The SKI ‘Agroecology on a Landscape level’ Initiative

The SKI Agroecology Landscape Collaborative is a multi-country collaboration that was born out of the efforts of the SKI Community of Practice. In 2019 a group of southern African organisations decided to prioritise the restoration of landscapes using agroecology principles.


This collaborative effort is building capability, solidarity and leadership within and without through pioneering a different, more holistic and deeper process.  This process includes all aspects of the landscape – the local culture, the leadership, the river systems, forests, areas with wild biodiversity, the grasslands, the system of livestock management, the watershed and, very importantly, the governance systems that either damages or supports the ecosystems.

A Landscape Approach
By proposing to implement agroecology on a landscape level, the SKI Agroecology Landscape initiative is a much-needed response to the urgent crisis of ecosystem degradation, climate change and food system collapse in the region.

The impetus has arisen from SKI partners’ experience that focusing on fields and farms only, does not address the elements in the larger system that enables and supports the viability of these farms. The work is also informed by an increasing awareness that a holistic approach is needed towards regenerating ecosystems and healing communities.

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An estimated 65% of arable land, 30% of grazing land and 20% of forests in Africa 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 and will start to experience microclimatic changes that can lead to desertification (FAO 2017). The monocultures and poisons promoted by the industrial agriculture model undermine agrobiodiversity as well as wild biodiversity, decimating insect and bee populations and also impacting on the diversity of soil organisms.

These damaging agriculture-ecosystem interactions are generating interlinked 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 (World Resources Institute 2020). Subsequently increasing hunger and poverty will drive further degradation of ecological systems, as well as migration and conflict (World Resources Institute 2020). Climate change only exacerbates these challenges.

An urgent and radical change is needed in agriculture, food systems and the management of ecosystems.

In southern Africa, rainfall is low and the climate can be extreme. And this situations is profoundly accentuated by climate change. Farmers are increasingly struggling as the ecosystems around them are degrading, making it harder to sustain production on their farms. As they are impacted upon by their environment, they are simultaneously having an impact on their environment. It is vital for farmers to consider the ecosystem they are situated in and to remember that for them to be successful as farmers, they also need to be supported by this ecosystem. The most logical way to enhance this reciprocal relationship is to strengthen the link between each individual farm and the wider system the community is situated within. Moreover, while most of southern Africa experiences one short rainy season and long dry months per year,  livestock and grazing management play a central role and any kind of sustainable land management has to be at landscape level. 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 embraces many different sustainable agricultural practices as well as a socio-political and economic framework that shifts people’s relationship to their natural environment and each other.

An Agroecological Approach
Agroecology is seen as 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 that go further and incorporate both a social and political dimension. Agroecology offers the socio-political principles and proven practical practices to support community resilience at the landscape scale. The key areas in which agroecology can make a contribution towards alleviating the impact of climate change for example, are the focus on soil health, water management and biodiversity.

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Agroecology comprises the transdisciplinary science that studies the functioning of agroecosystems, including biological, biophysical, ecological, social, cultural and political aspect of these systems and including design. It is also comprising 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, is it a challenge to the status quo and an invitation and call to action for farmers, governments and all citizens to shift their worldview, pick up their tools and create a better future.

A Collaborative Participatory Approach
Through a multi-country collaboration, the 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 and will keep being different, because the starting point was different and each environment and community have a different history and context. This agroecology landscape collaborative is providing a space for joint learning, planning, evaluation, and technical and financial support for each pilot project.

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In SKI’s approach, rural and especially indigenous communities are viewed as 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 the necessary contextual knowledge. Therefore, a resilient landscape system needs institutions and processes that are collaborative and flexible and which brings together and capacitate actors from various levels and sectors. In this way, communities and their organisations will be able to lead and participate effectively in the decision making processes that affects their landscapes.

Recognising the complexity of socio-ecological systems and the need to work collectively to regenerate landscapes, the AE Landscape is using an adaptive management and governance approach which is based on co-learning and reflective practice. Such adaptation is driven by experimentation and reviewing the actions tried out to learn what works and what needs to improve so that natural systems upon which we depend can flourish. Participatory Action Research (PAR) supported by good documentation and communication is an appropriate method for such a co-learning and reflective practice. Each pilot project was introduced and is using a PAR approach to conscientise participants through cycles of discussion, reflection and planning together, where knowledge is raised and power dynamics understood and questioned. This process is  supported by a AEL Toolkit for Facilitators and further supported by a Framework for Documentation.

Governance also encompasses the adoption of principles to guide decisions, such as inclusivity, accountability and transparency. And it includes best practices around communication, collaborative learning and capacity building to support the principles. Collaboration among landscape stakeholders is key to building a relevant and supporting governance system, which needs to be based on “social cohesion, trust and understanding” (De Graaf et al. 2018).

A Principled Approach
In the absence of blueprints for the implementation of 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 has informed the broad thinking behind the principles of this SKI AE Landscape initiative. It has been further informed by the vast collective experience of the collaborating organisations and farmers driving this work.

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The SKI AE Landscape Collaborative has developed eight Principles of Effectiveness that is relevant to their own context and that articulates 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 playing an important part in the pioneering of an approach much more 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 that there are many approaches. 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.

DeTAS, working in Northern Malawi with a focus on mentoring youth and community development and coordinating the restoration of the Kakomo landscape in the Misuku mountains;

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

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

TSURO, supporting 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) and coordinating the implementation of the sustainable management of land and water resource sin the Saurombe landscape;

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

ZIMSOFF, who is a national smallholder farmers’ organisation, with extensive movement building experience in Zimbwbe and is coordinating a pilot project focused on amplifying traditional knowledge in the protection of biodiversity within the Nyamandi landscape in Gutu district;

EARTHLORE foundation, working both in South Africa and Zimbabwe with a distinctive approach of first reviving culture and traditional knowledge systems through dialogues that resulted in communities in Bikita (Zimbabwe) and Steenbok (South Africa) taking action to restore their sacred sites and river systems.