Farmers, forests and cattle: Restoring hope in Colombia's degraded landscapes
To meet its ambitious commitments to forest landscape restoration, Latin America must transition away from the widespread extensive cattle grazing systems that are currently a leading cause of environmental degradation. In recent years, silvopastoral systems (SPS) have been proposed as a win-win conservation-friendly alternative, and numerous short-term and site-based studies support their multiple benefits. However, a rigorous evaluation of their conservation value on a wider temporal and spatial scale is lacking. Here I explore the potential of SPS as a tool for restoring grazing landscapes by examining the ecological and social impacts of previous and ongoing projects. Using Colombia as an example, I first explain how scaling-up SPS can simultaneously address the double challenge of improving cattle productivity while reducing its environmental footprint. Second, I quantify the landscape-scale impacts on tree cover of a project that incentivized adoption using short-term payments for ecosystem services (PES). In the 13-year period since the project started, tree cover increased significantly more on silvopastoral farms compared to the surrounding landscape, demonstrating the potential for achieving permanent improvements in tree cover through short-term payments. Third, I compare forest structure and composition on sites retired from cattle production over a decade ago to reference riparian forests in the region. Overall, restored sites have recovered into diverse forests but their structure and species composition differ from the existing forests. This work illustrates how lands released from grazing can contribute to support species conservation in this region, especially when the remaining forests have been shaped by decades of human management. Finally, I examine the extent, motivations, and barriers that determine silvopastoral farmers’ current and intended commitment to conservation-friendly practices. My research highlights the role of stewardship and identity values, as well as climate change as drivers of adoption, and suggests that providing in-kind support and small cash incentives may suffice to remove the existing barriers. Overall, my work shows that SPS can be a useful addition to the restoration toolkit, and that silvopastoral farmers can be active partners in scaling-up forest landscape restoration across pasture-dominated regions.