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CIFOR-ICRAF highlights commitment to equity under new CEO Dr Éliane Ubalijoro

By David Henry

“The work we are doing is important for the world today, but also for future generations and for the planet.”

With these opening words at Science Week 2023: Equity in Action, Dr Éliane Ubalijoro made her first public appearance as Chief Executive Officer of the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF).

Each year, CIFOR-ICRAF hosts a weeklong event that brings its staff from around the world together to establish and sustain institution-wide engagement with the critical global problems that the organization addresses.

This year’s theme of Equity in Action provided a unique opportunity to learn about CIFOR-ICRAF’s commitment to equity and inclusion, a core area of the organization’s strategy for 2020‒2030 to ensure its actions facilitate just transitions and equitable transformations.

“How we help harness the power of trees, forests and agroforestry landscapes to address the most pressing global challenges of our times – biodiversity loss, climate change, food security, livelihoods and inequality – is critical for us to embody Equity in Action,” Dr Ubalijoro said.

Participants from around the world attended the forum at the two campuses in Bogor, Indonesia, and Nairobi, Kenya, while several sessions were streamed to the public for the first time.

The topics included value chain development as a pathway to equity and inclusion; integrated approaches for inclusive landscape governance; climate justice; gender-responsive biochar innovations; and early career scientists as a catalyst for change.

CIFOR-ICRAF’s work, along with that of its partners, has been transforming how land is used and how food is produced. It has helped governments, Indigenous Peoples and local communities develop the tools they need to better conserve and restore ecosystems, and respond to climate, malnutrition, biodiversity and desertification crises.

“Moving from inequality to justice is a journey that we are all on,” Dr Ubalijoro said. “We all have, at some point, witnessed inequity in the form of unfair and avoidable differences arising from poor governance, corruption or cultural exclusion. We have also witnessed inequality in the form of uneven distribution of wealth. We cannot be passive bystanders on this journey. We cannot be witnesses to the victimization of people or the planet.”

Dr Ubalijoro recalled her own experience as a 17-year-old undergraduate student of agriculture in a non-diverse educational environment that offered little recognition of the pioneering women who had come before her. She overcame the odds, completing a master’s and PhD in molecular genetics before becoming a research scientist and professor, leading teams in the biotechnology sector, in academia and the non-profit sector, as well as advising governments.

“As an organization, it is important we recognize that achieving equity and inclusion is not just the right thing to do, but is also essential for the success of our work,” said Dr Ubalijoro.

The opening plenary also featured keynote speaker Andrew Fanning of the Doughnut Economics Action Lab, who introduced an emerging branch of ecological economics that portrays the doughnut shape as a compass of human prosperity with the aim of meeting the needs of all people within the means of the living planet.

“We are now at a point in the 21st century – because of the system we inherited – that we are dependent on constant growth of GDP,” Fanning said. “There’s this dependence upon something that actually cannot continue on a finite planet.”

The doughnut concept, created by Kate Raworth, brings Western economies back in line with the values of other cultures that have thrived in harmony with nature, aiming to correct an imbalanced world and calling for new ways of interaction.

No nation is living within the “doughnut” currently, with all of the Global North overshooting planetary boundaries, while countries such as Costa Rica are emerging as the most efficient at achieving positive social outcomes, Fanning said.

The second public plenary on 11 May explored how change in women’s agency can be measured and monitored to positively impact food systems and the environment.

Jody Harris of the World Vegetable Center examined structural inequities – involving maternal education, wealth and location – as reasons for malnourishment in countries such as India, Botswana and Honduras. Mulia Nurhasan of CIFOR-ICRAF highlighted the lack of recognition that policy makers assign to forests and trees as providers of food and nutrition for the 1.7 people in the world who depend on forests for their survival.

Steph McMullin of CIFOR-ICRAF discussed the low diversity of food in Zambia, where 54 percent of the population are malnourished. She introduced the concept of food tree portfolios, which are designed to diversify food tree species for local food production so that different types of food are available throughout the year and provide micronutrients.

Mary Crossland of CIFOR-ICRAF explained the concept of ‘agency’ – the ability to define one’s goals and act on them – so that women in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia can participate in decisions affecting their health and household purchases. Gloria Adeyiga of the Regreening Africa project elaborated on this topic with a gender-transformative approach to changing women’s agency in land restoration, outlining a case study in the Bawku West District of northern Ghana.

Swati Renduchintala of CIFOR-ICRAF rounded up the session with a talk on the feminisation of agriculture through measuring women’s agency in agroecological approaches to natural farming in India, a holistic method of leveraging photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, improve soil health and enable better water availability.

“At the end of the day, our work is about how we are empowering smallholder farmers and everyone around that ‘last mile,’ such as Indigenous People and local communities,” CEO Ubalijoro said in closing the session. “What is humbling for us as scientists is to ask: How are we affecting mindsets, culture and behavioural change? Those are really critical elements that are going to help bring about the needed transformation.”

The final day featured a public session with speakers from the Global Landscapes Forum, including leaders of youth-led programmes. They focused on the learnings from GLF’s connection with local communities, highlighting the importance of linking scientific knowledge and expertise with local knowledge and action to catalyze just transformations and thriving landscapes.

“The knowledge, the innovative tools, and the scientific methodologies from GLF, CIFOR and ICRAF have helped us in shaping our restoration project to become more evidence- and scientific-based,” said Frances Camille Rivera, who participated in the session and was GLF Wetlands Restoration Steward in 2021.

To watch Dr Éliane Ubalijoro’s keynote speech and more, visit the Science Week event page.