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Results Briefs March 1, 2021

Not the COW, the HOW: Increasing Livestock Productivity, Improving Natural Resource Management, and Enhancing Environmental Services in Colombia


Sustainable cattle ranching in Colombia. 

Photo: Jessica Berlmont/World Bank

Colombia demonstrated that so-called Silvopastoral production systems (SPS) can contribute remarkable wins for both farmers and the environment. These innovative and sustainable systems convert degraded, extensive (open, treeless) pastures into a richer, more productive environments with trees and shrubs interspersed with grasses, leguminous herbs, and other fodder crops. This includes: (i) increase in milk productivity and farm incomes; (ii) decreased costs of milk production; (iii) reduced carbon emissions; (iv) biodiversity conservation and restoration of degraded lands; and (v) climate resilience. Through the project, more than 24,000 ranchers, technicians, and professionals were trained in environmentally friendly ranching methods, GHG emissions were reduced by 1,565,026 tons of CO2 equivalent, and a total of 100,522 hectares are now being managed under environmentally friendly cattle ranching production systems/land uses. A strategy for scaling up the impacts of SPS in Colombia will require further institutionalization of SPS innovations, anchored in stronger public-private partnerships, and in a clear policy supportive framework. Recent policy developments in this field, along with government and donor commitments, and increased private sector awareness, offer a promising basis for scaling up SPS approaches to achieve large scale transformational impacts.


In 2010, when the project started, cattle ranching in Colombia occurred in a context of poverty, unequal income distribution and land ownership, illiteracy, and violence. Cattle ranching was considered a low-profit activity, highly vulnerable to climatic variation and with high environmental impact, including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and land degradation. About 80 percent of the country’s total farmland area was pastureland, about 66 percent of which was degraded or unsuitable for grazing. Cattle ranching’s environmental footprint was high, including from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and loss of unique animal and plant species, as secondary Andean forest with high biodiversity had been replaced by degraded pastures over many decades. The agricultural sector faced the challenges of boosting the sector’s competitiveness while generating mutual benefits for the environment and rural livelihoods.

Innovative, sustainable approaches to cattle ranching were needed to promote efficiency, increase the incomes of the rural poor, and deliver environmental benefits, including increased biodiversity and reduced GHG emissions, soil erosion, and water pollution. Silvopastoral production systems seemed promising, but they were not well known or in wide use in Colombia. SPS approaches required technical knowledge, expertise, and significant investment. Much of the knowledge generated on SPS systems was localized to a small pilot that took place on 100 farms in the Quindío Department. Applying SPS approaches in other regions of Colombia required considerable innovation, experimentation, and knowledge generation.  


The objectives of the Colombia Mainstreaming Sustainable Cattle Ranching Project (CMSCR) were to  (i) promote adoption in the cattle ranching sector of environmentally friendly SPS; (ii) improve natural resource management; (iii) enhance environmental service provision (biodiversity, land, carbon, and water); and (iv) raise the productivity of participating farms.

The project supported these objectives through three integrated activity streams. First, the project aimed to strengthen technical and operational capacity to support sustainable land-use transformation by generating new knowledge on sustainable cattle ranching production models; tailoring this information to diverse eco-regions;  piloting and scaling-up effective training and technical assistance (TA) programs; and providing services and inputs (e.g., seeds, trees). Second, the project piloted and validated incentives to support these desired transformations, initiating the first attempt in Colombia to use green finance in the agricultural and cattle ranching sectors by piloting the scale-up of a financial instrument newly developed by the Fund for Agricultural Financing (FINAGRO) to support adoption of intensive silvopastoral systems (iSPS). The project also tested the viability of a payment for environmental services (PES) scheme in five ecoregions to reward land-use conservation in cattle ranching landscapes (PES1: Biodiversity scheme; initially tested on 100 farms in Quindío Department); piloted a new PES scheme to support conversion to iSPS (PES2: Carbon scheme) in five ecoregions; and, designed and piloted a PES scheme to provide long-term support for conversion to SPS. Finally, the project strongly emphasized achieving results and disseminating experiences, knowledge, and lessons related to the impacts of sustainable land transformation.


hectares (ha) are now being managed under environmentally friendly cattle ranching production systems/land uses


Over the project’s 10 years (2010 to 2020), it achieved the following results:

  • A total of 100,522 hectares (ha) are now being managed under environmentally friendly cattle ranching production systems/land uses. Farmers adopted SPS and other best practices, which intensified cattle ranching systems and protected land for conservation and restoration. (The project area covered a total of 159,811 ha, including roads and infrastructure.) To track changes in land use, the project developed a typology of nine land-use types and 21 subtypes.
  • Land-use changes attributable to project interventions were analyzed at baseline for 3,383 cattle ranching farms with an area of influence of 127,308 ha. Of this area, 15.5 percent of land formerly either degraded or used for traditional agriculture had shifted to more sustainable use, mainly SPS and grasslands with dispersed trees. Primary forests suffered no losses, and conservation of secondary forest increased. Areas with live fences and wind breaks expanded 3.5-fold during the project period.
  • Land use was converted to SPS and iSPS. Participating producers transformed 38,390 ha of pastureland to SPS, on average shifting 25 percent (in the highlands) to 29 percent (in the lowlands) of their farm area to SPS and iSPS. A TA strategy was designed to address different production and environmental conditions and delivered a complete range of benefits according to local needs regarding production, biodiversity, ecosystem protection, avoiding deforestation, climate resilience, and food diversification. The Lower Magdalena River Basin and Cesar Valley accounted for 65 percent of farm area converted to SPS, where the predominant land-use change was a shift to dispersed trees in pasturelands adopted as a natural pasture regeneration strategy. Linear arrangements such as live fences and forage hedges, used for dividing paddocks, were more common forms of SPS in the coffee ecoregion. The most significant reduction in degraded land occurred in the Orinoquia Region (Piedmonte). Moreover, an iSPS-specific technical assistance strategy, combined with PES2 (supporting iSPS) and demonstration farms, led to 4,640 ha of iSPS.
  • PES schemes and GHG emissions controls were instituted. Short-term PES schemes for biodiversity (and later for carbon), combined with dedicated technical assistance, constituted the project’s primary strategy to induce/drive sustainable land use changes, improving environmental services and natural resource management. Moreover, SPS adoption avoided deforestation and forest degradation and increased carbon sequestration at the farm level, reducing GHG emissions by 1,565,026 tons of CO2 equivalent.
  • The project’s TA strategy reached 24,416 ranchers, technicians, and professionals, including 4,100 direct farmer beneficiaries (17 percent women) in five regions, 10,326 visitors to demonstration farms, and 9,990 technical professionals, farmers, and others who attended presentations, promotional events, workshops, forums, congresses, and technology brigades. Moreover, specialized, intensive training on SPS structure, design, and initiation and on best practice technologies was provided for 691 professionals, including 377 project staff and external technicians.
  • Capacity was created to propagate and manage tree species and important biodiversity was conserved and increased. The project supported a network of 116 plant nurseries (60 on cattle ranches and 56 private commercial nurseries) that produced around 3.1 million fodder trees that were delivered to beneficiary farmers and incorporated into live fences and dispersed in paddocks. More than 50 percent of the species planted contributed to environmental conservation and/or helped to restore connectivity in the project area. Biodiversity monitoring showed that presence of bird populations increased by 32 percent (as did populations of plants and dung beetles). Project areas registered 522 bird species and 230 beetle species. Silvo-pastoral systems were critical to the mobility of 65 percent of the species monitored.
  • SPS significantly improved the physical condition of soils, as compared to degraded pasture soils receiving no land-use interventions. Essential to SPS is improved pasture management, which helps to reduce erosion. A dedicated study on a selected number of beneficiary farms showed that SPS in the coffee ecoregion led to mean erosion reduction of 35.3 percent as compared to degraded pasture soils: SPS soils experienced annual erosion of 12.3 tons per hectare (t/ha), whereas degraded soils lost 19 t/ha.
  • Integrated water management technologies such as water purification and harvesting systems increased water quality and reduced vulnerability to water scarcity. Cattle-ranching aqueducts were established on demonstration farms, and technical assistance was provided to demonstrate the technologies and practices.
  • Integrated natural resource management technologies and practices were adopted and SPS and iSPS were established and successfully promoted through demonstration farms and technical assistance. Fifty demonstration farms owned by trained producers showed the environmental, productive, and socioeconomic benefits of SPS, further building the producers’ understanding of and commitment to a range of sustainable production arrangements, while also developing/including demonstrations adapted to different regional production systems and ecotypes. The technologies included restoration and conservation of fragile areas or habitats of environmental interest; use of biodigesters to decontaminate wastewater and as an alternative energy generator; and use of solar power for electric fencing and water pumping. Other positive effects shown were improved natural resource management to restore soils degraded by overgrazing, use of sustainable pest management, and reduced use of and spending on insecticides. Eighty-six percent of beneficiary farms implemented good pastureland management practices; 73 percent undertook watershed protection practices; 43 percent learned about and used organic compost to fertilize soil; and 33 percent established fodder reserves.
  • Productivity increased. Production costs were US$127/ha lower on average under SPS, as compared to traditional ranching systems, and participating farms’ milk production increased by 17 percent and stocking rates reached 15 percent.

Bank Group Contribution

This project was financed by two Bank-administered trust-fund grants through the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD); one grant, totaling US$7 million, came from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and a second one, totaling US$20.7 million, came from the United Kingdom Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.


The CMSCR project was implemented through a broad partnership/alliance among the World Bank, Colombian Cattle Ranching Association, Center for Research on Sustainable Agricultural Production Systems, The Nature Conservancy, and Fondo Acción, with the support of the government through the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development. Participating cattle ranchers also contributed a significant amount of physical labor, time, fencing, and compost materials to the success of the landscape makeover. A broad set of alliances with public and private institutions were developed during implementation.


The primary beneficiaries were small and medium cattle farms (ranches) located in five regions selected for their high biodiversity and proximity to strategic ecosystems and protected areas. The five regions were: (i) Cesar River Valley; (ii) the adjacent lower Magdalena River Basin region (in the western part of Atlántico Department); (iii) traditional dairy cattle production regions of Boyacá and Santander (linked to the Andean Oak Forest Corridor);  (iv) the coffee production ecoregion; and (v) the low foothills of the eastern cordillera of southern Meta. Landowners with large holdings were allowed to participate when they could contribute to project outcomes related to key environmental services. Survey responses from 345 beneficiaries at project close demonstrate the project’s success in promoting behavior change in livestock production systems — namely, the integration of environmental and production objectives.

“Before the project I did not know anything on SPS. Thanks to the project’s technical assistance, I made changes in my farm.”

Mercedes Murillo, San Martin, Meta (Cimarron Farm)