In Colombia, cattle ranching provides approximately 28% of rural employment and livelihoods for 514,000 households. The industry also uses more land in the country than any other at up to 35 million hectares. Cattle ranching plays a disproportionate role in biodiversity loss and is the largest source of CO2 emissions in the country. Adopting silviculture systems is one of the best forms of sustainable agricultural practices in the Colombian cattle ranching sector.
Colombia’s rich biodiversity is at serious risk from deforestation. Deforestation increased by 65% between 2017 and 2018, while most deforestation was for grazeland — Over 70% of deforestation in Colombia occurs to create new pasture lands. Importantly, cattle ranching makes up 45% of Colombian Agriculture, so it is prudent to discover methods for decreasing the impact of these practices without negatively impacting the households which rely on the industry for their livelihood.
While the first drop in deforestation since 2016 following the FARC peace agreement shows signs of progress to slow deforestation in Colombia, the rate remains high at 198,000 hectares.
Only 15 million of the nearly 35 million hectares now dedicated to pastoral practices are suited for raising livestock due to the low nutritional quality of flora on deforested land. Also, small family-owned farms that average five acres in size factor heavily into the deforestation. Due to the size and number of these family-owned farms, maximizing their productivity while improving or preserving their livelihoods requires a delicate but necessary balance if stakeholders wish to address deforestation effectively.
Silvoculture offers a solution that is both sustainable and economically beneficial for small and midsized farms, but the transition comes with a cost and implementation requires a case-specific approach.
Challenges to the adoption of silvopastoral practices
Silvopastoral agriculture, or silviculture, is the process of integrating sustainable forestry practices with livestock and foraging, allowing farmers to reap the benefits of both without negatively impacting the ecology of the land. However, it takes a lot of effort and resources for a farmer to convert their business model to fit this alternative practice.
The average cost to convert a single hectare to silvopasture can be up to $4,000. Free-trade agreements with the United States and MERCOSUR, a South American trade bloc established in 1991, have also complicated the competitiveness of the Colombian livestock industry. Both entities have smoothed access to domestic and international markets by eliminating protective tariffs on the country’s dairy and meat products. There is also scarce domestic demand for sustainably produced Colombian beef and dairy products. Sanitation standards are difficult to meet in the global market as well, leaving the optimization of existing land as one of the few viable options available.
Silvopastoral practices in action
About 32,000 hectares have been converted to silviculture systems in Colombia, boosting incomes by up to $523 per hectare annually and increasing milk production by more than 36%. The planting of trees in these new pastoral systems has allowed for the sequestration of 1.2 million tons of carbon. Silvopasture benefits have not only positively impacted the ecology of farms in Colombia but offer a natural financial incentive to implement these practices.
Public-private partnerships have emerged to support this transformation to a more sustainable and prosperous system of agricultural land management. These include the CIPAV, the Colombian Cattle Ranching Federation, The Nature Conservancy, and the UN, who have collectively invested more than $42 million in developing sustainable agricultural practices in the country.
Climate change associated with the recent El Niño Oscillation costs the Colombian livestock sector $1.8 billion. Investing in silvopastoral systems can improve soil fertility and enhance the land’s capacity to absorb excess water and tolerate stresses in temperature. These environmentally conscious forestry practices also improve the land’s resistance to drought, allowing farmers to support more livestock per acre in conditions where water is scarce.
Silviculture, particularly as it pertains to cattle, can drastically improve the livelihoods of the many landholders that manage them. In addition to economic opportunities, the environmental benefits of this practice will continue to attract investors from abroad, given the ecological and financial benefits.
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