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Time to think small


Smallholders and the rural poor have a crucial role to play in the restoration of ecosystems and the conservation of natural resources

The theme of this year's World Environment Day focuses on restoring ecosystems. The past decades have been marked by the growing pressures on ecosystems, which support all life on Earth. The demands of a rapidly growing global population, coupled with climate change, and continuing pollution have magnified the degradation of global ecosystems.

Marking World Environment Day is an important reminder of the need to take actions to protect our natural surroundings, without further delay. Continued degradation of global ecosystems will also influence poverty and inequality, with smallholders and the rural poor bearing the brunt of environmental and socioeconomic challenges.

Smallholders are among those most vulnerable to the impact of environmental degradation and climate change, as their productivity and source of income are dependent on natural resources, including the availability of usable water and land.

According to a European Union estimate, non-market ecosystem goods and services account for 89 percent of the total income of the rural poor in Brazil, 75 percent in Indonesia and 47 percent in India.

However, the reality is that for many rural poor their access to suitable agricultural land is declining, and forest, soil and water resources are increasingly restricted and degraded, pushing smallholders into hunger and poverty. Recent research shows that the production of important staple crops such as beans, maize and cassava could decrease by as much as 50 to 90 percent by 2050 in parts of Angola, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe because of climate change. That could result in substantial increases in hunger and poverty.

Moreover, the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020 projects that 841.4 million people will be hungry globally by 2030. China's success in lifting its population out of extreme poverty might also be at risk if rural communities fall back into poverty by natural disasters and extreme climate events. Although ecosystem restoration is essential and relevant to each and every individual and nation, it requires complementary adaptation measures, particularly when related to smallholders in rural areas and the agriculture sector in general. In addition to widely appreciated efforts and targets, ecosystem restoration should be complemented and synergized with the promotion of climate-resilient agriculture. It takes time before sustainable ecosystem restoration measures show positive impacts on a community. But smallholder farmers cannot wait any longer and have to deal with the degraded ecosystem that puts their livelihoods at risk.

Throughout my work with the International Fund for Agricultural Development on supporting smallholders, a number of good practices have been generated on the ground. For instance, the Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Programme, launched by the fund in 2012, is driving a major scaling-up of successful "multiple-benefit" approaches to smallholder agriculture that improves production while reducing and diversifying climate-related risks. The project's results show the $296 million grant has led to improved adaptation for 5 million small-scale farmers in 41 countries, introduction of climate-resilient land management approaches to 900,000 hectares and climate risk management involving 13,000 community groups.

In China, almost half of the total funds from the IFAD financing the Yunnan Rural Revitalization Demonstration Project and the Hunan Rural Revitalization Demonstration Project ($74.78 and $60.2 million respectively) are in activities that directly contribute to improving the capacity of farmers to cope with the current and future effects of climate change. The project in Yunnan province will help bring 1,800 hectares of land under climate-resilient practices, while the one in Hunan province will improve climate information and adaptation guidance, providing 14,700 people with climate information services.

Despite being exposed and vulnerable to the impacts of environmental degradation, smallholders and the rural poor also play a crucial role in the restoration of ecosystems and conservation of natural resources. Studies indicate that agricultural activities significantly damage the ecosystem, degrading the land, causing deforestation, wetlands destruction and excessive use of water, thus impacting the biodiversity and bringing in pest problems, not to mention the pollution from chemical fertilizers, pesticides and agricultural wastes.

In some countries, agricultural activities also lead to substantial greenhouse gas emissions which come from biomass burning, methane from ruminants and rice production, ammonia and nitrous oxide from fertilizers and livestock production, and other things. With targeted assistance, smallholders and their surrounding agriculture, forestry and fishery sectors can play a key role in tackling environmental degradation and climate change.

Promoting a sustainable natural resource and economic base for rural people that is more resilient to climate change, environmental degradation and market transformation is at the core of delivering the IFAD's poverty reduction and sustainable agriculture mandate. For example, the Community Livestock and Agriculture Project in Afghanistan, while aiming to improve the food security of 223,000 rural poor households by increasing agricultural and livestock productivity, also promotes conservation of agriculture through the introduction of a set of practices such as reducing or eliminating traditional tillage, keeping crop residues on the soil and using intercropping or crop rotations.

In Southeast Asia, the IFAD also promotes sustainable management of peat land ecosystems by addressing the increasing pressures due to land development that has severely affected peat swamp forests over the past 50 years. The fund is working closely with local communities to address environmental issues and help them enhance their livelihoods through sustainable agriculture and social forestry practices, as well as by introducing alternative sources of income.

The target assistance for supporting the smallholders and rural poor cannot be achieved without proper investments. Research shows the agricultural and household-related financial needs of small-scale farmers are approximately $240 billion per year globally. However, the cumulative climate finance tracked for agriculture, forestry, and land use was only $20 billion per year in 2017 to 2018, which represents 3 percent of the total tracked global climate finance for the period. Of this total, only $8.1 billion targets small-scale farmers, agri-entrepreneurs and value chain actors serving them.

The author is country director for Afghanistan at the International Fund for Agricultural Development. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.