28 May 2013

Floor Brouwer: gathering environmental scientists and land use policy makers

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Exploring land use policy can support sustainable development in developing countries, but implementation of scientific advice is difficult to achieve.

Floor Brouwer is a researcher at the LEI research institute of Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands. The institute develops economic expertise and gives political advice in the agrofood sector and the living environment. Brouwer coordinated an EU funded project called LUPIS. It aimed at assessing the impact of land use policies on sustainable development in developing countries. The project relied on modelling tools developed within the EU projects SEAMLESS and SENSOR. Here, Brouwer talks to youris.com about bringing together scientists and policy makers in developing countries and facing basic problems.

Why do you need to assess the impact of land use policies?
Often, we address an environmental problem in a region or a country, be it biodiversity, soil erosion or land use. But in the long run, it is also essential for the economy and the social aspect of our lives. If you undermine your environment, then you might be profitable this year or next year. But you will certainly experience difficulties in continuing your current activities in the coming ten to 20 years. The impact assessment tools allow comparing the long-term impact of an environmentally friendly policy with no policy change. It is not a projection, but it explores what might happen in the next two decades.

Have any decisions been made on the basis of your advice?
The case of Brazil is a good example. It was about the construction of a federal motorway in the Amazonian forest. At the same time, the government was planning a new forest policy to limit the occupation and use of forests in Brazil. The key questions were: What is the impact of the motorway on the rural economy in the region? Is there an environmental issue in relation to biodiversity? And is there any impact on local people? It was a quite large area, about the size of the Netherlands.

In 2011, the project partners at the University of Brasilia presented the answer to these questions to policy makers and discussed it with them. At the same time, there was a debate about the same topic in parliament and also in the media. The model results were quite consistent with the political debate, since we explored the impacts of the new forest policy.

How did you choose the policy options?
The policies we examined were quite realistic, because the stakeholders always agreed to them. At an early phase of the project, we asked the partners in the developing countries to identify the local stakeholders. These could be regional government authorities, NGOs, researchers or farmers’ organisations.

Each of the seven project teams then had at least three meetings with them. The first meeting aimed at clarifying the problem. What is the urgent need for doing an impact assessment? The second meeting discussed the indicators. These are the key variables that we used in the land use models and that are understandable for policy makers. For example, a key indicator for economy may be farm income. An environmental indicator may be water quality. The third meeting focussed on the results. We had a discussion with the local stakeholders about the impact of such policy measures for the next ten or 20 years. This science-policy interaction was already an innovation, for often the researchers were only operating within the scientific community.

Did you also encounter problems?
The Mali case was quite complex. There was a major plan to extend rice production in a certain region of the country. The impact was: How does this relate to the demand for forest, for example to the need for wood to be used for cooking? Is there any competition for that? Often, the research conditions in such countries are extremely difficult. They do not have any resources to do any innovative work. That is a big issue. In those cases, it is extremely difficult to reach an outcome.

What would you do differently if you started the project now?
I think we were starting too much from a European perspective. It was a bit naïve to say “we want to train people in using this sort of modelling”. Some of the partners were very explicit and wanted to start from the problem. But if you immediately start digging into the problems, you easily end up in too much detail and can never cope with the policy or the modelling tools.

Is there any follow up where you look at the implementation?
No, that would be very nice if that were possible. If we had a project available, the whole consortium would be immediately available to do such an analysis, because it would be worth it. Other projects of this kind are now run by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nation, for example. They also seek tools and we shared our experience with them.

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