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Working Towards Sustainable Land Management in the South Pacific

(David Howlett)



This paper outlines the activities of the International Board for Soil Research Management (IBSRAM) in the South Pacific and its roles in working towards the development of sustainable agricultural systems in the Region. This includes a short review of the characteristics of the Region and an analysis on how these influence the development of more sustainable systems. A meeting of the IBSRAM PACIFICLAND Network was held in Papua New Guinea in 1995 entitled Sustainable Land Management in the South Pacific. This meeting identified common regional issues and concerns and these are summarized in this paper, with the proposed development of the Framework for the Evaluation of Sustainable Land Management (FESLM) in the Region.


 The organization

IBSRAM, an international organization with an independent Board of Trustees, was created in 1983 with the aim of promoting soil management research with National Agricultural Research and Extension Systems (NARES) in developing countries. The headquarters of IBSRAM are located in Bangkok, Thailand, and operates in Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. IBSRAM does not engage in its own field research, but works in partnership with NARES through the creation of research networks on common soil and land management issues. In this catalytic role IBSRAM has initiated six research networks on acid soils, vertisols, sloping lands, and sustainable land management with 50 different national institutions.

 Research network concept

IBSRAM's unique strength lies in its mode of operation through collaborative research networks with NARES. This procedure is used to enhance the NARES capacity in conducting applied and adaptive research on soil management and to bridge research with extension. This is a cost-effective way of undertaking multi-locational research. The network approach successfully solves the problem of land diversity and site specificity in research results. By this process, IBSRAM has developed effective new methods of implementing soil related research. New ideas are being developed, such as the provision of different soil management options to farmers according to their investment possibilities. Evaluation of the sustainability of these options and integrated soil water, and nutrient management technologies relating to these options are being developed.

Once a network has been formed, national cooperators agree to conduct a common-core experiment on different cropping and land management practices with satellite experiments. Proposals are developed jointly, and funding secured from both national and donor sources. The basis of the network is one of partnership; the country projects are national and are managed by a country appointed national coordinator. These projects form the network coordinated and back-stopped by IBSRAM. In the South Pacific the PACIFICLAND Network on the management of sloping lands was the outcome of this participatory approach.

 Institutional links

IBSRAM's special relationship with the NARES provides valuable feedback on research implementation to the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs). These links with IARCs provide an important contribution to the dissemination and application of agricultural and environmental research into appropriate localities and problem areas. In working through partnerships with NARES collaborators in research networks, IBSRAM is able to act as an effective mechanism for communication from IARCs to NARES.

 The Way ahead

While containing its applied and adaptive research activity with NARES, IBSRAM is moving from transferring technology from research experiments into realistic options for farmers. Transferring soil management options to farmers requires a "partnership" linking research with extension and farmers, training extension staff in research issues and vice versa, adaptation of the technical options and through on-farm and participatory research, and assessing the economic value of these options to help their presentation in development plans.

IBSRAM coordinated the preparation of a position paper on Soil, Water, and Nutrient Management (SWNM) research (Greenland et al. 1994) which provided a new agenda for research leaders and donors in the vitally important area of natural resource management. The paper advocated research which should be undertaken in close collaboration with land users, an integrated biophysical and socio-economic approach, an emphasis on adaptive research, and a harmonization of research efforts. This paper has led to the establishment of four new research consortia in key areas of soil, water, and nutrient management research (relating to combating nutrient depletion, managing acid soils, managing soil erosion and optimising soil water use). IBSRAM is coordinating the consortia on controlling soil erosion, and it is expected that the PACIFICLAND Network will subsequently form a component of this.


The PACIFIC Network was established by IBSRAM and the Pacific island countries in 1990. In the first phase (1990-1995) four countries were full members of the Network, namely: Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Samoa. In addition the Cook Islands, the Kingdom of Tonga and the Solomon Islands took part in some of the Network's activities.

In the Pacific shifting smallholder agriculture on sloping lands, based on traditional knowledge, is widespread and has long been practised. A shortage of suitable arable lowlands due to increased population, issues of land tenure, and the introduction of tree cash crops are leading to the use of more steep lands and to the intensification of existing land use. Elsewhere in the world, the practice of continuously encroaching on steeper and forested lands has been unsustainable. The Network is addressing this issue and is seeking to assess the extent of the problems of land degradation and to develop acceptable technologies for sustainable agriculture based on existing systems and local technical knowledge.

The first phase of the Network was funded by the Asian Development Bank, AusAID and the United Kingdom Overseas Development Administration. Additional support and assistance has been provided by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Crawford Fund of Australia, and from EU Pacific Regional Agricultural Programme. The Network is now moving into its second phase which should see an expansion of its activities to other countries in the South Pacific.


The goal for PACIFICLAND is "the development of sustainable land management on sloping land in the island countries of the South Pacific". This focuses on sustainable agriculture, but allows for the inclusion of other soil and land management aspects and for a more cross-sectoral approach to sustainable land management. There are three main objectives to the second phase all building upon the foundations of the first phase.

- Research: to test and validate existing knowledge on soil and land management, to investigate factors determining the sustainability land management, and to assist in the development of appropriate technologies and packages.

- Capacity-building: to strengthen the capability of national research agencies in undertaking research on sustainable land management.

- Network and information: - to strengthen the existing PACIFICLAND Network to provide information on sustainable land management.

The activities of the second phase of PACIFICLAND can be divided into three groups that are closely related to its objectives. These are: the national research projects; capacity-building and technical support; and network support. The national projects in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga will target issues of soil and water nutrient management that are crucial in determining the sustainability of farming systems in the Region. Although the objectives of each national project vary, they can be summarized under three themes:

- to obtain long-term bio-physical and socio-economic data on the sustainability of sloping land technologies;

- to identify the major issues facing existing farming systems on sloping lands and to document indigenous practices; and,

- to develop appropriate recommendations on sloping land technologies through a programme of on-farm research.


 Sustainability concept

The sustainable development and management of natural resources is now on the agenda of most countries. Widespread recognition of the need for sustainable land management (and development) was attained through the Earth Summit of 1992 with the adoption of Agenda 21 by developed and developing countries. However, efforts to achieve sustainable land management through the extensive adoption of policies and technologies for more effective land management are still in their infancy in many countries.

In addition, there is still controversy regarding the very concept of sustainability. There are many proposed definitions of sustainability (Greenland, 1994), but there are those who now argue that it is not possible to define sustainability in absolute terms (Pretty 1993 and 1996). To develop a purely scientific approach to the question, they suggest, will leave more questions unanswered than answered. Questions of sustainability will always be open to interpretation by the different stakeholders and the changing circumstances; in this the scientist will be just one stakeholder with only a relatively small stake. However, it is useful to explore the concept of sustainability in more depth. In this context there are seven key points to consider (Howlett 1996):

- What period should be considered when looking at a system - is the system to be sustainable for five years, 25 years, or for generations?

- How can the dynamics of sustainability be captured? What was once sustainable may no longer be so and vice versa; external and internal influences on a system will affect its sustainability.

- Whose perspective do we consider? Different groups may have different assessments of the sustainability of different systems - the farmer and the research scientist may have very different views on sustainability.

- Which pathway to sustainability should be followed? Several different pathways may be available - there is unlikely to be only the one true road to sustainability.

- How are different systems to be assessed as to their sustainability?

- How is progress to more sustainable systems to be monitored, and who will do it?

All these questions must be addressed if the move towards more sustainable systems is to be achieved. Precise quantification of sustainability of different systems is likely to be impossible, but if we are to make such a move it will be essential to judge which systems are more sustainable.

 Pacific island characteristics

When considering sustainable agriculture and land management in the Pacific island countries it is essential to recognize their unique characteristics (Box 3). What promotes sustainable agriculture and land management in a continental country may ignore some of the key issues of island countries. The small size and relative isolation of the Pacific islands reduces the number of strategies for sustainable land management. There is a much greater risk if a strategy or plan fails due to their limited natural resource basis. Conversely, the continuing existence of traditional societies and their attachment to the land provide opportunities to develop long-term stewardship through the active participation of rural people.


Box 3 Key Characteristics of Pacific Island Countries


- High degree of biological diversity (both terrestrial and marine)
- Many small ecosystems that are vulnerable to change
- Limited natural resource base allows little room for error - potential impacts of land degradation are high
- Range of available natural resources on a country basis is narrow
- Inherent low fertility of many of the soils of the Pacific islands
- Many small islands separated by vast distances and are relatively isolated
- Small land mass to ocean makes them vulnerable to climatic change and sea level rise
- Vulnerability to natural disasters such as cyclones


- Most land is held under customary tenure and populations are still largely rural
- Traditional agriculture is based on swidden systems
- Majority of populations are dependent upon agriculture for subsistence and cash
- High level of diversity of peoples and cultures, traditional social systems are largely intact but are coming under pressure to change
- Narrow range of technical and scientific skills and limited capacities
- Wealth of traditional knowledge on natural resource and use
- Limited and expensive communication and transport links
- Openness of economies and extreme dependence on external sectors and factors
- High population growth

It is still therefore essential to agree on what we understand by sustainable agriculture and land management in the South Pacific, even though an empirical definition encompassing the social and bio-physical may be unobtainable. More than elsewhere, this understanding has to have at its heart the aims and aspirations of rural communities where most land is held under customary tenure.

Common regional issues in the South Pacific

Through the activities of the IBSRAM PACIFICLAND Network, there has been active debate by national cooperators on what the concept of sustainable land management means for the islands of the South Pacific. This has extended to what role they should play in this as researchers and extension agents, and how to implement this on the ground in partnership with the farmers and resource users. An example of the output of the Network is the result of the last annual meeting. The focus was on sustainable land management and on identifying common issues the Region was facing. A summary of the major issues facing the Region is given in Box 4, and specific country issues are shown in Table 1.

Box 4 Common regional issues on sustainable land management

- Increase in population leading to the intensification of land use, and the use of marginal lands, including sloping land
- Uncontrolled clearing of land for agriculture on sloping land, and destruction of forests by logging activities
- The depletion of soil nutrients in many farming systems and the need to develop appropriate soil, water, and nutrient management technologies
- Land tenure and land disputes, the need to build on customary tenure systems in agricultural development and to reduce conflict with the introduction of more commercial forms of agriculture and western tenure systems
- Need for a holistic approach and greater farmer participation in technology generation
- Need for appropriate policies to foster sustainable land management

Table 1 Country issues on sustainable land management

Country Issues*
Fiji - Over-dependence on sugar industry - need for alternate crops and appropriate soil conservation measures
- Small size of farms leading to their over-use and depletion of soil nutrients and organic matter, need for crop diversification
- Need for a holistic approach and greater farmer participation in technology generation
- Need appropriate information (biophysical, social and economic) on sustainable land management and its dissemination
Papua New Guinea - Need to identify problems farmers are facing
- Education and communication between research and extension
- Mobilization of resources and policies to address issues of sustainable land management
- Need appropriate soil nutrient management technologies
Solomon Islands - Population pressure leading to the intensification of land use and use of marginal lands
- Lack of political will to implement policies to promote sustainable land management
- Land tenure and land disputes
- Loss of soil fertility from present farming practices and reduction in fallow periods
- Loss of forest land through logging and agricultural activities
Tonga - Need to increase participation of farmers in technology development
- Farming on sloping land is relatively new - appropriate technologies are required
- Loss of soil organic matter and biomass from present farming practices
- Need for appropriate land use policies
Vanuatu - Logging activities causing erosion (and loss of forests)
- Increase in population pressure causing people to cultivate marginal land
- Traditional farming practices of slash and burn reducing forest area, and destruction of top soil
- Land tenure and land disputes
Samoa - Uncontrolled land clearing for agriculture on sloping land
- Land tenure and land disputes
- Attitudes of farmers towards the impacts of their activities
- Lack of information and agro-technology for sustainable farming

* Issues are not listed in any order of priority

From these common issues it is clear that a major task of those working in agriculture in the Region is to develop technologies which maintain and conserve the resources which are also socially and economically acceptable to the farmers. This has to include tackling the concerns over land tenure, and how these must work through existing customary systems. A crucial factor over which many of those working in the PACIFICLAND Network at present have little influence is the development of policies and institutions which promote better land management and husbandry. In summary, a major conclusion from the first phase was that there are two area factors which have to be addressed within the Region if the move towards more sustainable systems is to be achieved. These are:

- development and adoption of more sustainable technologies and land management practices; and
- preparation and implementation of improved/new policies and institutional change to promote better land management.

Framework for the evaluation of sustainable land management (FESLM)

In 1991, IBSRAM with other agencies (FAO, International Society of Soil Science (ISSS), Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), German Foundation for International Development (DSE)) and the Thailand Department of Land Development organized a workshop on the "Evaluation for Sustainable Land Management in the Developing World". This workshop was supported by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), and US Agency for International Development (USAID). A key outcome of this meeting was the recommendation to develop the FESLM (Smyth and Dumanski, 1993). The FESLM introduced the concept of sustainable land management along "five pillars":

- maintain or enhance production services (productivity pillar);
- reduce the level of production risk (security pillar);
- protect the potential of natural resources and prevent degradation of soil and water quality (protection pillar);
- be economically viable (viability pillar);
- be socially acceptable (acceptability pillar).

According to the definition, all these criteria (pillars) must be satisfied for a system to be sustainable. The publication of the FESLM discussion paper by FAO (Smyth and Dumanski, 1993) has promoted active debate and importantly focused attention on the practicality of assessing sustainability. An international working group was established to further develop the framework, and through this a number of case studies are currently being, or have been, undertaken in a range of countries and environments to test and evaluate the Framework. This includes a proposed project for the South Pacific.

South Pacific developments

IBSRAM, in collaboration with the NARES, is preparing a project to develop and test a method for the assessment of the sustainability of traditional farming systems in the South Pacific. This will be achieved through the assessment and evaluation of different farming systems through case studies in Papua New Guinea and Fiji over a two-year period. In undertaking this assessment, a range of participatory methods will be used to allow resource users/owners to play an equal role in the assessment of the sustainability of their farming systems. On the basis of the outcome of these studies, it is intended to identify key socio-economic and bio-physical indicators that are easily measurable and meaningful at the farm level to assess the sustainability of traditional farming systems in the South Pacific. This project is currently under consideration for funding by ACIAR.


IBSRAM, and its partners in the South Pacific, through the PACIFICLAND Network, are now actively addressing some of the challenges to the development of sustainable land management in the Region. This has involved active collaboration with a range of regional and national organizations. This allows for the development of complementary research and extension activities to tackle the issues the islands are facing. These activities can be further enhanced and the outcomes of this Consultation will be particularly important in this regard.


Greenland, D.J. 1994. Soil science and sustainable land management. In: Soil science and land management in the tropics, eds. Syers, J.K. and Rimmer, D.L. CAB International.

Greenland, D.J., BOWEN, G., ESWARAN, H., RHOADES, R. and VALENTIN, C. 1994. Soil, water, and nutrient management: A new agenda. IBSRAM Position paper, Bangkok.

Howlett, D.G.B., 1996. Challenges for sustainable land management in the South Pacific. In: Proceedings of PACIFICLAND annual meeting and workshop on sustainable land management in the South Pacific. IBSRAM (in press).

IBSRAM, 1991. Evaluation for Sustainable Land Management in the Developing World. IBSRAM Proceedings no. 12(3).

Pretty, J.N., 1993. Alternative systems of inquiry for a sustainable agriculture. The International Institute for Environment and Development, London.

Pretty, J.N., 1996. Sustainability: people's participation and sustainable agriculture. In: Proceedings of PACIFICLAND annual meeting and workshop on sustainable land management in the South Pacific. IBSRAM (in press).

Smyth A.J. and Dumanski J., 1993. FESLM: An International Framework for Evaluating Sustainable Land Management. World Soil Resources Report No. 73. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.

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