link to IIED homepage     Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Livelihoods

Case Studies:





The decentralised management of agricultural biodiversity by farmers and their communities is increasingly seen as a prerequisite for sustaining food systems, livelihoods and environments. ( The term “farmers” is used here to include people who grow crops and harvest tree products as well as those who work with livestock such as pastoralists and fisher people.)

For example, the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity call for the “Mobilization of farming communities, including indigenous and local communities, for the development, maintenance and use of their knowledge and practices in the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity in the agricultural sector” and encourage countries “to set up and maintain local level forums for farmers, researchers, extension workers and other stakeholders to evolve genuine partnerships.” (COP CBD Decision III/11, 1996). Moreover, the “ecosystem approach” endorsed by the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity stresses that management should be decentralised to the lowest appropriate level and that the objectives of management are “a matter of societal choice”. Both cultural and biological diversity are viewed as central to the ecosystem approach, which emphasises greater responsibility, ownership, accountability, participation and use of local knowledge (COP CBD V/6, May 2000).

Although the international community does emphasise the need to involve farming and local communities more centrally in the management of agricultural biodiversity, there are huge gaps in knowledge and institutional constraints that limit national capacities to scale up these approaches. In order to help fill these gaps, this research seeks to analyse how and under what conditions can decentralised governance, farmer participation and capacity building promote the adaptive management of agricultural biodiversity in the context of localised food systems and livelihoods.

This collaborative action research is informed by the following concepts and shifts in understanding:

Multiple functions of agricultural biodiversity. Dynamic and complex local livelihoods usually rely on plant and animal diversity, both wild and in different stages of domestication. Different elements of agricultural biodiversity are used by different people at different times and in different places, and so contribute to livelihood strategies in a complex fashion. Whilst contributing to environmental sustainability, agricultural biodiversity and people’s manipulation of it also helps sustain many production functions both in low external input and high input-output agriculture (e.g. soil organic matter decomposition, nutrient cycling, pollination, pest control, soil and water conservation). Agricultural biodiversity can also provide the basis for biotechnologies (old and new), natural product development, ecotourism and other activities important for income generation in local, national and global economies. In these different ways, agricultural biodiversity provides multifunctional goods and services for agriculture and land use (FAO/Netherlands, 1999).

A livelihoods focus. Although rural and urban households do engage in multiple occupations few attempts have been made to link this behaviour in a systematic way to agricultural biodiversity and its multiple functions. Reflecting sectoral interests and disciplinary specialisations, the conventional point of entry for scientific research, management and policy has been to focus on selected components of agricultural biodiversity (e.g. plant genetic resources). However, this approach often leads to a mismatch between standard development interventions and diverse local realities, needs and priorities. Reversing this approach, requires putting people with their assets, activities, and complex livelihoods at the centre of analysis. The functions of agricultural biodiversity thus need to be situated and mapped out within a total livelihood context, linking different components of agricultural biodiversity with the multiple activities and diversified income portfolios of local food and livelihood systems.

A food systems focus. Agricultural biodiversity is embedded in variety of food systems. Food systems include not just the production aspects of food but also processing, distribution, access, use, food recycling and waste. Food chains,- from the point where food and fibres originate to where they are consumed and disposed of-, are important components of the food system. Historically, food systems have tended to be localised,- starting at the household level and expanding to neighbourhood, municipal and regional levels. Diverse localised food systems are still the norm for many rural communities around the world today. With globalisation, localised food systems tend to become integrated into a more linear world system based on the principles of comparative advantage, standardisation, geographical division of labour and control by a few large corporations and trade agreements. The manner in which interlinked networks of production, on- and off-farm technologies, markets, consumption and regulatory frameworks are bound together in any local, national or global food system are critical to the sustainability of agricultural biodiversity and livelihoods.

Adaptive ecosystem management. Local resource management groups or platforms are often better placed to monitor environmental change and deal with the unpredictable interactions between people and ecosystems as they evolve together. Variation within and among agroecosystems is enormous. Daily, seasonal and longer term changes are apparent at the broad landscape level right down to small plots of cultivated land. Uncertainty, spatial variability and complex non-equilibrium ecological dynamics emphasise the need for flexible responses, mobility and local level adaptive resource management in which local users of agricultural biodiversity are central actors in analysis, planning, negotiations and action. Such adaptive management emphasises the importance of feedbacks from the environment in shaping policies and management interventions, followed by systematic experimentation to shape subsequent policies and practice. The adaptive management process is thus iterative, and feedback and learning based. It often relies on indigenous knowledge as well as local social, economic and ecological indicators to track and respond to ecological and economic changes. In this dynamic context, farmer groups and other producer organisations can be instrumental in furthering the interests of rural people in optimising sustainable, diversified, production and marketing systems.

A rights based approach. The legitimacy of rural peoples’ claims to tenure and rights to agricultural biodiversity and its products and associated knowledge are made more apparent as landscapes are re-interpreted as the product of social and ecological histories. If landscapes, species and genetically distinct populations have been moulded or modified by human presence and actions, local communities may claim special rights of access, control, property and decision over them. Property right institutions are key for the decentralised management of agricultural biodiversity, including the sharing of benefits derived from its use. Entitlements and rights over resources and knowledge are at the heart of negotiations between the multiple actors involved in local fora (platforms) set up to evolve joint agreements for the adaptive management of agricultural biodiversity and its associated livelihood and food system contexts.



The overall objectives of the action research are to:

  • Identify forms of decentralised governance, co-management agreements, markets and property right institutions that can sustain agricultural biodiversity and livelihoods in the context of localised food systems and rural economies
  • Identify ways of strengthening the capacities of farmers and other actors, including producer organisations and local fora, for the adaptive management of agricultural biodiversity so as to increase their benefits, and promote awareness and responsible action by producer organisations, agro-enterprises and policy makers
  • Identify and develop indicators (social, ecological, economic…) to analyse the
    dynamic links between livelihoods and agricultural biodiversity, with a special emphasis on the indicators used in local adaptive management and local definitions of well being, equity and culture
  • Develop and apply Participatory Assessment Methodologies for comprehensive valuations of agricultural biodiversity and the various systems (livelihoods, food systems, rural development…) in which local biodiversity is embedded
  • Identify and recommend effective policies and processes based on the research findings that may be used to build capacities and institutionalise the adaptive management of agricultural biodiversity in the context of localised food systems and rural economies.


IIED Homepage | Project Homepage

Copyright © 2003-08 IIED - All Rights Reserved