Ecosystem Services and Poverty in Malawi and Colombia

The ESPA-funded ASSETS project ( aims to explicitly quantify the linkages between ecosystem services that affect – and are affected by – food security and nutritional health for the rural poor at the forest-agricultural interface. The project proposes to integrate a suite of complexity tools and cutting edge models with more traditional participatory assessments in the field within a modified version of the Drivers-Pressures-States-Impacts-Response methodological framework to: identify how dynamic stocks and flows of ecosystem services at the landscape scale translate to local-level nutritional diets and health; and inform policy makers on how future land use and climate change will affect both food security and the ecosystem services associated with it (Figure 1).

Figure 1: A systems diagram developed by indigenous people in Colombia during Participatory Rural Appraisals

The ASSETS project focusses on three case study sites in Malawi, Colombia and Peru. In Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries with 56.7% of rural people in poverty, the key drivers and pressures identified are: forest encroachment, watershed protection and water resource management, wild fishery exploitation, fish farming, livestock production. Recent historical environmental crises (such as a major drought in 1995 and several years of low rainfall more recently) and progressive degradation of forests and soils (outside of the Zomba Mountain Reserve the region is largely deforested) will enable ASSETS to explore coping strategies and develop appropriate scenarios. The rural poverty rate in Colombia and Peru are comparable with that of Malawi (64.3% and 66.7% respectively), and their growing economy has come at the cost of considerable heterogeneity in the distribution of wealth, with poverty focused in the remoter areas with higher proportions of indigenous groups. The key drivers and pressures ASSETS will examine are: settlement, land clearance and agricultural production (meat and milk on both smallholder and large ranch scales), fish and encroaching biofuel production. ASSETS will explore different strategies for maintaining nutritional status under progressive transformation of land cover and examine coping strategies in recent periods of extreme rainfall and drought.  ASSETS is a multidisciplinary project and will utilise a variety of methodologies including Participatory Rural Appraisals, household surveys, biophysical measurement, and modelling.

Figure 2: Perceived changes in key resources in the Colombian Amazon

Preliminary results suggest that in Colombia there is limited socioeconomic differentiation, with most people being able to cover their basic food needs. This is because most have access to plots of land, which they cultivate in different forest areas. They also have easy access to wild fruits, vegetables, game and fish. Living conditions, however, are not ideal since people lack regular sources of monetary income and have no modern equipment to conduct their productive activities. As a result, participants do not talk about ‘poor’ or ‘rich’ but about ‘doing badly’ or ‘well’. The key factor for those performing badly is human capital, i.e. it is mainly families who have many young children, elderly people, split up or have ill members the ones that ones in a bad condition. Those doing badly make up between 5 to 20% of the population.

In contrast, Malawi possesses a more monetised economy. Participants commonly mention poverty, with ¾ of the population being categorised as poor. The poor face food-shortages since they have small plots of land (smaller than 0.5 ha), which are only rain-fed, possess little livestock (mainly poultry), and lack of a regular source of income (they often resort to casual labour).  Access to cash is essential for people in Malawi and the lack of a stable source of income (alongside the lack of natural resources available and low land productivity) has severe consequences on their wellbeing and food security. The forest is mainly used to collect firewood and some wild-vegetables whilst local rivers provide fish or crabs. The supply, however, is limited.

Both populations are heavily concerned about the state and trajectories of the natural resources that support their rural livelihoods (Figure 2). Future ASSETS work will investigate these trends, using fully-coupled process-based models to explore future scenarios to ensure food security.