You Win Some, You Lose Some – Synergies and Trade-offs of GEF Support (Part 2)

You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. At least that’s what we’ve always been told. Having finished the Evaluation of the Multiple Benefits of GEF’s Multifocal Area Portfolio, now we know it’s not that simple – and thankfully, not that bleak!

In Part 1 of this blog post, I discussed the synergies created through certain types of interventions, as well as additional synergies generated when three features were integrated into a project’s design. The other interesting set of findings we had was on trade-offs.

We define “trade-off” as “a reduction in one benefit in the process of maximizing or increasing another benefit”. For example, if GEF puts money towards reforestation efforts to maximize carbon sequestration, there’s a risk that biodiversity benefits will be lower if tree species that absorb the most carbon are chosen rather than those that will create a habitat for a higher number of animal species. As the financial mechanism for multiple global environmental agreements, GEF always has to keep a balancing act of priorities to make sure no one gets shortchanged.

Among the 10 projects that we visited in four countries, we found four types of trade-offs:

  • Environmental vs. socioeconomic. The most common, unsurprisingly, was between environmental and socioeconomic objectives. Many of the projects did some form of ecosystem protection, which meant that communities could no longer use resources in those areas. This reduced their sources of income.
  • Short term vs. long term. Through Brazil Rio Rural, landowners who established private natural heritage reserves traded short-term economic benefits from timber for long-term agricultural productivity.
  • Within and between focal area objectives. Senegal Ecovillages introduced the planting of Brazil grass to reduce foraging in protected areas, and Jatropha to replace the use of fossil fuel. While already widespread in the country, these two exotic species could potentially displace indigenous species outside of the protected area. In the case of Jatropha, there is a potential trade-off between biodiversity and climate benefits.
  • Small scale vs. large scale. Senegal PGIES established community nature reserves (CNRs) to provide legal access to firewood, timber, and non-timber forest products. However, the national government had an interest to mine zircon in one of the project areas. Meeting local objectives means the national objectives cannot be met in the same location at the same time.

Looking deeper, we found three ways that some of these trade-offs had been mitigated. Compensation involved direct payment or replacement of income to address socioeconomic losses. For example, some farmer beneficiaries of the China IEM Drylands project received cash from the government for being relocated from protected grassland areas. Compromise occurred when the benefit to one focal area was decreased to reduce the anticipated loss to another focal area or socioeconomic aspect. In Senegal PGIES, the CNRs were forest areas opened up to sustainable use so that communities could still earn their income while keeping other forest areas more strictly protected. A smaller forest area was preserved for biodiversity purposes, but then socioeconomic objectives were also met.

Value addition was the most interesting finding of all. This trade-off mitigation measure not only addressed the trade-off, but also created benefits beyond what already existed – essentially producing synergies. In China, the national government declared grasslands in the Western region as protected areas; without them, soil was getting washed into the Yellow River, causing deadly floods. This meant that farmers could no longer use grass as fodder for sheep, or collect medicinal herbs and mushrooms in these areas.

To mitigate this trade-off, the China IEM Drylands project supported row farming of the same plants that farmers used to collect from the grasslands. This provided villagers with a more consistent supply of resources, and in turn, incomes higher than what they previously made. Because farmers could no longer use the grass as fodder and bedding for sheep, the project (complemented with government funding) provided warm sheep sheds, and alfalfa as substitute fodder. As a result, the sheep had safer, more permanent shelter, which improved their survival in harsh climates. Alfalfa as fodder was found to improve the quality of the sheep, which farmers could then sell for a higher price. In addition, the project supported cultivation of vegetables and fruits through greenhouses, which enabled farmers to sell produce off-season for up to ten times more than the usual price.

Through this combination of activities, a 100 percent reduction in resource extraction was reported in one province, and villagers earned more income from the higher-value products than before the project (e.g., 60 percent income increase reported in Ningxia province). Shifting community livelihoods from grazing on grasslands to less climate-dependent forms of agriculture—such as using sheds for livestock, and greenhouses for fruit and vegetables—has the additional synergistic opportunity to reduce socioeconomic vulnerability to climate change.These livelihoods have the added potential of being self-sustaining due to the higher income generated compared to the previous environmentally destructive income sources.

So sometimes we CAN have our cake and eat it, too. We just need to think a bit more creatively when we design projects on how we can transform potential losses into actual wins.

You can read more details and examples on the synergies and trade-offs of GEF support from the Evaluation of the Multiple Benefits of GEF’s Multifocal Area Portfolio. You can also explore the findings visually through this Prezi I made.

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