The SDGs should serve as a challenge to ICRAF scientists

By Margaret Kroma

women coffee farmers large

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals that world leaders adopted in New York last week will shape international development for a generation to come. The World Agroforestry Centre can and should make a critical contribution toward the broad ambition that those goals set out. But to maximize our impact, our science will have to shift and open up to new influences.

For more than 35 years, ICRAF scientists have produced cutting-edge research aimed at helping poor rural farmers use agroforestry and other sustainable farming techniques to feed their families, sustain their livelihoods, and manage their limited resources. ICRAF studies have shown that using trees on farms can increase poor families’ incomes and asset bases; boost farmers’ yields, while complementing crop and livestock production; and maintain or enhance ecosystem services such as water provision, soil health, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity.

Clearly, all of these impacts are directly relevant to the SDG ambition, particularly with regard to poverty reduction (SDG 1), food security and nutrition (SDG 2), and sustainable land use (SDG 15). In each of these areas, agroforestry can provide important solutions.

But something is missing in this equation. ICRAF scientists have been churning out evidence of the power of agroforestry for more than a generation, but still we have not seen nearly enough change on the ground. Smallholder farmers around the world – including in countries such as Kenya and Indonesia, where ICRAF is most active – continue to struggle, with farmers mostly relying on old-fashioned, unsustainable farming techniques. The research exists, but the lessons from that research haven’t reached rural farmers. Or perhaps the lessons have been heard, but the farmers have failed to adopt them.

Why haven’t more farmers taken on these evidence-driven improved techniques? And why have just a few farmers seen huge growth in their incomes and productivity, while the vast majority of producers are still as poor as their parents were?

I argue that ICRAF is missing a critical opportunity in its  approach to research. For too long, we have focused on the pure science of agroforestry and overlooked the social and institutional side of the equation. For too long, our scientists have gauged their impact by the number of times their papers have been cited, not by the number of lives their research has touched.

If agroforestry is to have a real impact, our research will need to be more permeable to knowledge from the murky, contested, and uncertain social contexts of real-world application. That means dealing in social systems as well as biophysical systems; it means tackling the institutional equations as well as the chemical formulae. We must understand not just the technical science, but the political economy of how and where that science is (or isn’t) applied. This includes questions of who benefits, and what structural barriers are preventing more people of many identities from enjoying those same benefits. These institutional and social elements must be at the heart of our research.

Some of our scientists have already broken ground in this regard. I commend researchers such as Steven Franzel and Evelyn Kiptot for their pioneering research on the power of using volunteer farmer trainers (VFTs) – particularly female trainers – to spread the good news about agroforestry. And I applaud Keith Shepherd and his team in SD4 for their work on decision analysis and risk assessment, which aims to help stakeholders make informed decisions about land use. A team led by Meine Van Noordwijk, Beria Leimona and Sonya Dewi in ICRAF’s Southeast Asia office have also developed a powerful negotiation toolkit to support decision-making at the landscape level. This is the kind of research that ICRAF must produce if our institution hopes to make a tangible contribution to the realization of the SDGs.

The 17 goals that were adopted last week should serve as a challenge to ICRAF’s many thoughtful and competent scientists, who have already demonstrated their expert ability to examine landscapes, ecology, and climate from the standpoint of objective science. Our challenge – indeed, our duty – is now to bring the socio-ecological and equity dimension into that work.

Margaret Kroma is ICRAF’s Assistant Director General for Partnerships and Impact.

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