Institutionology and scale in agricultural biodiversity conservation

The third in a series of dispatches from the front lines of agrobiodiversity conservation and use. That is, the 6th Henry A. Wallace/CATIE Inter-American Scientific Conference on “Agrobiodiversity in Mesoamerica — From Genes to Landscapes” at CATIE in Costa Rica.

Today we heard about the institutionology of agrobiodiversity — everything from the International Treaty to micro-credit systems — and something of the efforts to link the results of scientific study and market knowledge to practitioners and producers in the field. A representative of Starbucks, Jessie Cuevas, described the Coffee and Farmer Equity (CAFE) Practices, developed with the assistance of Conservation International, and the mission of their Farmer Support Centre in Costa Rica to ensure the quality of Arabica coffee by helping farmers to maintain good processing and production methods. Their guidelines include measures for agrobiodiversity management for watershed and shade preservation. When asked, Jessie said Starbucks was also interested in increasing the genetic base of the crop to improve quality and disease resistance, but are still exploring possible approaches.

Central American Markets for Biodiversity (CAMBio) run a $17million financing scheme for micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises in Central America in support of biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, including organic coffee agroforestry in El Salvador, organic vegetable producers and wild blackberry exporters in Costa Rica. We also heard about INBio’s inventorying and mapping of 368 edible plant species gathered from 14,573 specimens in Central America herbaria. You can search the online database. One of the Symposium co-organisers, EcoAgriculture Partners based in Washington D.C., have set up an exchange between students at leading universities and practitioners in the field to help the transfer of on-the-ground experiences (and potential research questions) and the results of scientific research. Finally, an unscheduled presentation from a farmer network reminded us that farmers do all of the conservation and need to see some of the benefits.

The formal discussions were brought to an end with interventions from two CATIE staff that summed up nicely the difficulties that us agricultural biodiversity types face. After two days featuring numerous case studies of coffee and cacao agroforestry as probably the most species-rich agricultural systems in existence, Wilbert Philipps — the well-respected cacao expert — observed that the coffee and cacao cultivated within these systems is dangerously uniform and crop genetic diversity is seriously under-exploited. This was followed up by a remark from John Beer, CATIE’s Research and Development Director, that it might actually be quite useful to consider some of the disadvantages of diversity on farms. Clearly, we are still stymied by what we mean by the all-encompassing and usually misleading term agrobiodiversity, and we need to be ever conscious of the scale at which we are probing — what looks diverse and good at a landscape level may not look so diverse in the genes, and vice versa.

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