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posted 04/11/02

Columbia's Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC) Hosts Conference on Farmers as Agents of Conservation
Dr. Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez to assume scientific leadership of program


In China's Yunnan Province, a mountain area known as Baoshan (which includes the world-famous Gaoligongshan State Nature Reserve) was suffering serious erosion from deforestation that began several decades ago. As an antidote, the government was promoting a program of reforestation and timber farming.

Researchers for PLEC found a few farmers in the region modifying this plan, planting some of the government-recommended trees but growing many indigenous plants among them, as well as raising chickens, mushrooms, wild vegetables and honey on their land.

These farmers were turning a profit in only two years, as opposed to the twelve-year profit cycle of the timber farms. After gaining the trust of local government agricultural officials, PLEC brought other farmers in the area to learn from the original "experts." The program took off quickly: in only a few years so much honey was being produced in the region that prices fell; in response, expert farmers started marketing the more valuable bee larvae as well.

Southern Ghana

Growing urban and rural populations in Southern Ghana are taking a toll on the region's natural resources. Deforestation, deterioration of soils, and decreased crop yields are the results. But PLEC researchers have found that amid this decline there is hope in the form of farming practices that make use of biological diversity. As shown in the photo above, in the PLEC site of Jachie, Central Ghana, woman expert farmers demonstrate their multi-cropping systems to scientists and technicians.

Some farmers in Southern Ghana mix trees such as bananas and papayas with food crops such as cassava, beans, yams, chili, and peanuts. These farmers use a traditional mulching practice called "oprowka," which involves leaving slashed vegetation in situ to decompose, rather than using fire to clear the land. Tired soils can be revived, and microbial health in the soil improved, through "oprowka." Animals such as bees and snails can provide additional food from the same land.

The leader of PLEC's Ghana group, Prof. Edwin Gyasi, is now petitioning the government of Ghana to reward PLEC "expert farmers" with a prize for "agrodiversity" that would rank on a par with the prizes for high yields that are currently awarded each year to especially successful farmers.


In the Amapá region in northern Brazil, farmers' plight was twofold. The integration of Amazonia with other regions of Brazil had opened the region to cheap rice and beans produced on large, mechanized farms in the South. Small farmers in the north were unable to compete. One of the few agriculture products that farmers were able to sell in the highly competitive market was bananas. However, the commercial banana crop in the region was wiped out by disease. About the only farmer in the region still able to produce a banana crop was a woman who had let native plants grow naturally, as weeds, in among her bananas. Though the reason is not completely understood, it seems that other plants retarded the disease so that the commercial bananas could grow.

After this "expert farmer" shared her methods with others under the auspices of PLEC, the banana crop in the region began increasing again. This time there are no clean banana fields; all allow for growth of a variety of indigenous plants. The local farmers are experimenting with a different species that allow bananas to thrive in spite of the disease.

Small farmers can promote conservation of biodiversity and preservation of the environment. Biodiversity conservation can improve the incomes of the rural poor. These are the simple but radical ideas of a United Nations University initiative called People, Land Management, and Environmental Change (PLEC).

At a conference hosted by the Columbia Earth Institute's Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC), the first 12 projects sponsored by the four-year-old initiative will be presented.

Working with Farmers for the Cultivation of Biodiversity while Improving Livelihoods
Click HERE for more details about the conference.


Faculty House and Casa Italiana,
Columbia University
West 116th Street and Amsterdam Avenue


April 23-26, 2002

The conference was organized by United Nations University (UNU), in coordination with Columbia's Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC), and the International Program of Biosphere and Society (IPBS) a joint initiative of UNESCO and Columbia University. The conference is supported by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Global Environment Facility (GEF).

A goal of the conference, and of the PLEC program itself, is to build awareness and interest in the conservation lessons that can be learned from small farmers around the world. The PLEC program examines how local people can successfully innovate and respond to global environmental, social and economic changes while simultaneously promoting greater biodiversity in rural agricultural areas and achieving economic security.

This ambitious project is approached in small pieces. PLEC researchers identify farmers who have found noteworthy solutions and are economically successful in ways that also promote diversity of local plants and animals. These farmers are dubbed "experts." Building support from official agricultural and conservation organizations, PLEC brings other farmers to demonstrations by the expert farmers and builds awareness and support for the successful strategy.

Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez will become Principal Scientific Coordinator of the PLEC initiative following the conference, while continuing to be a research scientist at CERC and Columbia's Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology. He teaches courses such as People and the Environment. The program fits nicely with the Columbia Earth Institute's mission of working to enhance sustainability through a better understanding of the scientific and human contexts.

"The tendency of major international development agencies is to see development or modernization as possible only through high-input solutions such as mechanization and large-scale agribusiness," says Pinedo. At the same time, some conservationists tend to emphasize keeping people out of ecologically sensitive areas altogether, seeing farmers as more often a problem than a part of the solution.

"One of PLEC's goals is to train a new generation of development and conservation leaders who see the value in a diverse set of approaches," notes Pinedo. The PLEC approach requires the involvement of the people living in the areas to be developed or conserved and recognizes that land preservation does not always mean excluding local people.

CERC director Don Melnick values the opportunities that hosting PLEC will provide for Columbia scientists and students. "Conserving biodiversity is a complicated business and no single approach holds the key to success. The PLEC approach is one tool in a diverse tool kit, and I am glad we will have an opportunity at CERC to examine it closely and possibly help to shape its use."

In the coming years PLEC will continue finding and promoting the ideas of expert farmers. It will also train rural extension workers to identify and promote ideas that are both economically and environmentally successful. At a higher level, the program will try to convince governmental and international development programs, including its parent organizations at the United Nations, to consider environmental functions in addition to economic ones. Finally, the program's agrodiversity database, an important means for promoting its mission, will continue to grow.

For more information about PLEC, an initiative of the United Nations University (UNU),

A consortium of five leading science and education institutions -- Columbia University, the American Museum of Natural History, The New York Botanical Garden, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Wildlife Trust -- the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC) was founded upon the principle that the environmental conservation challenge cannot be addressed by any one institution or discipline. With a wide array of resources, the Center is ideally equipped to train the next generation of environmental leaders charged with conserving Earth's biological diversity.

To register for the conference or for more information, please contact:
Luohui Liang (
or Miguel Pinedo Vasquez (, 212-854-8178
or visit

About The Earth Institute
The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit