Changing Planet

Conservation Plus Agriculture Equals True Food Security

By Emile Frison , Cristián Samper and Ken Wilson

The Volcanica Central Talamanca Corridor in Costa Rica is one of several biological corridors in Central America created to ensure the movement of critically endangered species across the region. It was difficult to motivate struggling local farmers to support this effort based solely on conservation, but they depend on the land for many uses. Broadening the corridor effort beyond conservation to provide livelihood benefits and improved ecosystem services like clean water was the key to success.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that to feed the world’s growing population over the next 40 years we must find ways to increase food production by 60 percent. Most proposed solutions target demand alone by increasing crop yields. An alternative approach gaining increased attention recognizes the mutual dependency of agriculture and conservation. The results are promising – putting more food on more tables while bringing additional benefits to the environment and rural communities.

Terraced agroforestry system in Konso, Ethiopia shows how conservation and agriculture can work together - The Christensen Fund

Integrating biodiversity conservation and ecosystem restoration in Costa Rica is providing healthier and cheaper ways to make vital crops more resilient – for example, by controlling coffee pests. Market initiatives such as the Rainforest Alliance and Starbuck’s C.A.F.E. certification help ensure that landscapes are managed to protect wild biodiversity while providing income for local communities maintaining productive agroecosystems.

Another initiative – Seeds for Needs, A Bioversity International project that won the World Bank’s 2009 Development Marketplace Award – shows that access to agricultural biodiversity is critical in adapting food production to climate change. Sweet potato and taro are the most important staple crops in Papua New Guinea. Working with farmers, gene banks, and local partners, varieties of these plants were identified that can withstand the temperature, rainfall extremes, and predicted shifts in pest and disease outbreaks that are expected with a warming planet. Pre-selected varieties were then matched with locations where they should produce good yields under those circumstances.

Quinoa growing in wild areas of Peru - Bioversity International, Danny Hunter

These are just two examples that demonstrate how conservation and agriculture can complement each other. We know from our combined experience working for many years, and in many parts of the world, that there are numerous other cases in which conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity by farmers tending fewer than 2 hectares of land has proved successful.

Momentum is building for this approach. New collaborations like the Landscape for People Food and Nature Initiative, led by Ecoagriculture Partners, are informing new thinking on how to scale-up whole landscape approaches that meet conservation and agriculture goals. That work will play a critical role in engaging the attention of policymakers.

Funders are also playing their part. Both traditional conservation-focused groups and new multi-donor entities such as the International Fund for Amplifying Agro-Ecological Solutions are starting to recognize the interconnectivity between conservation and food production, biodiversity, nutrition, and livelihoods. They increasingly support projects that deliver on several levels rather than concentrating on one specific objective.

Farmers in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia grow vegetables with a rural development model linking agriculture and local markets to natural resource management. WCS's COMACO business model rewards farmers with increased commodity prices for adopting improved land management and farming practices that can sustain higher food crop yields while reducing potential conflicts with natural resources - Julie Larsen Maher, WCS

One of the outcomes of the recent 2012 IUCN World Conservation Congress was the ‘Call to Action for Agriculture and Conservation to work together.’ This call needs to be followed by a commitment to work with a broad range of partners to gather evidence about what works on the ground. It will be vital to analyze and draw lessons from these experiences and present them in a way that will compel decision-makers to rethink policies.

If we are to find long-term sustainable solutions to food and nutrition security and biodiversity conservation, the policies we need in the future require conservation and agriculture sectors to collaborate. It is not enough just to increase production. Agriculture and conservation have to come together to work with rural communities if we are to have a food secure future.
Emile Frison is Director General of Bioversity International, the world’s leading research-for-development organization on agricultural and tree biodiversity. Cristián Samper is President and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society and an international authority on conservation biology and environmental policy. Ken Wilson is Executive Director and CEO of The Christensen Fund, a private foundation supporting the resilience of living diversity at landscape and community level around the world.


WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.
  • Alan Gray

    This is an important story. Governments generally don’t think in the long term, more of their election cycles. Others need to think longer terms. The problem is selling the long-term idea to the politicians who are mainly concerned with the next election cycle. WCS and WWF stories at NewsBlaze show, over many years, some wins. But usually only when you get enough traction to capture the attention of the ADD lawmakers.

  • barry hayes

    I agree with Alan.
    Our research has revealed a path around the predicted phosphate ‘peak’ which could yield income to rainforest communities and benefit developed countries in the higher latitudes, however we find little interest from our own government, but more concerning, none whatever from the Rainforest Alliance.
    There’s a vast gulf between words and action which needs serious attention here and now.

  • Dave Wood

    There is indeed a “vast gulf”. If agriculture and conservation can work together I suggest two approaches: firstly – allow farmers into the vast conservation areas from which farmers have been removed over the past many decades as reserves expanded at the expense of farming; secondly, stop demonizing shifting cultivation (`slash and burn’), which is a tried and tested method to manage, rejuvenate and add biological value to tropical forest land – land which also feeds people.


    As the name indacates “community conservation”, conservationists should treasure much indigenous knowledge in that as you are sensitize the community, value their indigenous way of conserving.

  • Mario Chavarria

    I am the Coordinator of a Community-based Organization (Toledo Agroforestry Society). We are working with farmers, especially women and youths to include agroforestry in their farming system to alleviate poverty and promote food security.


  • Abahnas


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