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Cattle farms go green in Latin America

Ree Strange Sheck

A new system devised by the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) pays cattle farmers to adopt silvopastoral practices that increase the production of both cattle and ecosystem services. The Ecosystem Marketplace takes a look.

A new system devised by the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) pays cattle farmers to adopt silvopastoral practices that increase the production of both cattle and ecosystem services. The Ecosystem Marketplace takes a look. ESPARZA, COSTA RICA— When livestock farmer José Antonio López needed more income to provide for his family, he didn't cut forest for more pasture; he planted trees. López is among the 450 farm families in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Colombia who are adding trees and shrubs to open pastureland and around their springs and streams, transforming traditional livestock farms to silvopastoral systems where cattle, trees, and forage are cultivated together. To help finance these changes, Lopez and others receive ecosystem service payments for carbon capture and biodiversity conservation, the first payment system in the world applied to working cattle farms. The Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), headquartered in Turrialba, Costa Rica directs the project, collaborating with the Center for Research on Sustainable Agricultural Production Systems (CIPAV) in Colombia and the Nitlapán Institute for Research and Development in Nicaragua. "We have to have some incentive for the farmer to invest in silvopastoral systems," says Muhammad Ibrahim, head of CATIE's Livestock and Environment Program. "These systems are costly compared to traditional systems." Ibrahim says donor agencies hadn't financed livestock projects in Latin America for 20 years in light of livestock's bad-boy image and the fear of encouraging further deforestation. But the Guyana native had a different view, and he fought hard for the funding, with the support of the local organizations. "I think if you have a problem, you don't ignore it. You look for solutions," he says. Livestock production constitutes the second-largest land use in Latin America; hundreds of thousands of families depend fully or partly on livestock for income and for their food. "If you want to have an impact on sustainable land use in Latin America, this is where you look." According to Ibrahim, CATIE's new scheme is the first payment system applied to working cattle farms anywhere in the world and is attracting global attention—projects in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico and Panama now say they are using, or will implement, the system.

Financing Change

At the core of CATIE's payment system is an Eco-Service Index developed to calculate the ecosystem services generated by environmentally friendly changes in land use. Specifically, the index calculates the ecosystem services provided by farmers adding trees, planting forage banks, protecting wildlife habitat and preserving native tree species on their land. Based on the index, farmers receive payments reflecting: 1) their farms' increased capacity for capturing and storing carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to climate change; and 2) their contribution to biodiversity conservation. In total, payments per farm average about $500 per year, a significant amount for some small and medium farms where families usually cannot finance the costs of change. "We want to know if environmental service payments tip the scale," says Ibrahim. The Global Environmental Facility (GEF) funds the project with support from the World Bank and the Livestock, Environment and Development (LEAD) Initiative, tied to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The system, says Ibrahim, "lets farmers keep producing and improves the environment. Conservation has to be within the framework of livelihoods. Otherwise it won't work."

Production and Protection

The system, so far, seems to be working for Lopez, the 52-year-old farmer who raises cows for meat and milk on his farm in the hills near Esparza. Since 2002, Lopez has converted 2.5 acres of his 50-acre farm to a forage bank of sugar cane and cratilia (Cratylia argentea), a leguminous shrub high in protein. The fresh fodder he draws from the bank or stores as ensilage feeds up to 30 cattle in the dry season. And López no longer has to buy costly chicken manure as a dry-season feed supplement. Using ecosystem service payments, López also has reforested 20 acres, added trees to pastures and improved the grass. "I don't use as much herbicide on my pastures, because with improved grasses, there aren't so many weeds," he says, "and I also use less insecticide and fertilizer." Trees planted along the property's boundaries are living fences that provide fodder and wood on a continual basis. Along with timber and fruit trees, López maintains species strictly for wildlife. "I have some cecropia; it's not a timber tree but is very important for animals such as sloths." His small forest and the corridors created by living fences are also home to white-faced and howler monkeys, coatis, weasels, anteaters, birds and butterflies. Mabel Ledesma, another participating farmer, has 32 acres near Esparza that she operates with her husband, Luis Angel Carbajal, and 5-year-old grandson William. "The payments are very important for us," she says. "The project has helped us change our farm." The couple has planted living fences (90 so far), forage banks and trees that protect watersheds. "Where we have trees by the river, we see more, cleaner water," adds Carbajal. "Many springs in the area had dried up a lot as farmers cut the forest around them. Now they are planting again and noticing that the springs give more water." (But see Watershed Markets Get a Dose of Myth-busting Science) Ledesma established a tree nursery and makes organic fertilizer. She proudly shows off a barrel of soil full of wiggling worms for the compost. Soon she and her husband will prune the first crop of cratilia and bag it as ensilage, using a method they learned from CATIE staff. The couple also planted improved grasses, and the farm now supports 18 beef cattle. "Before, with natural pasture, we had to have fewer cows or buy chicken manure to supplement feed, says Ledesma. "We are able to have more cows now. We will see how it goes in this dry season, and with our forage bank producing, see if we can add more." She says she has learned more about biodiversity through the CATIE project. "We know a lot about nature, but we were not aware of its importance. I have learned that everything is a chain, what it serves for and why it shouldn't be eliminated." "Before, farmers were thinking only of grass as food for animals," says Ibrahim. "Now we have more than 150 species of trees and shrubs that are better for food than grass is. They maintain more production in dry season, improve the soil and provide ecosystem services." Flora and fauna benefit from the small reforestation projects, trees in pastures and living fences, which often serve as wildlife corridors between forest patches. Ibrahim describes living fences as "green veins that run through the farm." Research indicates that bird biodiversity in living fences and pastures with high-density trees are similar to that found in secondary forests. Besides the birds, Ledesma sees butterflies, raccoons, coatis, tayras, coyotes, white-tailed deer and ocelots on her land. "The white hawk gets our chickens, but it also kills snakes," she says. Though the slight, 55-year-old woman spends most of her days at work on the farm, she now has a larger view of the world through this project. "Carbon sequestration is not only going to benefit us but everyone. It is something you don't see, but you feel." Ree Strange Sheck is an author and journalist based in Turrialba, Costa Rica, where she is a consultant with the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center. She may be reached at First published: March 7, 2006

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