Successful farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR)? Not without considering social equity

By Sebastian Reichel

Achieving social equity in land and forest restoration is central to many international commitments and frameworks, including the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. A new study*, part of the special issue, ‘Restoration for whom, by whom?’, which was just published in the journal Ecological Restoration, is the first to assess social equity of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) and to provide recommendations for improving social equity of FMNR project designs.

Social equity is critical to successful FMNR interventions

Dr Matt Kandel and Ms Genevieve Agaba, both of the University of Southampton and researchers for the UK Global Challenges Research Fund BRECcIA project, together with Ms Rahinatu S. Alare (CK Tedam University of Technology and Applied Sciences), Mr Thomas Addoah (ETH Zurich) and Prof Kate Schreckenberg (King’s College London and BRECcIA Co-Investigator), conducted research around an FMNR intervention in the Upper East Region of Ghana and found that careful consideration of social equity is key to achieving successful restoration with FMNR.

FMNR is a type of agroforestry based on managing plants arising from re-sprouting rootstock or from seeds in degraded agricultural land. Developed in the 1980s by World Vision Australia NGO practitioner, Tony Rinaudo, as a land restoration approach, evidence shows that FMNR interventions lead to improvements in carbon sequestration, biodiversity, crop yields, poverty alleviation, and other positive outcomes.

Novel technologies or approaches are not always needed – or indeed even desirable” – clarified Dr Matt Kandel, lead author of the FMNR study. “Instead, it is often more practical to leverage existing practices, institutions, and local knowledge systems in view of achieving project or programme objectives”. One of the main strengths of FMNR, as a practice, is that it was developed using inspiration from existing local agroforestry practices in the drylands of West Africa. Therefore there is an optimism that this approach will be adopted by local communities and resource managers.

However, BRECcIA’s study revealed that contextual inequalities may prevent intended FMNR outcomes. According to Ms Alare, “While FMNR has been influenced by traditional agroforestry practices of farmers, one point of divergence we discovered in Talensi [a district in Upper East Region of Ghana] was its inability to recognise and integrate diverse aspirations of various stakeholders in the landscape.

Social equity has appeared to be an ongoing challenge in northeastern Ghana, where inequities were found among farmers who lacked control and access to naturally regenerating trees and shrubs. Findings in the Kandel et al. (2021) study show that in Talensi, many decisions relating to natural resources were often influenced by pre-existing hierarchies in authority, control and access to land and trees, thus potentially marginalising local resource managers—particularly those already lacking secure resource tenure. If insufficiently considered, these existing inequities could lead to inequitable benefit distribution of FMNR and disincentivise its take up amongst those who would benefit less, if at all.

Consideration of social equity at the outset of FMNR projects—which involves recognising and strengthening the participation of diverse stakeholders from design to implementation phases—is the way forward in overcoming asymmetries in power around key land restoration decisions. Another key recommendation to emerge from the study is that conducting tenure assessments during the FMNR project design phase should improve the likelihood of achieving equitable outcomes.

What do these findings mean at a global scale?

This research is very timely and in line with global initiatives in a joint attempt to address environmental degradation and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Dr Marlène Elias, lead organiser of the ‘Restoration for whom, by whom?’ special issue and Senior Scientist at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT and Gender Research Coordinator for the CGIAR Research Programme on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, underlines how “The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) and related global initiatives, such as the Bonn Challenge and international mega-campaigns, offer a vision of a greener planet largely realised through tree planting initiatives […]  They overlook key issues such as power relations, social dynamics, resource access and distribution, and historical factors that shape the voice and agency of different actors, and the equity and sustainability of restoration” (see also here).

Is there a risk that the ecological dimension of restoration will become undervalued?

No, there is no risk that the ecological dimension will become undervalued by increased attention to the social and political aspects of restoration, according to Dr Elias. Conversely, Dr Elias argues that the ecological outcomes cannot be sustained without addressing social inclusion and equity.

The point of restoration is not only to enhance ecosystem services, but to ensure that the ecological, social, economic, cultural, and other functions that landscapes under restoration provide improve human wellbeing. Critical questions around whose wellbeing is improved and whose agenda is advanced must remain front and centre as restoration initiatives are developed and implemented.

The Kandel et al. (2021) FMNR study (see also here for a shorter practice brief) provides depth to the science of the socio-political dimensions of ecosystem restoration. With the global community becoming increasingly threatened and aware of the scale of global challenges, including ecosystem degradation, climate change, biodiversity loss and poverty, more attention must be paid to how social, political and ecological dimensions intersect in restoration interventions.

*Kandel, M., Agaba, G., Alare, R.S., Addoah, T., and Schreckenberg, K. (2021). Assessing social equity in farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) interventions: findings from Ghana. Ecological Restoration, 39(1), 64-76. DOI: 10.3368/er.39.1-2.64

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