In many arid and semi-arid environments in Latin America misguided agricultural intensification and specialization in response to decreasing farm margins threatens farm livelihoods and puts a burden on natural resources. Over- and under-use of water, soil nutrients, mining of soil organic matter, high levels of soil-borne pests and erosion have implications beyond the farm scale. At the same time off-farm sources of income are scarce under current economic conditions, and cities cannot absorb rural workers. The rapid changes in the socio-economic environment require adaptation of agro-ecosystems as a whole, and cannot be addressed by changes in one component alone. Experience shows that to arrive at such complex system innovations rural stakeholders and researchers need to engage in collective learning processes. To date quantitative systems approaches have only occasionally been used in such processes. Primary aim of this proposal is to identify opportunities and trade-offs for income generation and sustainable use of natural resources by linking quantitative systems approaches to participatory learning processes with researchers, farmers, advisers and local policy makers as participants. A co-innovation approach will be developed based on locally available and best-bet participatory approaches, structured along concepts of social learning and action research. A quantitative ecosystem toolkit which mobilizes databases and models for ecosystem diagnosis and design will be integrated in the co-innovation approach. Four case study areas will be chosen as pilots across the continent, representing gradients of human activity pressure and stage of co-innovation while similar in their systems perspective. This enables sharing of approaches and in-depth comparative analysis. Capacity building in ecosystems analysis will be a key element, aimed at creating critical mass for dissemination of the ecosystem co-innovation approach throughout Latin America.
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