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Assessing FAO’s contribution to Climate Action

(5 May 2021)

During most of 2020, I was involved in the global assessment of FAO’s contribution to Sustainable Development Goal 13: Climate Action. The process was led by FAO’s evaluation office and I was hired as technical leader of a global team of consultants. During almost ten months, we had a look at most of FAO’s divisions, were in contact with all FAO’s regional offices and virtually visited 13 countries to see how FAO had included climate action in its strategies and practices.

In the final report (here), we concluded that FAO’s work was well aligned with the Agenda 2030 and the Paris Agreement . FAO definitely had stepped up its work on Climate Change, among others after it launched its Climate Change Strategy in 2017. In practices such as REDD+, Climate Smart Agriculture, Agroecology, adaptation in fisheries and emissions reductions from livestock FAO has become one of the leading organizations globally. On the other hand, we found that there was little alignment of portfolios between different FAO divisions and we could not find a systematic approach to trade-offs between the goals of increasing production and reducing emissions/increasing resilience. Therefore, we recommended that FAO should develop a corporate narrative on climate change and food systems; formulate a new Climate Change Strategy and action plan and mainstream climate action into all policies, programs, projects, offices, divisions and levels.

A specific challenge for this task was that due to the COVID pandemic, it was done fully online. Originally, we were supposed to visit Rome a couple of time with the full consultant team and each of us would have gone to at least 3 or 4 countries. In the end, we had to do the entire job from our own houses, communicating with the rest of the world through the Zoom platform. Although it took us some time to get used to it, in the end it worked out well. Of course, I missed the direct field observations and the human interaction - which are fundamental for obtaining the most interesting insights. But on the other hand, there were several advantages of working online. To start, there were considerably lower financial and environmental costs of not travelling around the world. Also, once all of us got used to meeting through digital means, setting-up and having a meeting with a team scattered around the world becomes really efficient. Finally, seeing everyone -be it a student or a global director- through a computer-screen in their private space and in casual clothing, provided this complex task with a touch of informality that was really helpful for the flow of the conversations. So, even though I wish that I can travel again soon I certainly learned a lot from this fully online assessments. Not in the last place because we managed to become good friends with all members of the team, even though I did never meet them in person

ECOANDES: once a research program in Colombia, now a conservation project in Peru and Ecuador

(23 September 2019)

Recently, I arrived at a moment in my personal career that seemed like completing a cycle. My first paid job as a biologist (because before becoming a biologist, I had jobs as farmhand, software-copier and waste-paper recycler) was to study the impact of burning and grazing on Colombian páramo ecosystems. This was part of a multi-year research program led by Dutch and Colombian research institutes, named ECOANDES. This program, initiated and supervised by eminent professors like Thomas van der Hammen and Antoine Cleef, was a milestone in the history of Andean ecology because it was the first of its kind to do a complete, multi-disciplinary assessment of entire mountain transects. Herewith, it contributed to a complete understanding of ecological processes at different scales in tropical landscapes. Its specific focus on high mountain ecosystems helped to draw academic and political attention to the páramo; even back in the 1980, when this ecosystem was still (literally and figuratively) covered in clouds.

Twenty-five years later, the Consortium for Sustainable Development in the Andean Ecoregion (Condesan) developed a project to study and conserve Andean ecosystems. This four-year project, financed by the GEF and UN Environment and executed in collaboration with the environmental authorities in Peru and Ecuador was also named ECOANDES. Coincidental or not, it seemed appropriate to call this project after the pioneer research program from the 1970’s and 80’s, because it aimed to take a next step in high mountain ecological research. The 21st Century ECOANDES focused at determining carbon stocks to show the role of ecosystems in climate change mitigation; it developed and applied large-scale restoration tools and it provided knowledge to improve agricultural land-use (among many other activities).

Probably not because I used to work for the original ECOANDES, but more likely because later in my career I have also been part of Condesan (during its Proyecto Páramo Andino), I was invited by UN Environment to evaluate the ECOANDES project. And I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the research, the quantity of interesting products and the impact the project had in the field. It certainly honored the name ‘ECOANDES’ because this project also turned out to be another milestone in the hisrory of Andean ecology by setting standard for ecosystem restoration, carbon monitoring and the creation of conservation and sustainable use areas.

A great but challenging initiative to mitigate climate change in forest landscapes

(13 June 2019)

Between the end of 2018 an well into 2019, I was contracted by DAI to lead the first program evaluation of the World Bank BioCarbon Fund’s Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes (ISFL). This is a global program aiming at providing results-based payments for countries in the global south that reduce Green House Gas emissions at the landscape level. This implies that activities that are supported include forest and ecosystem conservation to maintain carbon stocks as well as sustainable agriculture to enhance them. The ISFL includes a jurisdictional approach which means among others that emission reductions are calculated for an entire province or region within a country. The BioCarbon Fund plans to invest 380 million US$ over the next 15 years for this Initiative, which potentially is a highly impactful support for countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. The funds for the Initiative are provided by Norway, Germany, UK and USA

We evaluated the first five years of the ISFL, which is now active in five countries (Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Mexico and Zambia). This start-up period was dedicated to designing institutional arrangements, establishing base-lines and reference scenarios and involving stakeholders at national and local level. I had the luck to visit Zambia and Colombia to get a first-hand view of the ISFL’s implementation. We found that the ISFL is really an innovative program; a kind of logical next step beyond REDD+ (which focuses on forest conservation only). Although the Initiative made considerable progress at all levels, the partners at global and national level  also found that this integrated approach for reducing GHG emissions and enhancing carbon stocks is a complex matter. There are still many challenges ranging from getting the science right and creating an enabling policy environment to ensuring the adequate and fair involvement of stakeholders ( local communities, women, jurisdictional governments, private sector, etc). It will be very interesting to see how this promising Initiative develops in the future.