Putting multifunctional landscapes into climate negotiations

A multipurpose landscape with Faidherbia Albida trees and maize crops

Climate Change will have an impact on every person in the world. It is well documented that it will impact smallholder farmers the most because of the effect on their crops. On the other hand, the effects of climatic change on trees within landscapes are often not considered. However, a recently released book by World Agroforestry Centre scientists warn that climate change will have a much greater impact on the rural poor if climate debates remain focused on forests rather than on the role of trees within multifunctional landscapes. By paying smallholder farmers for ecosystem services that keep climate resilient trees on landscapes, the writers argue those trees will contribute to adaptation and mitigation simultaneously.

Due to the density of trees within them, forests have been seen as the obvious way to offset anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Sadly, in the process of embracing the forest, the potential of multipurpose trees within landscapes have been overshadowed. In the new book, Centre scientists say “more holistic carbon accounting and the inclusion of whole landscapes is needed, which will also help avoid perverse incentives and achieve fairness” They argue that a focus on forests in combination with restrictive policies limit the wider application of a landscape solution to climate change.

The thrust of the argument is that livelihoods depend on landscapes. The crucial link between livelihoods and landscapes are multipurpose trees. Trees that are grown within landscapes to provide products and services for smallholder farmers particularly during times of severe climate change, add to both adaptation and mitigation strategies. The book systematically outlines arguments for and against a whole landscape approach.

Lead author Meine Van Noordwijk says “If the focus becomes functional landscapes then forests can also be seen within the context of such landscapes.” Through this approach, forests become tree cover and in time, forests and agriculture combine to form agroforestry systems. When compared to forests, “evidence shows multifunctional landscapes are a much better basis for developing far reaching policies” says Meine.

Some of these far reaching policies will make it possible to simultaneously mitigate climate change and adapt to it by using trees on landscapes. To increase the odds of success of this approach, the scientists suggest there needs to be a diversity of tree species on landscapes. And this can be achieved if “policy barriers stopping the use of trees on farms can be removed” they say. With much need to develop the relationship between funding bodies and payments for environmental services mechanisms, what is clear is that the potential of trees are not fully realized yet and they explain in the book why this is so.

An important part of realizing the potential of a landscape approach requires policies that will make it efficient, effective and equitable to reward smallholder farmers for the environmental services. Indeed the main hypothesis of the book is that rewarding smallholder farmers for the environmental services they provide while on multifunctional landscapes is a cost effective way of reducing the negative impacts of climate change.

The authors of the book note that while there is a large body of knowledge to support the hypothesis presented, they do not deny that landscapes, livelihoods and governance are linked in a complex and intertwined manner requiring partnerships and time to bring forth its full benefits.


Christopher Mesiku

Chris Mesiku is a science communicator volunteering at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. In the last 5 years, he has worked as a communicator for various scientific institutions. He holds a Bachelor of Science, Graduate Diploma in Science Communication (ANU) and a Masters in Philosophy of Science (UQ).

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