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The COVID-19 pandemic and agroecosystem resilience: early insights for building better futures

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John Rono harvests coriander on his farm in western Kenya for sale at an urban centre. Photo World Agroforestry
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Originally posted on ICRAF’s website.

Researchers have studied the impact on natural and managed landscapes and call for wiser and transformative solutions.

As part of socio-ecological systems, agroecosystems provide livelihoods for millions. The ecosystem services generated from agroecosystems provide the basic substances that we need to exist. Hence, the resilience of societies is dependent on well-functioning ecosystems, which is not a given in many developing nations.

As the world marks one year since the global spread of COVID-19, rupturing life as it used to be, it is time to take stock of the impacts beyond the direct medical aspects: on people, forests and agroforestry. A research team from World Agroforestry (ICRAF) studied in depth the wider effects and published their results in the journal, Sustainability.

They found that the impacts have been substantial. So much so that there will be a cesure between research done before, and research results obtained after, 2020.

‘As the reported impacts were both positive and negative,’ said Lalisa Duguma, ICRAF senior scientist researching sustainable landscapes and integrated climate actions and lead author of the article, ‘we started a systematic review of the emerging peer-reviewed literature, realizing that these still are snapshots that need to be interpreted in their local contexts.’

Owing to the disease, countries have closed land borders, ports and even their airspaces except for emergencies or medical goods and equipment supplies. With the planet more globalised than at any other time in human history, these measures, adopted to safeguard populations and contain the virus, created shocks to the broader economy, livelihoods and societal networks. This resulted in significant social effects that created further stress to the prevailing climate-change challenges, environmental degradation and increasing inequity.

Though COVID effects were global, developing countries were the most affected owing to disruptions to economic activities, including production and trade. The pandemic exposed faults in the highly advocated export market, revealing the weak readiness countries have when global issues arise.

In particular, in Sub-Saharan Africa, countries experienced a significant rural-to-urban movement over the last few decades, leading to expansion of urban areas that are strongly dependent on rural agroecosystems. Employment opportunities mainly drove the migration, either as casual or other forms of employment. Most rural households have one or more family members who have moved to urban areas seeking employment.

With the emergence of COVID-19, and measures taken to curb its spread, many employers laid off and reduced staff and casual labourers. Since they lost their jobs and had no other income sources, urban dwellers who were formerly remitters turned for help to their family members in rural areas. Others who lost their jobs returned to their rural areas, increasing demand for consumables. This may increase demand for agricultural land, which is often gained at the expense of forests and woodlands, especially by those living on the margins of forests.


A woman watering vegetables in Burkina Faso. Photo: World Agroforestry/Sophie Mbugua
A woman watering vegetables in Burkina Faso. Photo: World Agroforestry/Sophie Mbugua

In the agriculture, forestry and fishery sectors, most interventions are time-sensitive, that is, seasonal, and if the schedule is missed, then farmers have to wait for the next year to implement similar tasks.

Owing to movement restrictions, field inventories, surveys, data collection and other field activities were slowed or discontinued completely to avoid risks to personnel and communities within which activities were to take place. Manenti and others, using responses from managers of protected areas, found that the managers were challenged to implement activities. The lockdowns led to the flourishing of invasive species that were usually managed when access was not restricted.

At farmers’ level, the impacts have been far-reaching. For instance, owing to the non-essential travel and movement restrictions and lack of prior preparation, farmers could not access input supplies, such as fertilisers, disease and pest control inputs and improved seeds.

One vital sector that usually generates substantial revenue for natural resource management in many countries is tourism. In many African countries, the tourism sector is strongly dependent on ecosystems. With the movement restrictions, tourists have temporarily abandoned the region and revenue from the sector has shrunk significantly. It is important to note that the sector supports most wildlife reserves, sanctuaries and private parks in Africa. For example, the United Nations World Tourism Agency indicated that, as of April 2020, almost half of global tourist destinations had closed their borders either totally or partially.

With the shrunken revenue owing to the pandemic, most of the natural resources (wildlife, landscapes and other natural habitats) that the sector relied on have received limited management investment owing to resource scarcity. Unless there are new support schemes, these resources may face significant degradation owing to lack of effective management. Unfortunately, the countries where such resources are located are also facing financial constraints, forcing them to channel available resources to priority and urgent interventions to control COVID-19.

Net impacts varied across continents and within countries, with global chains most at risk and some local supply chains actually flourishing. Diverse agroforestry landscapes with multiple options had ways to cope with the stress while overspecialized landscapes locked into, and dependent on, global supply chains were the most vulnerable. At least, that’s how it appears to be so far, write the team. Further compilations and analysis will be needed.

Overall, whether mitigative, adaptive, transformational or re-imaginative, all actions would need to be backed up by massive investments, policies and incentives. Investments will have to be justified by meeting the current and future generations’ expectations. Above all, leadership, collaboration and joint action will be needed if impacts from COVID-19 like stresses on socio-ecological systems would be minimised in the future.

‘In looking for a suitable “framing” for understanding the cascading effects in socio-ecological systems,’ said Meine van Noordwijk, ICRAF distinguished research fellow and part of the team, ‘we tried to combine the adaptive learning cycle of a resilience analysis scheme, with its breakdown of existing linkages and stored capitals, before the buds of new solutions can be identified among the rubble, with the various types of decisions in the driver–pressure–system–impacts–responses scheme.’

The SARS-CoV2 virus, the source of COVID-19, has had an impact on all Sustainable Development Goals and generated new visions of how humans should interact with nature. Source: Image 1: SARS-CoV2 virus:; Image 2: United Nations (; Image 3: World Agroforestry/Meine van Noordwijk
The SARS-CoV2 virus, the source of COVID-19, has had an impact on all Sustainable Development Goals and generated new visions of how humans should interact with nature. Source: Image 1: SARS-CoV2 virus:; Image 2: United Nations (; Image 3: World Agroforestry/Meine van Noordwijk

The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of broader agroecosystems and related sectors and the livelihoods they support. Addressing these vulnerabilities needs measures that cascade from the national level to landscape and household levels. It needs a concerted effort across scales with decentralised roles and responsibilities at the various levels. It would be essential to design and focus on building back better actions around adaptive, transformational and re-imaginative approaches that target systemic changes over the long term. Adaptive, integrated approaches need to focus on adjusting socio-ecological system dynamics to be sufficiently responsive to COVID-19 types of stresses.

‘The most immediate responses of people minimize the damage of a newly emerging threat, before adaptation can occur,’ said Peter Minang, leader of ICRAF’s landscape research and a member of the team, ‘but building back better requires decisions at the transformative and re-imaginative levels, otherwise we may repeat the fragility that we have now observed.’

Specific to the zoonotic starting point of the coronavirus that triggers the COVID-19 disease, there is a debate on the degree of ‘segregation’ that is needed between human activities and the rest of the living world, write the team.

‘Some plead for a strict hygienic corridor, minimizing human interactions with potential sources of further zoonotic diseases,’ said van Noordwijk, ‘while others argue for accepting that humans are part of Nature and that no single wall can prevent human vulnerability, rather, resilience will have to be based on defences at multiple scales, including diversified livelihoods’ options and avoiding “lock-ins” that become a risk during “lock-downs”.’

The debate will continue, write the team, but it would be a missed opportunity if existing ‘engagement landscapes’, where researchers can understand the contexts, are not used to describe and analyse the cascading impacts and the bottlenecks to, and opportunities for, new solutions to emerge.

Read the journal article

Duguma LA, van Noordwijk M, Minang PA, Muthee K. COVID-19 Pandemic and Agroecosystem Resilience: Early Insights for Building Better FuturesSustainability. 2021; 13(3):1278.

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