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Minimizing the ecological cost of small-scale agriculture

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Sustainable Agriculture

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  • Conservation_Agriculture
  • Rungwe Avocado Company Caroline Schmidt
  • Kolo Hiills Andrea Athanas
  • Kolo Hiills Andrea Athanas
  • Kolo Hiills Andrea Athanas
  • Kolo Hiills Andrea Athanas
  • Conservation Agriculture Andrea Athanas
  • Conservation Agriculture Anna Behm Masozera IGCP
Overview

Investment in agriculture must empower local communities.

Although the agricultural sector drives the economies of many African countries, commercial systems tend to neglect rural communities, providing limited access to these benefits or innovations. Many of these groups remain vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, food insecurity, and poor nutrition. Settled far from basic services and amenities, their livelihoods are restricted to small-scale agricultural activities with few opportunities to expand and little knowledge of more resource-efficient and reliable alternatives.

Conservation-centered agricultural practices boost livelihoods and restore ecosystems.

The agricultural practices that supported these communities in the past — from slash-and-burn cultivation and crop rotation, for example — are now driving the sector’s decline. Coupled with the long-term ecological impacts of chemical-heavy farming systems, these unsustainable practices contribute to land degradation in many wildlife-rich landscapes across the continent. The situation is exacerbated by changing weather patterns and unstable sociopolitical dynamics. To protect the value of Africa’s wild lands, protected areas, and conservation zones, we train farmers in practices and technologies to deliver higher yields, and provide climate-smart crops, tools, and know-how to transform their agricultural ventures — whether they are sugarcane farmers, livestock herders, or fishermen — and facilitate access to new markets.

Challenges

Extensive commercial and subsistence crop farming degrade wildlife habitat.

While recent agricultural advances have increased supply and reduced food costs to an extent, they have also ingrained a major and far-reaching reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Across thousands of hectares of commercial farmland — which require immense amounts of water to irrigate — deforestation, erosion, sedimentation, and pollution sets in motion a vicious cycle. Small-scale farmers in rural areas, who share space with wildlife, face declining crop yields from degraded soils, turn to even more destructive practices out of necessity. To make up for their losses, they further strip the land of nutrients through overfarming, or clear land essential for wildlife to thrive.

Livestock herders and wildlife both require open expanses of savanna.

Pastoralist communities in vast arid rangelands across the continent are built on the rearing of livestock. They cover huge distances in search of pastures over dry seasons — which last longer now as climate change shifts weather patterns across the continent — and cross into wildlife-containing zones or land originally set aside for conservation.

Water resources are stretched thin and increasingly contaminated.

With large tracts of farmland now barren, rainfall washes away the top layer of soil, along with its chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and dumps this into rivers. Already, a significant volume of water is diverted to irrigate large-scale farms, and with increased runoff contaminating flow, entire river ecosystems are compromised. The vital goods and services they provide gradually dwindle. Additionally, land conversion within the watershed and deforestation along river banks further diminishes the ecology of the entire watershed and reduces the vital ecosystem goods and services it provides.

Solutions

New conservation-friendly approaches and technologies support healthier communities and ecosystems.

  • Reorienting small-scale farming to sustain local economic growth restore depleted landscapes.

    African Wildlife Foundation works with farming communities to introduce sustainable farming practices that increase agricultural output and maintain ecological integrity.

    In the breadbasket of Tanzania, overexploitation of natural resources and land conversion by smallholder farmers in the Kilombero Valley has made poor harvests, deforestation, and human-wildlife conflict a worsening reality. With support from IUCN’s SUSTAIN-Africa initiative, our Inclusive Green Growth program in the Kilombero Valley continues to transform thousands of lives in the landscape — highly fertile and also a critical buffer to the Kilombero Nature Reserve. With hands-on training in climate-smart farming plus access to improved drought-resistant varieties and technologies, AWF helps traditional farmers adopt new practices that increase yields without putting the land and water resources under further stress. We also link farmers with markets for their produce to ensure that they receive better returns and incentivize their investment in protecting their natural environment.

  • Empowering pastoralist communities to manage livestock and grazing land.

    AWF’s interventions to build the resilience of communities who raise large herds of livestock simultaneously ensure that the grasslands can also support viable populations of wildlife. With climate change driving desertification in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Benin, we involved communities in the development of land-use plans and improved grazing management with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

    In Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy — a mixed-use conservation area that incorporates cattle ranching and meat processing, herders get better returns from livestock with extension services and increased access to markets facilitated by AWF.

    Where extended droughts push pastoralists to venture closer to conservation areas for pasture and water for their herds — like Manyara Ranch in Tanzania, we have supported the construction of portable enclosures through a cost-sharing program. The predator-proof bomas heighten security for both the Maasai and large carnivores that often attack their livestock.

  • Securing financial stability through fishing management.

    As communities grow, unsustainable water use threatens human well-being, wildlife, and the fish species that reside in those waters. AWF is developing solutions that protect critical water sources while benefiting people and wildlife.  Located near the Zambezi River — home to more than 200 different species of fish — Mwandi community has depended on the landscape’s main water source as a source of income. As more people settled around the river, unregulated water use by communities has not only depleted fish stocks but also polluted the supply. AWF is helping Mwandi protect the Zambezi River and creating economic benefits by training the community on building and maintaining an aquaculture enterprise. The integrated Mwandi Fish Farm includes more than a dozen fish ponds — as well as a poultry house that can hold 1,000 chickens, a duckery, and an incubator for birds — to improve food security, diversify economic opportunities, and restore the ecology of this region.

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