Why it is worth changing Colombia’s productive landscapes

By working productive landscapes and connecting different ecosystems, we provide safe habitats for birds and biodiversity and achieve environmental benefits for people while improving the productivity and profitability of farmers and communities with a long-term sustainable impact.

In 2020, when the world stopped, the Audubon Americas team increased its activities. Taking advantage of this bizarre reality and being unable to do fieldwork, the strategic decision was to invest time and purpose in strengthening the structure of different projects halted by the Covid-19 pandemic. While people worldwide waited for the end of restrictions, outside nature thrived where human hands could not reach it, and birds continued moving along the flyways. 

In this particular and significant context, the strategic line of Regenerative Agriculture acquired greater relevance thanks to its purpose to improve and manage agricultural production lands so they could serve as corridors that facilitate the movement of wildlife. This strategy's mission is to "design and implement a portfolio of practices for productive landscapes that are friendly with the birds and able to generate habitats and connectivity for them," explained Gloria Lentijo, biologist and director of the strategy for Audubon Americas, and with sound experience in developing and implementing Audubon's programs in Colombia. Gloria also has extensive experience in community work: she holds a Master's in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation from the University of Florida, and her graduating thesis focused on working with farmers and studying their attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors regarding birds and conservation.

By working productive landscapes and connecting wetlands, forest patches, and protected areas in a more organized and efficient way, wildlife, soil, and water can be protected, while providing environmental benefits to people, such as food security, flood prevention, resilience to climate changes, and improving the productivity and profitability of farmers as well as communities.

Respectful bird-friendly practices on agricultural land include silvopastoral systems for cattle raising, habitat restoration, and protection and crop rotation models. These systems, already used in the country, are long-term organizational structures that demand the will and participation of different actors, such as landowners, community leaders, protected area administrators, and environmental authorities.

In Colombia, with immense agricultural potential and more than four million people working in the fields, the Audubon team studied which regions and landscapes offered the best program implementation opportunities. They were looking for sites of high contribution due to their bird species diversity and threatened by climate change, deforestation, mining, infrastructure, and unsustainable production.

Valle del Cauca, in southwestern Colombia, was the chosen region. It has the optimal characteristics for implementing the program, offering many types of habitats in the Pacific, the Western Mountain Range, the geographical valley of the Cauca River, and the Central Mountain Range. In addition, having the support of partners such as the Calidris Association and the collaboration of the sugarcane sector, interested in the restoration and reforestation of protective forest strips along the shorelines of rivers and streams.

Designing a world for birds and biodiversity

Landscape management tools seek to ensure that birds can live and move freely, taking advantage of natural habitat resources. What is connectivity based on? It refers to uniting two or more forest fragments through a vegetation line. In ecological terms, it aims to allow birds to move through safe areas, especially species that are more vulnerable to landscape changes and challenged by open spaces.

"If the birds remain confined to a small forest, it would be very likely that it would lead to their extinction, since there would be long-term problems of competition for resources, genetic problems in the population, no balance between males and females, imbalances in the reproductive niches, among others," explains Gloria.

Implementing regenerative agriculture tools in areas close to rivers and streams improves water quality, regulates flows, and reduces erosion and the possibilities of land movements or landslides.

Although when seeing a landscape, many people only admire the variety of greens, the truth is that its design, diversity, and shape can significantly impact migratory birds and local fauna. Among the most common landscape management tools are live fences made by lines of trees of different heights and corridors, which are larger strips with varying vegetation types. A combination of pastures with trees and bushes is used in silvopastoral systems; forest fragments are isolated, preventing the entry of cattle, to protect the vegetation inside. Whichever tool is used, the purpose is to create shelters for the most vulnerable species.

"All these tools provide more coverage and protection. This way, we have productive landscapes conserved, ensuring their long-term productivity and sustainability, which is also one of the main goals of the new National Strategy for the Conservation of Birds of Colombia (ENCA)," explains Gloria.

How can these landscapes be friendlier with birds and biodiversity and, at the same time, productive and sustainable over time?

"We design practices that work for birds and biodiversity and are also suitable to the farmers who can't just be asked to convert their lands into forests but can incorporate practices in a way that works best for them and the environment. If we consider that biodiversity, in general, provides ecosystem services benefiting everyone, this way we ensure production in the long term," explains Lentijo.

The new practices must be cost-effective, understanding that implementing new ways to do things requires a mindset change. One of the purposes of the Regenerative Agriculture program is to ensure investment recovery. Still, there is an additional challenge: the gain is difficult to quantify in many cases, even though multiple studies seek a solution.

"In sustainable ranch systems, with silvopastoral systems, there is evidence that livestock productivity -meat and milk- improves in the midterm. The initial investment is expensive, and change takes time because it is necessary to wait for the trees and bushes to grow. Still, the protocol allows slow changes in the land, and the results are very good with time," says Gloria.

Achieving change in the way of doing things is one of the biggest challenges in her work and her team's work. "It's not only designing, implementing, and showing the pilot lands of the program. Adapting new behaviors is complex. There will always be producers at the forefront, those who wait to see to believe, and those who will never change their production habits. Even if there are different thoughts and types of people, we cannot lose sight of the opportunity to offer better habitat conditions to protect birds and a program structured on realistic goals and practices," says Lentijo.

A sizable part of the realistic practices mentioned by Gloria has been linked to Audubon since 2014, requiring rolling up sleeves and participating in small, high-impact activities such as designing and building community nursery gardens that provide the plants needed to implement the strategy. Workshops and training are available to build community awareness of environmental issues and work on conservation agreements. Since this is a long-term program, ecological education must reach the younger ones, which is why an educational curriculum for children was developed and offered to different rural schools so students can learn more about the birds surrounding them and how to care for them.

Planting for the future

Generally speaking, many of today's actions will take a while to show results. Audubon's science team designed indexes of bird-friendly practices and ecological health indicators that will allow us to understand if implementing these actions worked and if it was good for the birds, biodiversity, and the community.

Colombia implemented a ten-year sustainable cattle-raising project between 2010 and 2019. Some 4,000 producers had excellent results on the farms where the project developed, as conclusive data regarding changes in cattle raising production shows.

"Everyone must benefit. That is why it is so important to have a baseline in which we have initial information on how the place was before the program implementation and go back in five, eight, or ten years to evaluate with excellent information the rates again," adds Lentijo.