BOGOTÁ — An ambitious project to make livestock farming sustainable in Colombia is yielding results almost a decade after its implementation in 83 districts. Its lesson so far is that livestock and trees can coexist, and farmers can make money without cutting down the forest.

Anyone observing the 43 million hectares Oxfam estimates are used as farming land in Colombia will see that the worst of its countryside's endemic problems are in livestock rather than crop farming.

Some 34 million hectares here are used for livestock farming, though the Agustín Codazzi Institute, a geographical research body, says barely 15 million hectares are actually suited to this activity. The rest of the land was formerly native forests that have been cut down.

The business is profitable enough for these "bare mountains" to be expanding countrywide. According to the Environment Ministry between 1990 and 2015, 60% of trees felled were by people using the land for livestock farming or "speculation." Deforestation increased 44% in 2016 alone, and government warnings and strategies to halt it have failed so far.

Against this background, the livestock farmers' union Fedegán joined with the World Bank, NatureBank, Britain's The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Colombia's Environmental and Childhood Action Fund and SIPaV, the Italian Phytopathological Society, to launch Colombia's biggest sustainable livestock farming project.

Livestock farming and trees have become antagonistic in Colombia.

It picked 83 districts in 12 departments located in north-central and northern Colombia that met three key characteristics cited by the project's coordinator, Andrés Zuluaga. These were that the areas were important livestock regions, contained different ecosystems and still had a good many areas of well-preserved natural lands.

The organizations gathered with 2,988 small, middle and large-scale livestock farmers to give them technical advice on turning their bare mountains into biodiversity corridors filled with trees, bushes and palm trees. Authorities paid extra money to 1,600 farmers located in key spots like near waterways or intact forests to perform environmental services.

Cattle in Colombia — Photo: The Nature Conservancy

"For cultural reasons," says Zuluaga, livestock farming and trees have become antagonistic in Colombia. Because "the current production system was inherited from the green revolution of the 1960s and 70s that used pesticides and herbicides and ensured the triumph of single-crop farming and intensive production. Its premise was that livestock farms must have grass only. We also copy the livestock farming model of countries with more temperate weather, which have very different conditions to those of the Tropics," he said.

The logic of the silvopastoral system is that more trees mean more productivity. They ensure cattle have more food and a more stable food supply, since food production does not decline as much through periods of drought.

If the benefits of this system are so evident, why are the country's 500,000 livestock farmers not changing their production system?

The results of monitoring the project in its first seven years, presented in recent days, showed that silvopastoral estates could support 24% more livestock in drought periods than standard farms.

Zuluaga adds that in addition to producing more food for cattle, "these trees and bushes often have better quality nutrition than just grass, with as much as double or triple the amount of nutrients like proteins." That raises milk production by 155% on these estates, he said.

If that were not enough, the trees also nurture the soil, provide wood and contribute to boosting biodiversity in surrounding systems. They provide food for birds and mammals and create links between native woodlands kept intact on some estates. Nationwide, it was found, their presence trapped a total of 1,229,910 kilograms of carbon dioxide every year.

If the benefits of this system are so evident, why are the country's 500,000 livestock farmers not changing their production system? The answer is simple: 80% of livestock farmers are subsistence farmers with fewer than 50 animals, and many believe they cannot afford the three million pesos (a little under 900 euros) needed to make the land conversion. Zuluaga says "our objective is for the state to consider this a development policy."

For now the closest thing to making conversions into policy is the creation of the National Table for Sustainable Livestock Farming, which created this project and has become a link between the environment and livestock sectors, and the Environment Ministry. Its task will be to start formulating national policies for sustainable livestock farming.

The first three steps to bringing cows and trees together, says Zuluaga, is to retrain professionals in farming regions, provide loans for farmers who want to convert their land and foment a generalized change of perspective on what livestock farming should be.

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