How to be sustainable: work together

Learning to work together for a better future. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

Learning to work together for a better future. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

At least one regional research-in-development project in Southeast Asia has found that working together is the best way to ensure a sustainable future.

Sustainability is a major challenge not only for the planet but also for research-in-development projects that have environmental, economic and social sustainability as their goals. For such projects, which typically only run for three-to-five years, ensuring that successful methods and results continue after the project closes has been a subject of debate for decades.

The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) has developed a participatory approach to operations that has seen its work sustained beyond the life of a project. Engaging everyone who has an interest in the aims of the project—farmers, their communities, local and national governments and the private sector—is the key to ensuring sustainability, according to ICRAF researchers.

One successful example is the Climate-smart, Tree-based, Co-investment in Adaptation and Mitigation in Asia (Smart Tree-Invest) project, funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development and implemented in Indonesia, the Philippines and Viet Nam.

From its inception in 2014, the project set out to build the capacity of local communities and governments to increase their resilience to climate change through co-investment in ecosystem services by developing skills and knowledge of agroforestry systems and their role in protecting the environment.

L to R: Sacha Amaruzaman, Ibrahim Rasyid, Betha Lusiana, Hasan al Idrus. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

L to R: Sacha Amaruzaman, Ibrahim Rasyid, Betha Lusiana, Hasan al Idrus. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

In March 2017, at the closing workshop of the Indonesian component of Smart Tree-Invest, Ibrahim Rasyid, head of the Bumi Pogogul Watershed Working Group and the Buol District Development Planning Agency in Central Sulawesi, said, ‘The strength of ICRAF’s approach lies in its methodological simplicity and relatively low-cost activities that nevertheless provide big impact. Three years ago, I inaugurated the project’s activities with high expectations. Today, after three years of learning so many things together, I am closing the activities proudly and thank ICRAF for the valuable contribution to Buol District’s development. Despite the project’s close, our actions will not stop: the watershed working group will continue to replicate the activities’.

The government was so impressed with the work that they included replication of the activities in their own annual budget, something that does not always occur for development projects.

Hasan al Idrus, the district secretary, highlighted another reason why the project had been successful in such a short time. He said, ‘The objective of Smart Tree-Invest—to promote sustainable agricultural development while maintaining ecosystem services—is in line with the development vision of the Government of Buol’.

This lesson is a critical one: for research-in-development projects to be sustainable after the close of a project, they must, from the outset, accord with the objectives of the government and communities who are the beneficiaries. Smart Tree-Invest had worked closely with both groups from the beginning, ensuring that everyone was involved in discussions and activities.

Sacha Amaruzaman, Smart Tree-Invest’s project officer, explained the process.

‘In the first year, we carried out intensive, participatory research on livelihoods and ecosystems to understand the people and environment of Buol. We worked together with farmers, communities and government to understand each of the groups and how land use affected the services provided by ecosystems, sharing the knowledge amongst us all. In the second year, we carried out action research into ecosystem services, which involved participatory watershed monitoring and forming farmers’ learning groups,” he said. “Both these activities also involved all the people and understanding was built together. While continuing the action research in the final year, we also focused on mainstreaming the results—which meant discussing with government what policies, programs and budget would be needed to activities continued—and planning the exit strategy to ensure sustainability’.

This process, over a relatively short period of three years, achieved its goals to initiate and strengthen collaboration amongst all the groups and at the end, the district government had committed to not only continuing the work but paying for it out of their own budget.

Betha Lusiana, the coordinator of Smart Tree-Invest Indonesia, explained the role of the project’s exit strategy in achieving these results.

‘Our strategy was to create the enabling conditions for co-investment in ecosystem services. Over the past three years, we built capacity and raised awareness of all the people involved. Finally, together with the working group—which was the body we helped set up and which had members from all the sectors—we identified the most suitable activities for replication not only by farmers and the government but also by a private oil-palm plantation, which is replicating the participatory watershed monitoring’, she said.

Sustainable agriculture needs investment if it is to grow well. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

Sustainable agriculture needs investment if it is to grow well. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre

Despite the high level of success, the Smart Tree-Invest team had several recommendations for the Buol Government that they considered would strengthen the co-investment strategy. One was to maintain the key role of the Bumi Pogogul Watershed Working Group in improving cross-sectoral collaboration in agricultural development planning and implementation. Second, the national government’s Village Fund could play a greater role in supporting agricultural and environmental programs. The Fund directs substantial amounts to village-level governments, which might spend the money on areas other than agriculture. A third was to improve market access for agroforestry farmers, who are not yet fully aware of the value chains for their products and how to optimize their investment. Finally, an incentive scheme for farmers would encourage them to maintain or improve ecosystem services, particularly, those areas or services that were not linked directly to income generation. This would strongly support achievement of the district’s environmental goals.

Supangat (many Indonesians go by only one name), the immediate past head of the watershed working group, strongly supported the first recommendation and emphasized the urgency of maintaining collaboration with ICRAF so that the district government could continue to benefit from its knowledge and skills. In support of the second, Ija Akliyan, a member of one of the farmers’ learning groups said that she was waiting impatiently for her village government to allocate their budget for agricultural development. Another farmer, Nursal, commented that while farmers who participated in Smart Tree-Invest’s learning groups now have improved their ability to run agroforestry systems, he hoped that in the future the government could collaborate with farmers in seedling production, which was one of the first steps in building an effective market value-chain.

From these examples, it’s clear that the local communities and government had developed a strong sense of ownership of the project thanks to its participatory approach at all stages and were committed to continuing that approach to ensure a sustainable and better future.

By Dienda CP Hendrawan and Sacha Amaruzaman

Read more about Smart Tree-Invest in Indonesia

The action-research project carried out intensive scientific diagnostics in Buol landscapes, initiated pilot activities based on the findings of the diagnostic work through farmers’ learning groups and participatory watershed monitoring and building the capacity of local stakeholders in collaboration with the district government and communities.



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This work has been supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry. ICRAF The World Agroforestry Centre is one of the 15 members of the CGIAR, a global partnership for a food-secure future. We thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.


Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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