Course:RES510/2022/Intensive Silvopastoral Transitions in Colombia's La Vieja Watershed

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Geographic location of Colombia

Like many regions across the world, Colombia’s environmental stability is threatened by the processes and outcomes of conventional agriculture[1][2][3]. Conventional agriculture (i.e., “industrial agriculture”) is characterized by input-intensive crop monocultures that rely on fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to create homogenous landscapes and drive productivity[4]. In order to support global-to-local food security, achieve environmental stability, and overcome the negative outcomes driven by conventional agriculture, food systems require fundamental and widespread sustainable transformation[5][4][3].

Furthermore, the ecological integrity of Colombia has a particularly global significance: it is the most biodiverse country in the world relative to land area and has the eighth most extensive forest coverage, comprising important ecosystems such as tropical forests and moorlands that act as significant global carbon sinks[1][6][7]. Biodiversity protection and ecosystem service provision in Colombia is threatened by conventional agricultural systems and processes of deforestation via pasture extensification, in which extant forests are cleared to serve as cattle pasture[8]. While increasing rates of pasture extensification may be linked to demand for beef and dairy products, cattle ranching in Colombia has also become an instrument to claim titles and consolidate control over land amid increasing property values[9][10].

The expansion of conventional cattle ranching threatens the social-ecological resilience of Colombia’s food systems[2]. Following Schipanski et al. (2016), we define social-ecological resilience as the capacity of food systems and the actors within them to cope with and maintain vital processes amid shocks and pressures[3]. Furthermore, social-ecological resilience can be understood as the capacity for transformation that results in new systems which better support human and ecological well being[11]. As described below, conventional cattle ranching systems increase the vulnerability of Colombia’s food systems. Amid this vulnerability, the adoption of intensive silvopastoral systems (ISPS) have been proposed as a solution for increasing the diversity, stability, and overall resilience of Colombian cattle production systems.

In their recent article, Valencia et al. (2022) state that the enactment of food system transformations can be supported by identifying and examining “disruptive exemplars” (p. 2)[12] of sustainable farming systems. These exemplars are systems that have reconfigured conventional approaches to farming and food production in order to improve outcomes for one or more sustainability goals, such as increased resilience. Examining nascent models of sustainable agricultural transitions can illuminate pathways for scaling and supporting widespread food-system transformations[12]. This paper argues that the ISPS movement of the La Vieja watershed is one such disruptive exemplar. Drawing on a literature review and data collected through interviews with silvopasture experts from Colombia at the Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Sustainable Cattle Ranching workshop in November 2022, we analyze the ISPS movement using the “Four Dimensions of Change” framework created by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems[13]. This framework identifies changes in knowledge generation and transmission, production practices, social and economic relations, and institutional frameworks as the four key dimensions of agroecological transitions. These different dimensions of change are overlapping and mutually-reinforcing, yet have been documented as critical components of the successful transition of food systems toward greater sustainability.

Context: Conventional ranching systems in Colombia

In Colombia, conventional ranching systems (CRS) are often established by clearing native forest to create open pasture systems supplied by grass monocultures[2]. This has been the default ranching method since the collapse of the Andean region’s shade-grown coffee industry in the 1990s, as rural farmers gravitated toward this practice’s low establishment costs and perceived risk[14][15]. The Columbian land tenure system, formally known as Law 135 or the Social Agrarian Reform Act of 1961 (Ley 135 sobre reforma social agraria de 1961), was designed to promote agricultural expansion by allowing farmers to claim ownership of land that they are using for agricultural purposes[16]. This law became an institutional driver that further entrenched CRS by incentivizing farmers to clear cut forests in order to claim land ownership, despite astonishingly low agricultural yields (with an average of 1.2 cows per hectare of pasture)[17].

73.3% of deforestation in Colombia is driven by the expansion of agricultural land for cattle ranching, which causes an average of 160,000 hectares of native forest to be clear cut per year[8][18][19]. Cattle ranching occupies more than 80% of Colombia’s deforested land, which is plagued by high rates of soil erosion[1]. Despite increasing pasture extensification, Colombian CRS have been stagnant in growth for the last 10 years due to cattle suffering from low birth rate (less than 69%) and low weight gain[17]. The environmental and production vulnerabilities of CRS are intensifying in the face of climate change, creating socio-economic instability and decreasing the resilience of rural farming communities.

As shared by Manuel Gómez Vivas, General Coordinator of the Sustainable Colombian Cattle Ranching Program of Federación Colombiana de Ganaderos:

“In the last years, Colombia has experienced the effects of climate change with longer and intenser dry seasons and rainy seasons, which has represented for some producers who rely on extensive ranching systems the death of their cattle and economic loss associated with the enormous difference in biomass production of the farms between seasons.”

Similarly, some social dimensions supported CRS and have become barriers to transitioning to a sustainable cattle ranching strategy. Calle et al. (2009) identified the following social dynamics: the lack of an established agricultural network which has resulted in difficulty finding skilled workers, disincentivizing labor-intensive processes of transition; the aesthetic value of land, with many farmers reporting that they are entrenched in the “aesthetic concepts of conventional agriculture” (p. 91); the use of fires and herbicides by neighboring farms and ranches, which hinders implementation of sustainable ranching methods; and a distrust of local organizations such as the Center for Research on Sustainable Agriculture (Centro para la Investigación en Sistemas Sostenibles de Producción Agropecuaria or CIPAV) because of negative experiences in the past[14]. Furthermore, Z. Calle et al. (2013) note that there is a widespread belief that trees and pastures are incompatible, enforcing conventional cattle ranching practices[9]. Many environmentally-harmful farming practices are entrenched within local culture, making sustainable transitions and improving farmer-based motivations difficult.

Rapid rates of environmental degradation driven by the entrenchment of CRS led researchers and non-governmental organizations to begin searching for more sustainable alternatives in the late twentieth century[20]. Local, federal, and external institutional frameworks had added to this entrenchment, as there was little to no policy regarding sustainable agricultural practices prior to the twenty-first century. CIPAV was created in 1986 to find alternatives to the use of sugar cane which, at the time, was experiencing rapidly increasing prices[21]. But, in 1992, CIPAV shifted its focus to working with rural farmers and developing sustainable agricultural practices. Additionally, in 1993, the National Livestock Fund was created to support the sustainable development of Colombia’s livestock sector[22]. With rising concern regarding cattle ranching practices in the early 1990s, many organizations began to pilot research projects investigating pathways to reducing the environmental degradation being caused by conventional agricultural practices, including the CIPAV-led Regional Integrated Silvopastoral Approaches to Ecosystem Management (RISAEM) project in the La Vieja watershed.

Core Analysis: Silvopastoral transitions in the La Vieja watershed

Colombia's La Vieja watershed

Location of Quindio, Colombia where the La Vieja watershed is located.

The La Vieja watershed is a region of the central Colombian Andes, comprising the departments of Quindío and Valle del Cauca[23]. Prior to the beginning of the RISAEM project, the La Vieja watershed had undergone several phases of agricultural transformation. The landscape was historically characterized by mountainous terrain and tropical forest that, during the coffee boom of the twentieth century, was partially deforested and replaced by coffee monocultures[23]. When global coffee prices collapsed in the 1990s, many coffee plantations were converted to intensive cattle pasture systems[14][15]. In 2002, when the RISAEM project began, 65% of the land monitored by the project was treeless or degraded pasture interspersed with small, disconnected forest fragments[24][23]. CRS in this region cause high rates of soil erosion (with La Vieja’s neighboring regions experiencing erosion rates of 68.5% per year) and are highly inefficient due to the low nutritional value of tropical grasses[20]. Most farmers in the La Vieja watershed were using conventional cattle ranching approaches characterized by extensive grass monocultures and the use of nitrogen fertilizer and herbicidal inputs, despite the soil and steep terrain’s unsuitability for cattle production[14][15]. CRS approaches threaten both the socioeconomic and ecological resilience of La Vieja’s human and ecological communities. The use of imported external inputs, especially fertilizers and animal feeds, made many farmers vulnerable to rising costs and volatile exchange rates; land degradation and loss of soil fertility, driven by years of intensive cultivation and cattle grazing, also reduced the system’s overall productivity and further increased experiences of socioeconomic instability[14].

Intensive silvopastoral systems (ISPS)

One possible pathway for improving production parameters and decreasing the negative environmental impacts of cattle ranching is the implementation of intensive silvopastoral systems (ISPS). ISPS are an agroecological alternative to conventional cattle ranching systems that combine trees and shrubs with forage grasses to enhance cattle production and landscape heterogeneity[25]. ISPS have shown to have positive impacts on nature (via metrics of biodiversity, resilience, ecosystems, and nature’s services such as carbon sequestration) and people (via metrics of production, income, and adaptation to climate change) in small-scale projects[9][26][25][27]. For example, in these systems, a positive mutualistic relationship often occurs between animals and plants as manure from cattle helps the trees grow, while the trees (depending on species) provide high-protein fodder to supplement the animals’ diet, help stabilize the soil, sustain or (in the case of nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees) improve soil quality, and protect animals from sun and wind[8][28]. For these reasons, CIPAV created a project to promote the implementation of ISPS in the La Vieja watershed to answer calls for increasing productivity while simultaneously providing ecosystem services[29]. One of CIPAV’s main goals was to demonstrate that conserving natural ecosystems through more sustainable ranching practices would not lead to lower productivity or economic returns.

As shared by Julian Chará, the research coordinator of CIPAV:

“Silvopastoral systems are not a new idea, but they hadn’t been implemented in regions of Colombia where it’s most needed—like La Vieja. From past experiences, we know that SPS are very positive for the environment, biodiversity, ecosystem services, and productivity, so we wanted to create a project that could serve as an example for Colombia, demonstrating that these systems were a great alternative for humans and nature and could help ranchers address all the negative consequences from extensive cattle ranching while increasing their profit.”

ISPS and the four dimensions of change

Dimension 1: Changes in knowledge generation and transmission

As noted by IPES-Food in their synthesizing report on agroecological transitions, changes in the generation and dissemination of knowledge feature prominently in transitions toward sustainable food systems[13]. Furthermore, as noted by Folke et al. (2004), increasing capacity for learning by attending to diverse experiences and social archives of memory is key to building the resilience of social-ecological systems[30]. The RISAEM project employed a participatory methodology that initiated a dialogue between farmers and scientists and opened up new avenues for communication and collaboration. This model of knowledge generation, in which “farmers were treated as co-researchers, encouraged to carry out trials, devise their own solutions, and share this information”[14], is crucial to processes of ISPS transformation[8]. The RISAEM approach exemplifies the critical change in processes of knowledge generation and transmission described by IPES-Food (2018): it rejects conventional, linear models of expert-to-farmer knowledge transfer; it works to integrate researcher-generated technical knowledge with farmers’ site-specific knowledge; and it facilitates farmer-to-farmer knowledge transfer[13].

According to the RISAEM project description provided by A. Calle et al. (2009), participating farmers first visited demonstration farms where they could observe a range of ISPS land-use options[14]. They then drew on their site-specific knowledge to work with RISAEM staff to discuss personally-viable ISPS approaches, which areas of their farms were most suitable for intensified production, and which areas were most suitable for uses such as riparian forest corridors or natural forest regeneration. While integrating farmer’s site-specific knowledge was crucial for reducing the risk of implementation failure and supporting positive attitudes toward and good relationships within the RISAEM project, technical assistance (TA) provided by researchers was also necessary[24]. TA involves researchers translating technical information into practical strategies and supporting farmers while they implement those strategies[8]. In a follow-up survey of RISAEM participants, the majority of farmers stated that they considered TA to be very important for successful implementation (likely due to the technical complexity of ISPS)[31].

Interestingly, the follow-up survey also found evidence of widespread farmer-to-farmer knowledge dissemination that accelerated the broader adoption of silvopastoral techniques in the region. ISPS systems were adopted by some farmers in the region who did not receive TA or payments for ecosystem services (PES; described below), despite the farmer-reported importance of TA[31]. This suggests that participating farmers shared the ISPS knowledge and strategies learned while working with the RISAEM project with their friends, neighbors, and members of the social network that A. Calle et al. (2009) state was created by the project to serve as a ISPS information-exchanging forum[14]. This process of farmer-to-farmer knowledge transfer, combined with the RISAEM model of co-production and TA, contributed substantially to the success of ISPS transitions in the La Vieja watershed.

Although changes in processes of knowledge generation and transmission contributed positively to ISPS transitions while the RISAEM project was operating, these processes did not necessarily continue once the project had concluded. The dissemination of ISPS knowledge and practices in the La Vieja watershed from 2002 to 2007 demonstrates that local ecological knowledge (LEK) was strengthened to a degree; however, a later study found that LEK declined once knowledge generation and transmission processes were no longer being supported by the project[23]. LEK is critical to the success of food system transformations because it builds community capacity for sustaining agroecological transitions and often enables farmers to continue using agroecological approaches even amid political instability and after institutional support has been removed[13]. In ISPS-specific contexts, LEK also affects the ecological integrity of silvopastures by influencing farmers’ selection of tree species and methods of planting, thereby affecting the species composition and ecological resilience of a given ISPS[23].

Tarbox et al. (2020) conducted two surveys of LEK held by silvopastoralists in the La Vieja watershed: one in 2008, immediately following the conclusion of the RISAEM project, and one in 2014[23]. The second survey demonstrated that there had been significant declines in both farmers’ LEK (such as the ability to identify tree species and their uses) and their general interest in planting trees in pastures. Loss of LEK in this region parallels global declines in LEK, which is partially driven by economic shifts and resulting patterns of outmigration and the devaluing of LEK[32]. Tarbox et al. (2020) likewise found that loss of LEK in the La Vieja watershed was driven by interacting patterns of economic activity, outmigration, and LEK devaluation[23]. For example, shifts in economic activity from forestry to conventional agriculture led to the devaluing of knowledge about tree species and their uses. When LEK is perceived as being irrelevant to economic success, cross-generational transmission of LEK declines; thus, LEK is not transmitted from elders to younger generations or newcomers and is lost over time[23]. Because LEK is critical to the continued implementation of ISPS, efforts to preserve LEK will be vital to the success of ISPS transitions.

Dimension 2: Changes in production practices

After twenty years of implementation, transition to ISPS production practices in the La Vieja watershed highlighted many benefits spanning across biodiversity, physical ecosystem health and input-use sustainability. This section of the report will first dive into observed ecosystem benefits (i.e., biodiversity and ecosystem health) caused by changes in farming practices, followed by a production perspective to evaluate external input use associated with conventional versus ISPS approaches. Finally, known barriers to materializing and scaling further ISPS successes will be laid out and discussed.

As shared by Manuel Gómez Vivas, General Coordinator of the Sustainable Colombian Cattle Ranching Program of FEDEGAN:

“Before the RISAEM project, most ranchers had little to poor management practices in their farms. For example, there was low diversity of grass used, no electric fences to separate cattle from watersheds or between areas of grass, no cow rotation, nor water systems to take water from the rivers to the cows. After the implementation of SPS in the RISAEM project, all these production practices changed, improving multiple environmental, social and economic outcomes.”

ISPS practices introduce an abundance of aboveground vegetation that improves the habitat’s capacity to support higher alpha diversity. A recurring observation throughout the literature is that ISPS generate new biodiversity-related feedback pathways that result in overall improvements to ecosystem health. The improvements to biodiversity generated by ISPS parallel the biodiversity benefits of other agroecological farming approaches, as discussed by Alteri (1999) and Bender (2016)[33][34]. One ISPS case study farm saw a doubling of abundance in macro-invertebrate in their degraded soil after 3 years of ISPS implementation[35]. These soil organisms play a vital role in improving soil health, specifically reducing soil erosion through species movement (i.e., increased earthworm population and ant diversity observed in ISPS by Pardo-Locarno (2009) and Rivera et al. (2013)[36][27]. These species directly reduce soil erosion by boring holes that become preferential flow paths for water infiltration, lessening rates of soil leaching and physical transport of minerals and organic matter down the soil column.

Cattle grazing in a silvopastoral system in Colombia.

Another key piece of biodiversity restoration is the increased prevalence of dung beetles observed in ISPS, recognizing the species’ role in reincorporating organic material (OM) back into the soil[37]. Nutrient cycling is improved as beetles mechanically break down manure into finer OM that can be readily uptaken by the soil, while acting as a pesticide-controlling parasite for flies that breed in manure.

Beyond soil, biodiversity also assists in restoring aquatic ecosystem health. Chará & Murgueitio (2005) reported the negative impacts of CRS on local aquatic environments, primarily observed through reduced stream habitat and unrestricted cattle movement[1]. When cattle movement is not restricted, cattle can trample over water crossings which increases dissolved organic matter and leads to reduced dissolved oxygen levels (making aquatic habitats uninhabitable for aquatic fauna). ISPS can better process manure pollution in the landscape, thus preventing pollutants from reaching the streams and improving water quality as less organic material is available to be consumed by microbes[1].

Mitigating external input use via the application of fertilizer and pesticides became a major selling point for ISPS, as past cases demonstrated that a healthy relationship between ISPS components (i.e., soil-fauna-livestock interactions) will inherently yield the equivalent benefit[34]. High-intensity SPS farms were able to increase productivity relative to CRS while mitigating external inputs[17][24]. These farms maintained stocking capacity similar to nearby CRS while yielding higher weight gain in cattle (doubling the national average at 796 - 863 g/day), likely due to higher-quality feed provided by the ISPS system[17]. Beyond productivity, the need for chemical fertilizer is decreased as manure reintroduces nutrients back into the soil[14]. Feed for livestock can also be provided by planting of legumes as they can provide nitrogen fertilization for the soil while also providing higher quality feed to the livestock[38][17]. While it is hard to generalize productivity across ISPS systems, since SPS success will depend on farm-scale SPS component interactions, transitioning to ISPS does appear to deliver long-term financial returns and increased biophysical resilience.

However, there is a high barrier to entry for farmers to implement ISPS approaches and materialize the above successes, specifically regarding balancing landscape and production needs with limited resources to aid management. Farmers need adequate access to knowledge and resources to understand the spatial heterogeneity of their landscape[14]. Farmers must not only identify the specific problem they are trying to overcome, but also the interconnections between landscape components (“interscale interactions”) and the previous environmental state (“ecological memory”) that are contributing to problem of degradation and productivity loss[39][40]. Farmers in the La Vieja watershed have the additional challenge of having limited resources while trying to most effectively manage their landscape. These limitations are coupled with short-term thinking and perspectives on risk in face of climate change that pose further barriers to long-term agroecological management[14][4].

Dimension 3: Changes in social and economic relations

The implementation of ISPS also changed dynamics of social and economic relations in the La Vieja watershed. After implementing ISPS production practices, farmers experienced improvements in their productivity and economic resilience[24]. First, cattle grazing under the shade of trees suffer less heat stress than in open pastures; they also graze more, have lower respiratory rates, and produce more milk and meat[14]. Moreover, 64% of participants surveyed by A. Calle et al. (2009) found a substantial increase in the available amount and quality of fodder; this was reflected in the body condition of livestock and the higher productivity of the farm[14]. The largest economic benefits came from planting the nitrogen-fixing leguminous tree Leucaena[8][14]. Milk production per hectare per year also increased in one decade from 7,436 L to more than 18,000 L (240%) in La Vieja[24]. Given this, 43% of participants considered ISPS a long-term investment that they would be willing to make if they had the resources[14].

Simultaneously, costs of production decreased which increased each farm’s profit margin. A. Calle et al. (2009) found that 39% of participants reported reductions in inputs (including fertilizer and pesticides) and maintenance costs within just a few months of ISPS implementation[14]. As discussed earlier, soil degradation and erosion were considerably decreased by ISPS, resulting in less dependence on fertilizers and pesticides by farmers. Furthermore, increases in biodiversity and ecosystem services that biodiversity provides magnified this improvement; for instance, increase in beetle abundance made the soil more fertile for grass growth and further improved productivity[14][30].

Although these changes may be interpreted as only economic, they also have direct relevance in terms of social conditions for farmers[41]. With increases in productivity and decreases in their production costs, farmers could generate more income and improve their livelihoods[24]. Additionally, as ISPS decreased the difference in biomass between the dry season and rainy season, the farmer’s climate vulnerability decreased while their income stability increased[42]. The social relationships of farmers were also strengthened by their interaction with other farmers participating in the RISAEM project[14][24]. One of the four main reasons given by farmers for adopting ISPS was visits to demonstration farms that encouraged community engagement and demonstrated that ISPS implementation was possible[14]. The inclusion of young people and all members of participating families was also a prominent factor in incentivizing the adoption of ISPS[24].

Nevertheless, low levels of education in rural areas, entrenched ideas about CRS, and the need for increased TA are still prominent constraints on scaling these systems[14]. Some other barriers include initial investment for ISPS provided by the RISAEM project via PES was often not enough to fully cover the cost of implementation, as well as the risk of climate change perceived by farmers (i.e., concerns that their investment would be lost on trees that might not survive due to climate variability) and economic barriers to obtaining trees[14][43]. This brings attention to the underlying power dynamics that shape the relationships between farmers and global markets, and rural farmers’ access to resources and knowledge that affects the potential for socioecological change[44].

Dimension 4: Changes in institutional frameworks

In order to foster a truly sustainable transformation from conventional cattle ranching to ISPS both regionally and nationally, there needs to be diverse institutional support from local and federal government, NGOs, and third-party funding organizations. Federal policy is crucial for SPS implementation, and for policy to be created there must be strong support both at community and institutional scales[24]. SPS implementation in Colombia began in the 1990s with institutional support primarily coming from research institutions and third party organizations[29]. However, with the realized potential of ISPS, greater institutional interest arose which led to the RISAEM Project in the La Vieja watershed in Quindío, Colombia[14].

The Nature Conservancy, one of the organizations that supported the pilot study in the La Vieja watershed.

The RISAEM Project was funded with a US$4.5 million grant provided by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), which was created in 1991 and is one of the world’s leading funding agencies for biodiversity conservation and climate adaptation and response for developing countries[14][31]. This project was additionally supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nation’s Livestock, Environment, and Development Initiative (LEAD) and the Nature Conservancy, and was implemented by the World Bank[14][9]. These institutions primarily provided funding and large-scale support (as this program was also implemented in Costa Rice and Nicaragua). In terms of Colombia and the La Vieja watershed, the local implementation support came from CIPAV with additional support from the American Bird Conservancy for biodiversity monitoring[14]. CIPAV provided very important support, as CIPAV staff were in the field with local farmers providing hands-on technical assistance and ISPS implementation resources.

This project, which ran from 2002 to 2007, emphasized the use of payments for ecosystem services and technical assistance in order for participating farmers to implement ISPS successfully. Demonstration farms were set up so that farmers could see how ISPS could be implemented, TA was provided by the local NGOs (primarily CIPAV) to ensure ISPS implementation was completed properly, and farmers were provided annual PES based on monitoring of land use change effects on biodiversity and carbon sequestration[14]. While farmers participating in this project expressed concerns that PES were not enough to cover the initial costs of  implementation and that they did not have enough resources or access to materials, this project was seen as a success and even resulted in the National Cattle Ranchers Federation (FEDEGAN) to work with CIPAV and the GEF to initiate a nation-wide replication of this project[14]. Additionally, although local and federal governments had not provided support up until this point, the success of this project motivated the government to create incentive programs for ISPS implementation primarily through the Rural Capitalization Incentive and the Agriculture Guarantee Fund, which aligns with suggested public policies for sustainable food systems presented by IPES-Food (2018)[14][45][13].

The ISPS pilot project implemented in the La Vieja region of Colombia sparked great interest in the potential that silvopastoral systems have for food security, biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration, improved job security, and more[46]. In fact, this pilot study encouraged greater institutional support and scaling up ISPS through improved governmental, NGO, and third party organizational support. For example, every country that has signed and agreed to the Paris Climate Agreement must produce a document called the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) in which each country must outline how they plan to meet the greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal by 2030[47]. As a part of Colombia’s newest NDC, published in 2020[48], the government of Colombia is strongly advocating for implementation of ISPS nationwide and an overall sustainable agricultural transformation. This pilot study even helped initiate a nation-wide ISPS implementation project called the Colombia Mainstreaming Sustainable Cattle Ranching Project (CMSCR)[46]. This project, funded by the GEF under a US$7 million grant and the United Kingdom Department of Energy and Climate Change grant of US$20.7 million and implemented by the World Bank and FEDEGAN, “stemmed directly from the [Government of Columbia’s] commitment to improve the [cattle ranching] subsector, and the success of the [Regional Integrated Silvo-pastoral Approaches to Ecosystem Management Project] pilot”[46]. This project took place between 2010 and 2019 and was implemented on 2,000 ranches in the following regions in Colombia: the Cesar River Valley, adjacent lower Magdalena River Basin, traditional dairy cattle production regions of Boyacá and Santander, coffee production ecoregion, and the low foothills of the eastern cordillera of southern Meta[46]. Additionally, one of the main components of this nation-wide project was the continuation of PES through monitoring and TA through training and in-field support from local organizations. While this project was not implemented in the La Vieja watershed, it shows how influential a successful pilot study can be in influencing sustainable transformation.

Overall, institutional frameworks have undergone great change since the first ISPS implementation pilot project was conducted in the La Vieja watershed. Support originally came from research and other third party institutions as well as local NGOs, but with the success of these pilot studies, support began to funnel in from government and other local and federal organizations. However, while the state of this system is greatly improved, there are still barriers to change that need to be overcome in order to completely scale up: lack of PES, access to resources and TA (especially in terms of including local knowledge and educational frameworks) for ISPS implementation as well as the need for greater governmental support via funding and in-field support[14][31].


Figure 1. Summary figure showing main barriers faced in each dimension of change addressed by the recommendations proposed in this report.  

Recommendation 1: Improved resources for implementation and monitoring

Our first recommendation centers on ISPS implementation. When the RISAEM project was first implemented in 2002, a main focus was to understand how PES, determined through land use change monitoring over the course of the study, and TA could provide the necessary tools for local farmers to implement ISPS and transform their ranching strategies from conventional cattle ranching to a sustainable and environmentally friendly process like ISPS. With a recent global interest in ecosystem services (ES) and the idea of nature’s contribution to people, PES serves as a way to economically value these agroecological systems while also promoting environmental conservation[49][50].

However, A. Calle et al. (2009) found that many farmers who participated in the study felt that the current PES was not enough to implement ISPS and, in many cases, they even had to use their own funds to overcome this financial gap[14]. Additionally, farmers expressed concerns that there was too much of a time gap between implementation and when they would see returns on this investment as well as not having enough funds for the additional labor costs required to implement ISPS. Beyond finances, farmers and ranchers also expressed that there was a strong lack of access to appropriate materials such as “quality planting material”[14]. So, while improved governmental incentives and additional institutional support will aid in these barriers, we are recommending that there be increased PES for ISPS implementation, especially with the success of that these payments can have on land use changes[51], better access to the required materials and resources, and overall improved monitoring.

Using the leverage points identified by IPES-Food (2018) on sustainable agroecological transitions, this recommendation aligns well with forging new alliances across disconnected domains[13]. By providing the appropriate stakeholders with the resources they need for ISPS implementation, relationship-building can begin with local organizations and government as well as allow community and farmer-to-farmer relationships to thrive. In order for true sustainable transformation to occur, power and resources need to be put into the hands of those that need them the most so that change can begin to occur from within rather than being imposed externally.

Recommendation 2: Integrating local and ecological knowledge into technical assistance

Our second recommendation is directed at building long-term local capacity that enables farmers and other community members to sustain and scale out ISPS after NGO-driven interventions have concluded. As described above, declining LEK in the La Vieja watershed has inhibited the persistence and expansion of ISPS. In particular, a lack of cross-generational transmission of LEK has led to less interest in tree planting and threatened the ecological resilience of existing ISPS by exacerbating declines in silvopastoral tree diversity[23]. Efforts to facilitate cross-generational transmission could be incorporated into the existing TA efforts of ISPS initiatives. For example, the TA component of the RISAEM project partially aimed to build a social network of participating farmers to facilitate farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchange via workshops and on-site demonstrations. In addition to this valuable effort, future initiatives could benefit from incorporating youth-focused activities that empower and educate young people and build solidarity between older and younger community members. Well-designed youth-focused efforts could thus increase LEK, demonstrate the viability of ISPS-based livelihoods, and encourage young people to take up silvopastoral farming.

As shared by Alicia Calle, the Regenerative Agriculture Strategy Advisor for the Nature Conservancy:

“One of the main barriers that are still persistent in Colombian rural areas is the lack of Technical Assistance that supports sustainable rural development, and that helps scale up initiatives like RISAEM and adoption of ISPS.”

This recommendation aligns with two key leverage points for enabling agroecological transitions identified by IPES-Food (2018): promoting farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing and empowering women and young people to drive transition[13]. Several case studies of agroecological transitions in other parts of the world have demonstrated that empowering women and young people to become lead stakeholders in agroecological transition projects can drive more widespread engagement and increase positive impacts for the broader community[13]. Because Tarbox et al. (2020) identified lack of cross-generational knowledge transmission as a major barrier to the persistence and expansion of ISPS in the La Vieja watershed, the above recommendation is specific to youth-focused activities[23]. However, we also recommend that future research conducted in the region should seek to illuminate how gender identity interacts with the dynamics of ISPS transitions and identify potential avenues for activities that place women’s empowerment at the center of ISPS initiatives.

Recommendation 3: Strengthening political and economic policies

Our third recommendation is related to mainstreaming and strengthening current changes in institutional frameworks and economic policies. The first change we recommend to mainstream is Sello Ambiental Colombiano or Environmental Colombian Seal. This is an economic certification that, through the Technical Norm NTC6550, sets the criteria for sustainable cattle ranching with the purpose of providing the livestock sector with a solid and reliable tool for the environmental management of its livestock activities. This norm promotes the adoption of ISPS by farmers as well as the use of good practices for natural resource conservation, good cattle ranching and production, and increasing social responsibility with employees. This seal was created by the environmental ministry and authorized by the environmental license authority. It is a certificate that ranchers can acquire voluntarily and which allows them to obtain higher revenues by selling their products in international and national green markets.

Another governmental transformation that we recommend strengthening is the national NDC, in which the Colombian government included SPS as a measure for mitigating climate change[48]. It encourages ranchers to adopt SPS as their main production system in different regions of Colombia and sets the goal of transitioning 111,810 hectares of agricultural land to SPS as a contribution to Colombia’s international GHG emissions agreements.

The institutional and socio-economic transformations that we are recommending be mainstreamed addressed two key leverage points for enabling agroecological transitions identified by IPES-Food (2018)[13]. First, by forging new alliances across disconnected domains (the NGOs and FEDEGAN), institutional and economic transformations such as the NTC6550 and incorporation of SPS in the NDC could be achieved. Likewise, the development of hybrid roles for key actors is critical for the realization of these changes. For example, some ranchers became involved and participated actively in the scientific monitoring of farms, while members of NGOs such as CIPAV became policy advisors who, together with FEDEGAN and the collected evidence from La Vieja and Sustainable Cattle Ranching projects, created these institutional and socio-economic transformations.


This report summarizes the current transformation of ranching systems in the Colombia’s La Vieja watershed. Using IPES-Food’s four dimensions of change framework, we have analyzed changes in this agricultural system’s processes of knowledge generation and transmission, production practices, social and economic relations, and institutional frameworks and propose recommendations that will support and scale this transformation process. Our literature review and interviews with ISPS experts highlighted the progressive work done in all four dimensions of change. Notably, the work done by CIPAV via the RISEAM project illuminated the many social-ecological benefits of ISPS. Further analyzing this system, the three proposed recommendations call attention to the need for improved support from governmental and economic institutions, as well as improve on-the-ground assistance that reduces implementation and monitoring barriers while acknowledging local ecological knowledge.

RES 510: Case Study Report

December 14, 2022

Authors: Lea Anderson (IRES), Tatiana Chamorro-Vargas (IRES), Maicen Stuart (Geography) & Brian Wang (IRES)


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License and Attribution

This resource was created by RES510, Lea Anderson, Tatiana Chamorro-Vargas, Maicen Stuart, Brian Wang.It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.