriculture and livestock producers in tropical regions are most affected by climate change,” said Murgueitio. “Erratic weather and periods of extreme events such as the La Niña of 2010 and 2011 meant huge losses and steep drops in yields in Latin America. Those using silvopastoral systems were insulated from the effects.” Since cows have shade as well as food in agroforestry systems, many using silvopastoral techniques didn’t need irrigation during the La Niña drought. 

Murgueitio says that some people may scoff at the sustainability innovations in cattle production because emissions from ruminants are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases. Yet cattle raised using silvopastoral techniques can digest the forage more easily and reduce their methane emissions by 20 percent, according to researcher Michael Peters of the International Center or Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia. The systems also enhance carbon sequestration in both trees and soils and reduce the need to use fire for pasture management. 

“Cattle ranching is seen as eco-bad no matter what,” says Lerner of Princeton University. “But there is a huge portion of global land area in pasture. Is there a way we can make these pastures better?” 


Gender and Climate Smart Agriculture, a Recap


As I had written about earlier, FAO put on a learning event about the opportunities and challenges in incorporating a gender lens in Climate Smart Agriculture initiatives. There were some very interesting discussions that came out of the event, and I want to share the resources FAO has made available to participants. Rather than putting it all in here, I will encourage anyone interested to join the online community, where you’ll be able to access all recordings of the webinar, discussion boards, and some documents.

Here is a sample of what’s there:

My main take-away is that this is hard work. It is difficult to navigate cultural and societal boundaries that prevent women from accessing knowledge, capital, and inputs, elements that can fundamentally change the way food is produced and sold in a community. But like many endeavors, difficult things can be the most rewarding, and engaging women in Climate Smart Agriculture and other mitigation and adaptation projects has the potential to improve livelihoods and the health of the planet. Throughout the series and in the recent weeks, I’ve stumbled upon many women-focused agriculture initiatives, and I find it interesting to think about how their impact might be measured– how might we conceive of “gender equality” in farming, and what are the ideal outcomes of these programs? One answer is to think about how much women’s leadership skills and capacity have been enhanced. Another is to think of success as empowerment, and then attempt to measure said’s no easy task, but some are trying to do precisely that. Take for example the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), it:

measures the empowerment, agency, and inclusion of women in the agriculture sector in an effort to identify ways to overcome those obstacles and constraints.The Index is a significant innovation in its field and aims to increase understanding of the connections between women’s empowerment, food security, and agricultural growth. It measures the roles and extent of women’s engagement in the agriculture sector in five domains:

(1) decisions about agricultural production,

(2) access to and decisionmaking power over productive resources,

(3) control over use of income,

(4) leadership in the community, and

(5) time use.

It also measures women’s empowerment relative to men within their households.

There is a lot of information and countless reports, case studies and pilot programs out there, all pointing to a similar conclusion: women and their role must be at the center of policy and project planning. This is not to exclude men from development initiatives, but to make sure that women are included, trained, and supported in their daily effort to feed their families and communities. It seems obvious, but it doesn’t always happen, and when it doesn’t, we are leaving behind some of the world’s most powerful agents for change.

 Gap in Agriculture


Equal Access in Agriculture: Closing the Gap

Here are a couple of resources I have received leading up to the learning event on Gender and Agriculture put on by FAO during the next few weeks.

The first is their definition of Climate Smart Agriculture:

What’s Climate-Smart Agriculture?

“Climate-smart agriculture (CSA), contributes to the achievement of sustainable development goals. It integrates the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social and environmental) by jointly addressing food security and climate challenges. It is composed of three main pillars:

1. sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes;

2. adapting and building resilience to climate change;

3. reducing and/or removing greenhouse gases emissions, where possible.

CSA is not a single specific agricultural technology or practice that can be universally applied. It is an approach that requires site-specific assessments to identify suitable agricultural production technologies and practices.”

There is more information in the  English version / French version / Spanish version of the Executive Summary of the “Climate Smart Agriculture Sourcebook”, and at


Gap in Agriculture

And the third is a succinct video on the gender gap in agriculture in the developing world.


There will be lots more to come, so this is just a small taste of all the resources available. Stay tuned!

Women in Climate Smart Agriculture

It is time to revisit Climate Smart Agriculture. I wrote about it a while ago, praising its goals and reaffirming the need for it and its principles as goals we have had for quite some time. I didn’t love the name, but it’s growing on me. Since then, I have seen more and more reports on it, and understand the distinction between “Climate Smart” and “sustainable” agriculture. I have specially noticed the initiatives engaging women in Climate Smart Agriculture, and will be participating in an online workshop “Gender and Climate Smart Agriculture” from January 30- mid February, organized by FAO.

Why women? Because climate change threatens to affect women more severely than men across the board in the developing world, where females make up 43% of the agricultural labor force (FAOSTAT). Women have less access to credit, education, and land, all of which can help farmers adapt to the changing climate. If women are not given the same opportunity to adapt, we will be in big trouble.

Farming First has a fantastic infographic entitled “The Female Face of Farming”. It covers three questions:

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A few things become clear from their figures. First, women play an imperative role in agriculture in the developing world, where food security is an increasingly more serious concern. Second, women do not have access to the same resources as men, and this needs to change if we want communities to become more resilient and knowledgeable. And finally, when given the opportunity and the resources, rural women can have a huge positive impact on the future of their communities by investing in the wellbeing of children:

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So let’s invest in agriculture education and opportunities for all, keeping in mind the need to improve the access women have to a food-secure, knowledge, asset, and equality rich future. I look forward to the learning event, and am eager to share what I learn in the weeks to come!

Context: Considering Local Vulnerability

People and their wellbeing matter whether we’re thinking about trees or human health or roads. When thinking about adaptation to climate change, this rings particularly true; it is essential that people’s needs and contexts are deeply and carefully woven into any scheme to enhance resilience and facilitate adaptation and mitigation. One example of how this has been acknowledged is in the Climate, Community, and Biodiversity Alliance’s CCB Standards in REDD carbon offset projects. To receive CCB certification, projects must assess the community context of the project, and ensure that it supports local communities.

Two publications on this subject caught my eye and interest recently. They highlight how imperative it is to assess the vulnerability, livelihoods, and context of communities involved in conservation and Payments for Ecosystem Services programs, using Cameroon and China as case studies.

Local Vulnerability, Forest Communities and Forestcarbon Conservation

International Journal of Biodiversity and Conservation and CIFOR, August 2013

The mechanism for reducing carbon emissions through forest conservation is dominating climate policy processes in many tropical forests countries. However, there are concerns about the implications of these activities on forest-dependent communities, who are vulnerable to climatic stresses. Reconciling local vulnerability, adaptive capacity and forests carbon conservation initiatives is necessary but challenging. This study concludes that assessing the vulnerability of livelihood options of communities to both climatic and non climatic stresses is a point of departure to minimize risk on forests carbon conservation schemes.

Full text here.


Performance and Prospects of Payments for Ecosystem Services Programs: Evidence from China

Journal of Environmental Management, August 2013

Systematic evaluation of the environmental and socioeconomic effects of Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) programs is crucial for guiding policy design and implementation. The results suggest that the NFCP was not only significantly associated with increases in forest cover, but also had both positive (e.g., labor reduction for fuelwood collection) and negative (e.g., economic losses due to crop raiding by wildlife) effects on local households. Results from this study emphasize the importance of integrating local conditions and understanding underlying mechanisms to enhance the performance of PES programs. The findings are useful for the design and implementation of successful conservation policies not only in our study area but also in similar places around the world.

Full text here.

On a somewhat related note, the video below (in Spanish) explores the fears of coffee growers in Risaralda, Colombia, where they live in poverty and are operating at a loss. Their anecdotes of the increasing difficulties of growing coffee, specially in warmer areas, add to the ongoing links and posts on this blog about the challenges facing coffee as related to climate change. If coffee growing communities struggle to keep their fincas operating today, it will only get more difficult in the years ahead. This reality highlights the urgent need to assess climate risks and undertake resilience building practices and the consideration of diverse adaptation strategies among coffee and all other agricultural communities.

Taza Amarga


“Beyond the Gardens: The Forgotten Home of Coffee”

A short video on the fate of coffee and the livelihood of the 25 million families who depend on coffee production around the world. (And all of us, who depend on coffee to function.)

And check out the Environment and Coffee Forest Forum (ECFF) featured in the video.

via KEW GARDENS – Beyond the Gardens: The Forgotten Home of Coffee on Vimeo.


Community Climate Change Adaptation in Manus Province, Papua New Guinea

“The community of Mbuke and Whal Islands just south of Manus Island in Papua New Guinea are becoming more resilient to climate change impacts and are strengthening their food security through projects such as mangrove planting, implementing marine protected areas, growing different food crops such as yam, and building seawalls. The islanders have formed the Mbuke Island’s People’s Association to help implement these projects and are receiving assistance from government departments and organisations such as The Nature Conservancy and WWF.”

The Usual Suspects: Water, Health, Agriculture

The Bonn Climate Change Conference  is well underway (despite work under SBI being suspended.) As expected, the gathering has produced seemingly endless reports, ideas, and blog posts about every conversation at the conference (including Russia’s special demands). One of the conversations that caught my eye was a side event titled “The connecting link: Water Security and Adaptation.” Ensuring water security, needless to say, is a critical component of adaptation goals. Without it, any other gains would be short-lasting. From the event’s press release:

“An integrated approach to managing and developing the world’s water resources is vital for not only driving world economies, ensuring human well-being and security from hunger, but can also serve as an essential building block for enhancing coherence on adaptation,” said Dr. Ursula Schaefer-Preuss, Chair of GWP at a side event at the Bonn climate change negotiations. “Water is the connecting link because climate impacts are largely felt through the medium of water,” she said.

During another side event at Bonn, the World Health Organization, WHO, released “Climate Change and Health: A Tool to Estimate Health and Adaptation Costs”. The document

provides step-by-step guidance on estimating (a) the costs associated with damage to health due to climate change, (b) the costs for adaptation in various sectors to protect health from climate change and (c) the efficiency of adaptation measures, i.e. the cost of adaptation versus the expected returns, or averted health costs.

It is interesting to see health brought into the conversation, especially in the context of European nations and their climate adaptation plans, not simply those of developing countries.

We will have to wait and see what all the various events and meetings amount to as the session wraps up on June 14th, especially in the area of adaptation.

For those of us outside of Bonn, there are always useful papers, ideas and resources as we continue to think about adaptation and resilience. I gravitate towards the agriculture/forestry related efforts, which is clear from what I’ve found most interesting recently:

It would be great to know what others find interesting, relevant and timely in the world of climate adaptation. If you’re reading this, I encourage you to share with me!

400 ppm and an Age of Adaptation

Screen Shot 2013-05-14 at 10.51.11 AM

The past few days’ worth of environment and conservation news have been dusted, however lightly (or heavily), with the latest CO2 measurements  coming out of the Manua Loa Observatory. Yes, we have reached the dreaded milestone: 400 parts per million.

The ecological implications of this historical concentration of CO2 in our planet are vast. Every ecosystem and our built environment face big challenges, from the frequency and magnitude of natural disasters to the vulnerability of current urban infrastructureagriculture, and forests that we hear and read so much about, often through a lens of doom. Glaciers melting, people starving, countries flooding, species disappearing at previously unimaginable rates. The climate change community has learned a few lessons about the doom communication strategy, and if we can agree on just one of those lessons, let it be that it simply does not work. Desperation is not inspiring nor does it call us to action; simply put, it’s not the best recruitment tool we’ve got. I don’t propose we deny the clearly daunting challenges ahead, but I encourage us to avoid saturating our messages with terrifying depictions that shut us down and incapacitate a movement.

Two years ago, a friend and I wondered what we were at the very core: optimists? pessimists? As a seemingly very optimistic person, I admitted to often feeling like I was actually more of a dedicated pessimist. I knew we were in deep trouble, arguably screwed, but I felt committed to keeping at it anyways. But what came after that confession has changed the way I have approached my work and hopes for climate action in a very profound way. This friend challenged me to imagine what would be possible if instead of pessimism we made dedicated optimism the foundation of our work. If you’re not absolutely sure there is some hope, he said, we’ve already lost this battle. At all of 22 years old. And that, of course, was unacceptable.

So what to make of the 400 ppm news? Let it not be that we are gone beyond hope, that any solutions will all come, if ever, too late. I propose we use it as a humbling reminder of the magnitude of the challenge before us, the need for our work, for our optimism. Let this be proof of the undeniable Age of Adaptation we now live in, and couple our ideas and vision for mitigation with ambitious efforts to adapt and vice versa.

On that note, here are a few things I have found noteworthy in the world of mitigation and adaptation. These are testament to the unwillingness of billions to give up, to throw their hands up in the air and claim it’s too late, too daunting.