Dr Sandy Andelman, Vice President, Conservation International


Launched with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Vital Signs Africa initiative is putting key information in the hands of local stakeholders to ensure that necessary agricultural development on the continent is not to the detriment of natural systems and the services they provide


To begin, can you outline your role as Executive Director of the Vital Signs Africa initiative? How does this fit into your wider work at Conservation International?

I am responsible for leading the design, development and implementation of the global monitoring system and ensuring its success. In short, I am creating a dynamic global network of the world’s top scientists and key policy makers, all of whom are collaborating with one another to figure out how to produce enough food to feed the world’s growing population without destroying the environment. The network will transcend organisational and national boundaries. The initiative fits into the wider work of Conservation International in that it supports our mission of using science to protect nature for the benefit of people.

The project has been established in an attempt to increase food security and decrease environmental degradation. What key aspects of these broad issues does the monitoring system aim to tackle?

Right now, the success of agricultural development activities is typically measured by metrics such as changes in crop yield or income, but these measures do not tell us anything about the consequences for critical environmental services, such as water availability, soil health or availability of pollinators.

What are the main priorities of the programme and by what criteria were they selected?

The system will deliver three key objectives:

• The creation of a global public good that will help to prevent unintended consequences of agricultural development and ensure it does not degrade natural systems and the services they provide

• Access to scientifically credible information to measure both the sustainability of agricultural systems, as well as its performance against human wellbeing commitments and metrics

• Access to credible, reliable and consistent data to inform wise policy and planning decisions

You stated in a recent interview that “we can no longer afford to have siloed policy and decision making, with separate decisions for agriculture, poverty alleviation or nature conservation”. How does the initiative offer a streamlined alternative?

Integrated information on agriculture, ecosystem services and human wellbeing is a key ingredient in policy making, but is lacking somewhat at present. There are places where agricultural practices and outcomes are monitored, or where biodiversity and ecosystem services are tracked, or where metrics associated with human wellbeing are monitored. However, there are virtually no instances in which all three of these are measured quantitatively, in the same place and in a coordinated way. Vital Signs is providing this missing element.

Conservation International strives to promote sustainable livelihoods where agricultural production and resource conservation positively reinforce one another. Which models do you believe will help ensure that these two issues can enjoy a symbiotic relationship?

To quote the recent Stiglitz report on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress: ‘What we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted’. Those individuals and institutions taking decisions about how to increase food production are like pilots trying to steer a course without a working dashboard. The report continues: ‘The decisions they [as well as individual farmers] make depend on what we measure, how good our measurements are and how well our measures are understood. We are almost blind when the metrics on which action is based are ill-designed or when they are not well understood’. Thus better metrics – the sort that Vital Signs is providing – are key.

What key methods are you using in order to monitor these areas of land use? How will these then be evaluated?

Our aim is to build the capacity of countries worldwide to provide integrated monitoring and decision support for sustainable agricultural development. We are starting this work in Africa. Our approach is to make grants to local organisations – initially in five countries in Africa – to implement Vital Signs Africa, subject to the scientific design standards for the system. We will also provide capacity building to the extent that it is needed. The system has three layers:

• The measurements layer consists of primary observations, obtained by a smart combination of fieldworkers, automated sensors, cell phones and airborne or satellite remote sensing

• The analytical output layer integrates these measurements with those from other existing systems, by way of models and analyses, into variables that are sensitive, meaningful and continuous with respect to detecting change in important system attributes

• The decisions layer contains a much-reduced number of highly integrated ‘diagnostic’ indicators of system state or performance which, in conjunction with tools for trade-off analysis, can guide policy makers in their decisions on agriculture, land use and the environment

Do you believe that there is a conflict between traditional means of agriculture and modern practices? What can be learnt from traditional land use (eg. peasant agriculture), as well as from new food production technologies, in order to ensure that agricultural expansion is sustainable?

They are both unsustainable, but for different reasons. High intensity agriculture, with high nutrient inputs and grain yields greater than 10 tons per hectare, has successfully increased food production and income. But this has come at the cost, unintentionally, of diminished biodiversity and essential ecosystem services such as water supply, nutrient cycling, erosion control and flood protection, and has increased greenhouse gas emissions. Low input/yield agricultural systems, such as those in Africa, are also unsustainable, not because of excessive nutrient inputs, but because they degrade ecosystems and the essential services they provide. For instance, by depleting soil nutrients, increasing soil erosion and contributing to loss of forests through slash and burn agriculture.

Pressure to increase agricultural production has never been greater, with 1 billion people currently undernourished and demand for food production expected to increase 70 per cent by 2050. Agricultural intensification is critical to meeting the growing demand for food production. However, to prevent unintended environmental consequences of increased agricultural production – particularly in the context of climate – change is needed in the way agricultural development decisions are made and agricultural systems managed. Systems-level decision making and management require systems-level understanding. To measure and monitor the success of agricultural development activities from a systems perspective, the set of metrics needs to expand from a narrow, sector-specific set (eg. crop yield and income) to an integrative set of metrics that reflects the interconnectedness of food security, water security, climate security, ecosystem health and human wellbeing.

Smallholder farming is a key process to support when looking towards the future demands on food production. Can you outline key environmental concerns in terms of resource scarcity?

A major factor that is especially relevant for agriculture is climate change, especially the seasonal distribution of rainfall. For example, in some parts of East Africa, where farmers are accustomed to having two rainy seasons each year in which to grow crops, the so-called ‘short rains’ are disappearing, which means that in the future they may only have one growing season instead of two. This affects which crops they can optimally grow, when they need to plant, and how they are going to ensure that their families have enough to eat throughout the year.

Similarly, there is a need to produce more with less. So we need to be not only asking about the yield of a given crop, such as rice, but what the yield is relative to each drop of water used in producing it.

What do you envisage as the outcomes of the project? Likewise, what do you see as the key challenges in making the initiative a success?

Our aim is to change the way agricultural decisions are made, from a narrow, sector-specific approach to an holistic one that conserves critical resources such as water, pollinators and soil health. The key outcome we envision is that agricultural development becomes more environmentally sustainable and increased yields do not come at the expense of scarce resources. Ultimately, we want to ensure that improving food production supports resilient livelihoods and enhanced quality of life for smallholder farmers, while also supporting healthy natural systems.

The biggest challenge to our success is getting key stakeholders, such as governments, large donors and the private sector, to use the system. We have to make the information and the decision tools relevant for our stakeholders if we are going to succeed.

Are there any other projects or initiatives that Conservation International is working on that you would like to highlight?

Last May, His Excellency President Ian Khama of Botswana, who is also a member of Conservation International, convened the first Summit for Sustainability in Africa. Some 10 African governments – Botswana, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa and Tanzania – participated and signed the Gaborone Declaration. This is a commitment to ensure that the contributions of natural capital to sustainable economic growth, maintenance and improvement of social capital and human wellbeing are quantified and integrated into development and business practice. At Rio+20, 49 more countries and 80 private sector corporations signed up to these commitments. Vital Signs can provide the data that these governments and companies need in order to meet this commitment.

In Rwanda, the Government is creating a National Climate and Environment Fund (FONERWA) to ensure sustainable financing is accessible to support environmental sustainability, resilience to climate change and green growth. Conservation International, in collaboration with the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) and the Wildlife Conservation Society, is using data from Vital Signs to inform the design of how the fund will provide conservation incentives for small holder farmers and Vital Signs will provide the data to evaluate the effectiveness of those incentives.

Lastly, how do you see the initiative shaping up in the future?

This is only the first phase of a 10-15 year plan. Our intention is to attract other donors to expand to Asia and South America and become a global monitoring system because the challenge we have ahead of us is a global one. To feed the 9 or 10 billion citizens of this planet in the next few decades without destroying nature, we urgently need to be able to offer consistent, transparent, integrated information that decision makers and individual farmers can access easily so that they can see the big picture: the sum of many parts. I describe it as an ability to take the Earth’s pulse and gauge how its support systems are holding up. It is only with this view that policy makers, farmers and investors alike can make smart decisions that are positive for agriculture, nature and people.