Farmers are a key stakeholder for implementing restoration of farmlands: WRI India

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Farmers are a key stakeholder for implementing restoration of farmlands: WRI India

WRI India is working to strengthen entrepreneurial opportunities, enhance local livelihoods and incomes, and protect and restore forests and farmlands across South Asia.

Nirmesh Singh, Editor of AgriNation, in conversation with WRI India team that explains why restoring health of over exploited farmlands is critical

What do you mean by restoring farms? What is its importance? What is the model that you are working on? What is the role of farmers in the model?

Healthy farms are essential for a healthy food chain. Due to decades of intensive farming and cultivation practices, monocultures, over-grazing, pesticides, etc., farmlands have become progressively degraded and bereft of their essential nutrients. While India is known as the largest producer of milk and pulses, and the second largest producer of rice and wheat as per the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), this high agricultural productivity is a result of high-yielding varieties, support and subsidies to farmers, enhanced fertilizer and pesticide use, and extensive expansion of the irrigation network. While this ramped up food production, today, nearly half of agricultural lands have poor soil health, and food and nutrition security for diverse socio-economic groups remains a challenge.

Restoring health of these over-exploited farmlands is critical for multiple reasons –

  • A continuous degradation of agricultural land threatens our food and nutrition security. According to National Family Health Survey 2019-21, 36% of children under the age of five years are stunted, 19% are wasted, and 32% are underweight in India. NITI Aayog also reported more than 25% of the country’s population is categorized as multidimensionally poor. Thus, ensuring food and nutritional security is one of the most critical challenges faced by India today, which will deepen further as population goes on increasing. Therefore, restoring farmlands through Trees outside Forests practices such as agroforestry, agri-horti models and  cultivation of native, indigenous (which are also often high on nutrient index) crop varieties becomes a priority.
  • Restoring lands can help us increase resilience of our food systems, which is an urgent action needed, particularly in India as adverse effects of increasing climate risks and their impacts are being observed on our food productivity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2022 report clearly predicts up to 30% decline in rice yields and 70% in maize yields if the global temperatures continue to rise from 1º to 4°C. Climate change can push more than 6 million people towards extreme hunger by 2030.
  • Third critical reason to adopt land restoration approach in our agriculture systems is, to safeguard livelihoods and incomes of our small and marginalized farmers, who constitute almost 85% of India’s total farmers. These smallholders depend solely on their farmlands for sustenance and are also highly vulnerable to climatic, market-led and other risks in agriculture. Ensuring good soil productivity in these farms for better yield and supporting them with better economic linkages is important as millions of lives depend on these. A restoration- based economy can enable all these benefits simultaneously.

By strengthening farm-based and forest-dependent livelihoods, we can incentivize communities and farmers with sustainable as well as profitable livelihood opportunities. Farmers are a key stakeholder for implementing restoration of farmlands, as they are the ones who can convert knowledge into actual land use practices.

With how many farmers/organizations like FPO or any other, are you working? Could you briefly give at least two case studies with impact?

Land Accelerator South Asia program has been able to engage with around 15, 63,000 farmers through the various businesses it has supported over last three years. While some of these businesses are proving beneficial for farmers indirectly (through development of value chains, market linkages etc.), several others also work directly with farmers. Two of such examples are – Bastar se Bazaar Tak works with around 250 small and marginal tribal farmers from 7 villages in Chhattisgarh on sustainable harvesting and post-harvest value addition/processing of NTFPs including Custard Apple (Sitaphal), Palash flower, Tamarind (Imli) and Black Plum (Jamun), thus avoiding deforestation and providing employment and sustainable livelihood to forest dwellers in this remote area. Second example, is Konkuwan Herbs which is bridging the potential space in the medicinal and herbal plant products market by connecting the farmers to the industry buyers. They are providing end-to-end solutions to the farmers for cultivating medicinal plants thereby creating opportunities for sustainable livelihoods for 1000 plus farmers in the tribal and mountain belts of Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand. They have brought approximately 200 hectares of land under transformative agriculture in these 4 states with 100% incremental income opportunities.

 How do you see business in restoring farms? What are the potential businesses in restoring farms?

Land restoration can generate economic benefits of INR 525-2,250 (~$7-30) for every INR 75 (~$1) invested, and it is known to create jobs and improve livelihoods, especially for youth, poor and marginalized groups, and women. However, there is a huge gap of INR 22.5 lakh crores ($300 billion) in finance for ecosystem conservation and hence there is limited expansion of restoration globally. In India also, landscape restoration is primarily supported by public and philanthropic funding, such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) which covered almost 75% (INR 1, 02,505 crores or $13 billion) between 2011 and 2016. However, to restore all of India’s damaged land and generate sustainable livelihoods at scale, we need more private capital as well as a felt demand for restoration finance. Here comes the role of Land Accelerator South Asia that supports emerging entrepreneurs who are working on restoration-based business models for restoring forests as well as agricultural lands.

Such restoration-based businesses can play a significant role in accelerating restoration interventions, as these enterprises are mobilizing more and more private investments towards these models that are not only creating more jobs and strengthening our economy but are also beneficial for landscape ecosystems and local communities.

These businesses are demonstrating how profitable businesses are possible while taking care of our natural resources and improving lives of vulnerable and marginalized populations, such as tribals, indigenous groups, women, smallholder farmers etc. By strengthening restoration-based business models, the Land Accelerator South Asia program is providing an acceleration to India’s restoration economy, which is currently a small sized, fragmented industry with small-and-medium-sized enterprises, and nascent business models and value chains. At the same time, it is working with impact investors for mobilizing more private investments.

The Land Accelerator South Asia program follows a ‘PPP approach’ that integrates people, planet and profit to restore our ecosystems. Aligning with this, it is committed towards strengthening entrepreneurial opportunities for such businesses and generating sustainable livelihood opportunities for smallholder farmers, indigenous communities, tribals, forest dwellers and other marginalized groups who are directly impacted by the changing climate. This can enable socio-economic benefits for local communities building their resilience while enabling a shift towards sustainable land management practices.

How does WRI support these businesses?

The Land Accelerator South Asia is a unique initiative designed by WRI India to strengthen entrepreneurial opportunities, enhance local livelihoods and incomes, and protect and restore forests and farmlands across South Asia. This first-of-its-kind program, launched in 2020, aims to foster entrepreneurship through a unique accelerator curriculum and supports leaders who develop sustainable and profitable business models for restoring lands across South Asia. In 2018, the World Resources Institute (WRI) launched the Land Accelerator Africa – the world’s first training and mentorship program targeted specifically towards businesses that restore degraded forests, farmlands, and pastures. Globally, this program has enabled plantation of around 22 million trees restoring 207,000 hectares of land, while it created 13,000 jobs and supported 1.2 million farmers in 46 countries.

The program builds a global network of restoration experts, mentors and entrepreneurs that can act as an enabling ecosystem and provide a mentorship support for restoration entrepreneurs in developing sustainable business models, effective pitching, and marketing and sales strategies. Applicants under this program are screened with a predefined criteria focusing on the innovation, replicability, scalability, and profitability of their restoration business models. Their environmental and socio-economic impact is a key indicator for determining the holistic impact of these businesses. While the program provides a customized mentorship to support each Land Accelerator entrepreneur, it particularly encourages women entrepreneurs. Strengthening a restoration-based economy, Land Accelerator South Asia focuses on connecting high-potential restoration businesses to debt and equity funders in the impact investment space. Fundraising opportunities are provided to help participants unlock investment opportunities. They are connected with potential investors through Demo Days, where the top performing entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to the investor community. The program also helps these entrepreneurs build their capacities in tracking, measuring, and documenting the environmental and social impact of their work, while aligning their business goals with the global climate commitments.

 What is a successful restoration business?

A successful restoration business works with people to restore the planet in a profitable manner. We train our entrepreneurs to adopt a People-Planet-Profit (PPP) approach in designing and scaling up their solutions. Businesses incorporating sustainability and creating a visible impact on the communities and environment within which they operate, become successful. The replicability, scalability and profitability of a restoration business ultimately decides its success in the long run.

How is it going to impact agriculture? 

Given the climate change impact and its adverse effects on the agriculture ecosystem which includes the soil, the water, the associated micro flora/fauna and the dependent communities of smallholder farmers; agriculture is being impacted in a major way.

The challenges resulting from fluctuations in the monsoon cycles causing floods and droughts, unavailability of quality irrigation water, increased incidence of pests and diseases to name a few are affecting the soil health, yield, its productivity and the incomes of the farmers.

The land restoration entrepreneurs are identifying these pain points and building their businesses to provide sustainable solutions for minimizing these challenges and contributing towards farmers’ prosperity.