AgroBiodiversity Conservation: the ABC of climate resilience

A recent international agrobiodiversity conference in Nepal brought together smallholder farmers and other stakeholders from 32 countries. Here, IIED’s Duncan Macqueen reflects on the event, explaining why agrobiodiversity conservation is the first essential step towards climate resilience and outlining three key action points for decision makers.

Duncan Macqueen's picture
Insight by 
Duncan Macqueen
Director of forests with IIED's Natural Resources research group
08 May 2024
A calf in a hut, a haystack, and terraced ground.

A smallholding belonging to the Namuna Prangarik Agricultural Cooperative (NPAC) in Nepal, showing haystacks, buffalo stalls, pruned trees and terraces (Photo: copyright Duncan Macqueen, IIED)

As a smoky haze veils the high Himalayas in Nepal, it is still possible to see a patchwork of steeply terraced fields. It is here that participants of the Forest and Farm Producer Organisations’ International Conference on Agrobiodiversity gathered to learn more about agrobiodiversity conservation and climate-resilient farming from Nepali smallholder farmers. 

Why a conference to advance agrobiodiversity was timely

Held in Pokhara City in Nepal in April 2024 and supported by the Forest and Farm Facility (FFF), the conference brought together forest and farm producer organisations (FFPOs), Indigenous Peoples’ groups, local community groups, governments, local and international civil society organisations and other stakeholders from across Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe, seeking to advance and conserve agrobiodiversity for climate resilience. 

The conference is part of regular international peer-to-peer learning exchanges organised by FFF that allow smallholder farmers to learn from one another, coproducing and sharing knowledge on how to develop climate-resilient landscapes and improve livelihoods. 

The participants’ interest is genuine: across the world there are an estimated 439 million smallholder producers who collectively spend US$368 billion every year on vital climate adaptation.

Why does agrobiodiversity matter?

Conserving agrobiodiversity through agroecological practices is the essential first step towards advancing climate resilience:

  • Agrobiodiversity is a subset of natural biodiversity found within agricultural ecosystems and includes the variety and variability of animals, plants, insects and microorganisms necessary to sustain those ecosystems. Because agrobiodiversity is integral to sustaining ecosystems, it is also integral to climate resilience. You cannot have one without the other.
     
  • Agroecology integrates ecological concepts, social responsibility and economic sustainability to secure future food supply. The industrial monoculture model of agriculture bets future sustainability on an arms race to develop chemical fertilisers and pesticides, or genetic modification of proprietary seed resources, concentrating power and resources. 

    In contrast, smallholder agroecology bets future sustainability on shared social responsibilities that foster the natural evolution of myriad animal, plant, insect and microorganisms, working together to maintain natural fertility. It’s a safer bet.

What does agrobiodiversity look like?

During the conference, we visited the Namuna Prangarik Agricultural Cooperative (NPAC), a nearby smallholder farming community in Arba, located 10km from Pokhara. 

Arba is a living example of an agrobiodiverse and climate-resilient landscape: scattered haystacks shaped into golden elongated bells dot the landscape. Between them, trees raise their stumpy branches, pruned fiercely to produce leaves as fodder for stall-fed buffaloes. 

These buffalo are prized both for their milk and waste – their dung is mixed in composting pits and used to fertilise the fields. Their urine is mixed with neem, chilli, garlic and a range of other sour and strongly fragranced herbs to make biopesticides to protect the crops. 

The crops themselves are highly diverse – a mix of rice, beans and pulses, market garden vegetables, coffee, fruit and fodder trees – comprising more than 45 different species and 66 local varieties. 

A group of people looking at trees.

Conference participants visit members of the Namuna Prangarik Agricultural Cooperative (NPAC) in Arba (Photo: copyright Duncan Macqueen, IIED)

As other Nepalese FFF case studies of smallholder farmer groups show, diversification is increasingly a key strategy to building climate resilience. In an increasingly erratic climate, maintaining high agrobiodiversity is critical for smallholder farmers. It allows them to spread their production risks across many tree, crop and livestock species. 

Formed in 2007, NPAC has been working with Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LI-BIRD), an agroecological technical institution with 30 years of experience, to explore tactics that allow smallholders to advance agrobiodiversity on farm. 

The cooperative has a demonstration and learning centre that teaches smallholders how to employ agroecological practices for soil conservation, disease and pest management. All of NPAC’s products are organic, as members have readily abandoned chemical inputs in favour of better soil fertility, higher market value and improved local health.

Backing this transition is NPAC’s savings and credit cooperative organisation (SACCO). It lends money to members at a low rate of interest, enabling them to experiment with new crops and technologies. Too often, access to external finance is constrained or tied to large-scale monoculture investment, so FFPOs like NPAC are increasingly mobilising their own internal finance to invest in agroecological farming.

A short interview with Damian Sulumo, chief executive officer of Mviwaarusha in Tanzania, about why agrobiodiversity is important to farmer organisations

The cooperative also has a community seed bank to collect, store and share diverse and evolving crop landraces that are better suited to the changing climate. This local, in situ conservation of adapted landraces is often much overlooked – but it has a crucial advantage over ex situ seed storage facilities as it allows plants to evolve and adapt to everchanging climatic conditions.

Supporting agrobiodiversity: three key action points

Without doubt, smallholder farmers and Indigenous Peoples are the custodians of agrobiodiversity worldwide – but they need much more support. As the conference concluded, three key action points emerged for decision makers:

  1. It is vital to recognise the vital traditional knowledge that underpins the highly sophisticated agriculture of smallholder farmers, Indigenous Peoples, local communities and their organisations. They steward the world’s remaining agrobiodiversity in situ, which is critical to human survival.
     
  2. International finance mechanisms must become dispersed. Currently, only 0.3% of climate and nature finance reaches local groups. Instead, finance mechanisms should learn from the flexible internally mobilised finance mechanisms such as SACCOs run by smallholders themselves. 

    Finance mechanisms should follow their lead to allow smallholders to invest in essential ongoing experimentation and adaptation, to promote nutritional diversity and health, manage diverse community seedbanks and agroforestry systems, diversify and increase the distributive wealth of local enterprises, and help mobilise internal finance to upscale agrobiodiversity-rich landscapes.
     
  3. At the conference it was made clear that when farmers are given the full opportunity to participate in crafting laws and policies, the outcomes become more responsive to farmers’ needs. Laws and policies should therefore protect Indigenous and peasant seed systems and give precedence to United Nations declarations on human rights for Indigenous Peoples and peasant farmers over commercial plant-breeder rights or trade agreements.