The first concrete action to be taken in setting up a hotspots activity is to decide on an operational definition of hotspots, and then to define it more specifically in the context of the adverse interactions between agricultural activities and environmental processes. It will be necessary to distinguish hotspots from flashpoints, critical zones (or areas of concern (AOCs)), and areas where land is transformed as a result of agriculture-related activities. It is important to keep in mind the fact that not every interaction between agriculture and the environment is a negative, zero-sum interaction, where either the environment or agriculture wins or the other loses. 

For example, mixing agriculture and forested areas could be beneficial for both agriculture and the environment. Mixing livestock rearing and cultivation has also proven to be beneficial to both activities, as well as to the environmental setting in which they are taking place. The overriding objective of a hotspots focus is to avoid creating them where they do not yet exist. A hotspot of environmental change (such as degradation) encompasses only a portion of a continuum of the full range of environmental changes.

While the hotspots portion of that continuum is the one that usually captures the attention of the media and policy-makers, in fact it is the portion of the process of change that precedes hotspots – the AOCs - that deserves more attention. Intervention in a potentially emerging hotspot can provide the most timely and least costly response to environmental problems .A useful way to look at the notion of hotspots is to put it in a broader context. Schematically, it can be represented in the form of a pyramid.

The bottom five layers of this pyramid represent place-based conditions, that is, they are geographically defined areas. The upper two layers are time-based conditions, that is, they can occur anywhere and still have an influence on what happens to the place-based conditions. This graphically portrays one way to view the hierarchy of Ag-En interactions. It is important to note that there are human aspects to be considered at each level of the pyramid, such as why those interactions are taking place with adverse consequences.

The base of the pyramid represents the pristine environment. The next level focuses on land that is being or has been transformed, for example, from rangeland to irrigated or rain fed cultivation or transformed from a forested area to rangelands or cultivated areas, or from a mangrove forest into shrimp farms. Such changes are not necessarily degradation of the land's surface or of the vegetative cover, but are a change in land-use practices and a conversion in value from a societal perspective, depending on the spatial scale and the type of land conversion taking place.


The next level in the pyramid represents zones critical to human activities (AOCs). These are fragile zones, such as the tropical rainforests, semi-arid and arid lands, and inland water bodies or coastal waters. They are known to be highly susceptible to degradation in the face of inappropriate land-use activities or a variable or changing climate regime, or both. Areas that have been transformed for agricultural purposes often become AOC critical zones andpotentially hotspots. Critical zones can encompassentire countries, regions within them, or specific ecosystems. It could be an area "invaded" by people in search of lands to cultivate or by refugees from war or from degraded environments. Refugees tend to use the known farming practices that they had relied on in the areas from whence they came, techniques that were probably relatively more suitable for those soil or climatic conditions. Arid lands provide a good example of AOCs. While they can be sustainably exploited under certain known (i.e. tried and tested) land-use practices, the arid land surface (its vegetative cover and soils) becomes easily degraded in the absence of those practices. The irrigation of dry lands can be successful and sustainable in the long term, and in many places it has been. However, in the absence of proper drainage facilities, salinization and waterlogging of the soils can appear. Salinized soils must be repeatedly flushed of salts before planting can begin. If not flushed with clean water, the land may eventually have to be abandoned. Mangrove forests in general also represent an AOC.

The next level of the pyramid refers to hotspots. As noted earlier, these are locations where changes in the way the land is used for agriculture-related activities impinge on the ecological health of the environment in which those activities are taking place (CENR, 2001). Hotspots are areas where the degradation of the land surface (reduced soil fertility, as manifested by declining crop yields) has begun to appear. The hotspot level of degradation can be subdivided into hot, hotter and hottest. The next level of the pyramid represents the type of change referred to as "flashpoints". Flashpoints represent catalysts within the hotspots regions. They are time-based, whereas hotspots are place-based.

Flashpoints can contribute to the instability in governments, economies, cultures or ecosystems.  A severe drought, for example, can become a climate-related flashpoint that generates or worsens political instability (e.g. the fall of the Selassie regime  in Ethiopia in 1974, or the 1994 Rwandan crisis that coincided with unusually high food prices brought about by drought and an influx of refugees from Burundi). Most often, meteorological drought by itself is not the only problem facing a country at a given time.

Thus, the source of instability is a combination, oftenof drought with another adverse socio-economic or political change. For example, drought + high food prices can lead to famine; drought + political instability can lead to regime change; drought + poverty can lead to migration into marginal areas by the poor in search of farmland. This might be referred to as the "drought +" factor. Flashpoints convert severe land degradation problems into high visibility political issues.
Nutritionists are very familiar with hotspots …
Malnutrition frequently occurs in food insecure areas and reflects breakdown of local livelihoods or their inherent unsustainability.

Traditional farming systems - which are still prevalent in many remote areas - were usually fairly complex: they were based on local natural resources and were geared to provide basic needs, ensure community survival and minimize risk. Although clearly not perfect, they focused on local resilience since external assistance was not expected. With economic development, increased external involvement and new expectations, these systems have evolved. Abandonment of traditional farming practices and changes in rules and regulations have in some cases resulted in increased vulnerability to shocks (be they climatic or economic). Poor people are clearly the first and the most affected. They may have had to migrate into forest or mountain areas under population pressure or civil unrest; tenure issues may be an obstacle  to environmentally sound agricultural practices; conservation policies and projects limit access to forest resources (for fuelwood, fodder, timber or food); and survival strategies may lead to further environment degradation (e.g. charcoal production).Coping strategies of food insecure (and therefore nutritionally at-risk) people often directly affect the environment: refugees exert an excessive toll on the wood resources; fields and traditional conservation practices are abandoned due to labour constraints (e.g. male migration in search of income, high incidence of disease - such as HIV/AIDS - or disability); cropping patterns undergo changes leading to overexploitation of soil resources. Typically, farmers are forced into growing more marginal land, i.e. land more difficult to work, stony, with low natural fertility or poor water storage capacity. Fallos also become shorter and shorter, thereby degrading the land and preventing the build-up of nutrients between cultivations. Marginal land will also tend to amplify environmental fluctuations (increase rainfall variability) instead of alleviating them, so that even a slight deficit of rainfall can trigger an agricultural or hydrologic drought and initiate the poverty spiral. Decrease in production is clearly reflected in decreased food consumption and limited food diversity, leading to stunting, micronutrient deficiencies and, eventually, wasting, which in turn affects the productive capacity of the household.

"Malnutrition hotspots" would include, for example, drought-prone areas of southern Africa and of the Horn of Africa, many mountain areas (Afghanistan, Nepal, etc.), forests in Central America, countries affected by conflict in the Great Lakes area of Central Africa, and many fast expanding cities. It is therefore desirable that a hotspots audit approach involve specialists from both environment and social-related disciplines.

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