The inclusion of community based agro-biodiversity conservation into value chains and markets: designing viable institutional configurations through cross-site learning in Southern Africa, Ghana, Colombia and Thailand

The conservation of agro-biodiversity needs to go hand-in-hand with the generation and strengthening of viable livelihood opportunities for local communities. Identifying and extending the economic value of biological resources creates incentives to protect and conserve biological diversity. Thus, many social entrepreneurs, community organisations and development practitioners rightly focus their attention on connecting local biodiversity conservation initiatives to international and global markets, which typically offer better economic opportunities for local people.

The project links two distinct features of an integrated strategy for conserving agro-biodiversity. On the one hand, it builds on locally embedded business models, rural livelihood strategies and productive practices sustaining diversity of the natural resource base in a specific territorial domain. On the other hand, it recognises that the viability of such endeavours increasingly depends on the linkages with market developments and chain integration, in particular through standard setting and certification. The focus is on the interface where these two sometimes opposite dimensions of robust agro-biodiversity conservation strategies come together.

The project will explore the opportunities and address the obstacles that arise within the design and implementation of strategies intended to integrate local biodiversity conservation with market development. It will focus specifically on the design of robust, viable institutional frameworks that will enable Southern producers of natural products to connect with global value chains and markets, while simultaneously promoting the conservation of biodiversity.

The project will bring together experiences from southern and western Africa, south-east Asia and Latin America.

In Namibia, the Eudafano Women’s Cooperative (EWC) promotes the development of sustainable natural resource enterprises among rural women in northern Namibia and, supported by PhytoTrade Africa – the Southern African Natural Products Trade Association, has made significant progress in the development of systems and facilities for harvesting, processing and marketing the oil produced by the fruits of wild Marula trees.

In South Africa, the project teams up with two partners. GreenChoice works with the Rooibos and Biodiversity Initiative in the South African Fynbos biodiversity hot spot on a territory-based certification scheme aiming to implement an industry-wide strategy to engage producers in biodiversity conservation by arranging incentives in linking them to buyers and standards setters in export markets.

The Heiveld Cooperative, the Environmental Monitoring Group, and Indigo Development and Change have been poioneering in getting biodiversity conservation in Rooibos on the map and into the market. They work with rural communities harvesting Rooibos in the Suid Bokkeveld on sustainable harvesting priciples, the implementation of Fair trade schemes, and the related management of procesing capacity. Both partners engage Rooibos plantations and wild-harvesting communities in finding new models to make biodiversity conservation work, and to link this to international tea packers implementing sustainability certification.

In Ghana, small associations in rural areas are engaged in trading “red” palm oil to local and international markets. Although red palm oil offers economic viable economic prospects for mainly (young) women entrepreneurs, it is discriminated against due to its low productivity compared to plantation hybrids. The Ghanaian network strives to support an “alternative” chain enabling the conservation of the native red palm oil, which targets different domestic and international markets.

Colombia’s rich biodiversity includes a bamboo species, guadua, which is potentially an excellent construction material in earthquake-prone areas. Yet, there is a mismatch between marginalised producers and harvesters of bamboo and the need for good quality building materials in social housing schemes of urban poor in Colombia. The researches have an interest in the experiences with production schemes certified by Forest Stewartship Council (FSC) and in the technical standards and regulations related to construction of social housing.

In Thailand, community groups, agribusiness and retail companies collaborate with Chiang Mai University to link biodiversity-conserving small-scale rice farming with consumer markets. They are working with farmers and farmer organizations, consumers, traders, retailers and government agencies to raise awareness and to formulate appropriate standards and protocols for the production, trade and consumer labelling of local rice varieties in diversified markets.

The project’s approach is to combine insights from focused and theoretically informed academic research with those derived from the experiences and practice of the Southern partners. The project builds on the hands-on strategies and interventions of the partners, which explicitly or implicitly engineer the configuration of biodiversity conservation and market dynamics. The partners indicated that in-depth documentation and conceptualisation of their practices adds value to their involvement in immediate problem solving. The linkages to research enable the involved business associations and chain actors to discover unexpected potentials of their day-to-day activities and behaviour. Likewise, researchers are engaged with organisational systems in renewal and encouraged to positively question how the partners make the tandem of biodiversity conservation and market access work.

The studies collect anecdotal evidence and explicate the mechanisms at work, with a particular focus on (i) certification, standard setting and auditing schemes, and (ii) forms of social organisation and collective action embedded in the management of biodiversity rich areas and underutilised species. The studies contextualise the selected intervention strategies and are instrumental in an appreciative inquiry of the change processes and organisational renewals. The research will be conducted through active participation by local actors in writing histories and documenting instructive events.

The partners appreciate the opportunity for learning from the practices and strategies in different settings: the learning platform envisioned by the project creates a momentum for ‘borrowing’ mechanisms that surface in other contexts and inform on-going pilot schemes. Nobody expects to find a silver bullet, but the experiences from partners are useful for developing scenarios that inform local decision making. The learning platform will also be used to explore the opportunities for installing enabling mechanisms designed to scale up and replicate the proven practices and strategies. The intended outcomes are that the project will generate new ways of looking at the institutional problems and opportunities faced by the Southern partners engaged in markets and value chains, create a shift in institutional thinking, and translate into new strategies and policy interventions leading to robust and resilient biodiversity conservation practices. Desired development outcomes do not automatically result from ethical and environmental standards in international trade; the case studies show how partners cope with sometimes unintended consequences of certification. The project will identify opportunities for enhancing fitness of locally embedded strategies with existing certification schemes. The research and learning processes also inform the on-going discussion on impact monitoring, which was, for example, placed high on the agenda during the 2007 conference organised by the Biodiversity Fund and is currently accelerated by ISEAL Alliance (International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance).