The SKI ‘Agroecology on a Landscape level’ Initiative

The SKI Agroecology Landscape initiative is a multi-country collaboration of southern African organisations. It emerged from the efforts of SKI’s Community of Practice (COP)1. In 2019, seven members of the COP decided to pilot a landscape regeneration approach which is underpinned by agroecology principles to drive action that can redress the interlinked and urgent crises of ecosystem degradation, climate change, social cohesion erosion and food system collapse in the region.

The initiative aims to build capability, solidarity and leadership within and beyond the initiative members. It is pioneering a different, more holistic and deeper process that encompasses all aspects of the landscape – the local culture, the leadership, the river systems, forests, soils, areas with wild biodiversity, the grasslands, the system of livestock management, the watershed and, very importantly, the governance systems that either damage or support the ecosystem.

1 The SKI Community of Practice was set up in 2015 with the purpose of learning and reflecting about community seed systems and agroecology through interacting, exchanging, sharing from experience and innovating together. This group includes practitioners from within SKI partners and like-minded organisations and experts who are eager to work together towards the amplification of farmer-led seed systems (FLSS) and agroecology (AE) in the region.

A Landscape Approach
The SKI Agroecology Landscape initiative recognises that a focus only on fields and farms, is not sufficient to ensure the viability of agroecological farming. It acknowledges the need to apply a holistic environmental approach, one that promotes and restores the health of life above and below the surface of the earth over wide geographic areas.

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However, what we find in Africa are increasingly degraded landscapes: an estimated 65% of arable land, 30% of grazing land and 20% of forests are degraded (UN-Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] 2017). About 6 million more hectares of land are degraded each year (World Resources Institute 2020). This directly impacts ecosystem functioning through declining soil fertility, nutrient imbalances, soil compaction and erosion, salinisation and acidification (FAO 2017).

A degraded landscape cannot host high levels of biodiversity. It starts to experience microclimatic changes that can lead to desertification (FAO 2017). The monocultures and poisons used by farmers applying industrial agriculture inputs also undermine agrobiodiversity as well as wild biodiversity, decimating insect and bee populations and impacting on the diversity of soil organisms.

These damaging agriculture-ecosystem interactions generate interlinking challenges: a degraded natural resource base impacts on people’s ability to produce food and generate livelihoods while about 70% of rural Africans rely directly on these ecosystems for their livelihoods (World Resources Institute 2020). As ecosystems degrade, livelihoods are eroded. This drives increasing levels of hunger and poverty which can result in further degradation of ecological systems, as well as migration and conflict (World Resources Institute 2020).

An Agroecology Approach
Agroecology is key to building resilience to climate change. Agroecology presents an overall framework for a range of practices and approaches that are not only sustainable, but also incorporate social and political dimensions. Agroecology is based on socio-political principles and proven practical agricultural practices to support community resilience at a landscape scale. Key areas in which agroecology contributes towards alleviating the impact of climate change for example, are in its promotion of soil health, water management and biodiversity.

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In southern Africa, rainfall is low and the climate can be extreme. This situation is profoundly accentuated by climate change. Farmers increasingly struggle as the ecosystems around them are degraded, making it harder for them to sustain production on their farms. To reverse this process, the reciprocal relationship between each individual farm and the wider system in which they and their community are situated needs to be strengthen. An ecosystem based landscape approach to the agriculture system is called for. Such a landscape approach must be supported by a sustainable agriculture and social framework. Agroecology provides such a sustainable framework as it promotes many sustainable agricultural practices that work with nature as well as a socio-political and economic framework that shifts people’s relationship to their natural environment and each other.

Agroecology comprises the transdisciplinary science that studies the functioning of agroecosystems, including their biological, biophysical, ecological, social, cultural and political aspects and includes agroecosystems design. It comprises a set of agricultural practices that support a more sustainable farming system. It is also known as a movement that seeks to precipitate widespread behaviour change that supports and promotes ecologically sustainable and socially just farming (Rosset and Altieri 2017).

Neither agroecology or landscape approaches provide a silver bullet, blueprint or operational framework for managing large areas of land. What they are, is a set of principles, practices and approaches pointing the way towards ecosystems regeneration.

Agroecology combined with an Integrated Landscape Design approach provides an organising framework for disentangling the complexity of the landscape and investigating the impacts of different courses of action. Above all, it challenges the status quo and invites and calls to action farmers, governments and all citizens to shift their worldview, pick up their tools, and start collaborating to create a better future.

A Collaborative Approach
Through a multi-country collaboration, the SKI AE Landscape initiative is building capability, solidarity and leadership within the southern Africa region through the piloting of an AE landscape management approach in eight sites. Each local project is different and will remain unique from the others as each project has a different starting point, with each community having a different history, context and vision for themselves.

The initiative provides the space for joint learning, planning, evaluation, and technical and financial support for each of the unique pilot projects. It also provides AEL collaborative partners the opportunity to widely share their learning with others, in SKI and beyond.

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Embedded in the approach used is the recognition that, rural and especially indigenous communities are central as they perform the prime role of building landscape resilience. They are the residents, custodians and everyday users of the different aspects of landscapes and they also hold essential contextual knowledge. However, for landscapes to become and maintain their resilience, institutions and processes that are collaborative and flexible and which bring together and capacitate actors from various levels and sectors are needed. Yet, communities and their organisations are always supported to take the lead and participate effectively in the decision making processes that affect their landscapes.

Recognising that socio-ecological systems are complex and the importance of working collectively to regenerate landscapes, the AE Landscape initiative uses an adaptive management and governance approach. This is based on co-learning and reflective practice. Adaptation is driven by experimentation and reviewing the actions tried so as to learn what works and what needs to improve so that actions become ever more effective in regenerating the natural systems upon which we depend.

The governance approach is also underpinned by principles that guide decisions, such as inclusivity, accountability and transparency. It is also designed to promote strong collaboration among AE landscape stakeholders as this is key to building a relevant and effective governance system based on “social cohesion, trust and understanding” (De Graaf et al. 2017). Good practices on communication, collaborative learning and capacity building are also applied to promote collaborative ways of working.

A Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach supported by good documentation and communication is used as it promotes co-learning and reflective practice. Each pilot project uses a PAR approach to build understanding and cooperation between participants through cycles of discussion, reflection and planning together. Such a process helps create knowledge and ensures that power dynamics are understood and questioned. The process is supported by an AEL Toolkit for Facilitators and further supported by a Framework for Documentation.

A Principled Approach
In the absence of a blueprint for implementing landscape approaches, an iterative process of trial, adaptation and learning is needed. Internationally a set of design principles to guide landscape-level processes in an inclusive, democratic and transparent way has been developed. These principles have been recognised by the UN Convention for Biological Diversity and together with the vast collective experience of SKI AE Landscape collaborating organisations and farmers driving this work, they have informed the broad thinking behind the principles and approach used by the SKI AE Landscape initiative.

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The SKI AE Landscape Collaborative has developed eight Principles of Effectiveness that are relevant to each partner’s context and that articulate the core qualities and purpose of the approach. The partners in the collaborative have been using these principles in designing their work with the communities in the eight pilot sites, and in sharing their challenges and successes with each other. Using these principles as a framework for decision making and learning at all levels is important in pioneering an approach suitable to the complexities of working with communities and landscapes.

Considering the wide spectrum of approaches and disciplines engaged in landscapes, it is useful to remember that there is no such thing as THE landscape approach. But guided by these common principles and working with the capabilities needed to enable implementation, using landscape as a framework provides a discursive space for ‘muddling’ ahead towards more coherence, justice, sustainability.

Seven organisations from four countries, who participate in the SKI Community of Practice, have teamed up to form the SKI AE Landscape collaborative. They are committed to working together, learning from each other and holding each other accountable. They in turn partner with local communities, stakeholders and other organisations that can help strengthen the work in the eight pilot sites.

The aim of this work is to create and communicate good working examples of how to regenerate functional healthy landscapes in the region from which others can learn.

These SKI AEL collaborative partners and the pilot projects they coordinate are:

KATC, a renowned sustainable organic farming training and outreach centre based outside Lusaka. Coordinates the regeneration of water catchments in the Kapete area of Chongwe district;

ReSCOPE, works with schools and youth to introduce permaculture and food forests in rural communities throughout the region. Coordinates the piloting of integrated regenerative practices in the Chona landscape in Monze district in Southern Zambia;

TSURO, supports smallholder farmers in the Chimanimani Mountains of Eastern Zimbabwe on seed, agriculture, holistic livestock management and water catchment regeneration (especially after the devastation caused by Cyclone Idai in 2019). Coordinates the implementation of the sustainable management of land and water resources in the Saurombe landscape;

UKUVUNA, specializes in permaculture training across the region. Coordinates an intervention that focuses on reforestation and water management in the middle Rusape River catchment in Makoni District in Zimbabwe;

ZIMSOFF, a national smallholder farmers’ organisation, with extensive movement building experience in Zimbabwe. Coordinates a pilot project that amplifies traditional knowledge in the protection of biodiversity within the Nyamandi landscape in Gutu district;

EARTHLORE, foundation, works in South Africa and Zimbabwe using a distinctive approach of first reviving culture and traditional knowledge systems through dialogues that result in communities in Bikita (Zimbabwe) and Steenbok (South Africa) taking action to restore their sacred sites and river systems;

DeTAS, works in Northern Malawi with a focus on mentoring youth and community development. Coordinates the restoration of the Kakomo landscape in the Misuku Mountains in collaboration with SKI partner SCOPE Malawi.