The High Price of Desertification: 23 Hectares of Land a Minute

Author: Busani Bafana | Published: June 15, 2017 

Urban farmer Margaret Gauti Mpofu would do anything to protect the productivity of her land. Healthy soil means she is assured of harvest and enough food and income to look after her family.

Each morning, Mpofu, 54, treks to her 5,000-square-metre plot in Hyde Park, about 20 km west of the city of Bulawayo. With a 20-litre plastic bucket filled with cow manure in hand, Mpofu expertly scoops the compost and sprinkles a handful besides thriving leaf vegetables and onions planted in rows across the length of the field, which is irrigated with treated waste water.

“I should not be doing this,” Mpofu tells IPS pointing to furrows on her field left by floodwater running down the slope during irrigation. “The soil is losing fertility each time we irrigate because the water flows fast, taking valuable topsoil with it. I have to constantly add manure to improve fertility in the soil and this also improves my yields.”

Mpofu’s act of feeding the land is minuscule in fighting the big problem of land degradation. But replicated by many farmers on a large scale, it can restore the productivity of arable land, today threatened by desertification and degradation.

While desertification does include the encroachment of sand dunes on productive land, unsustainable farming practices such as slash and burn methods in land clearing, incorrect irrigation, water erosion, overgrazing – which removes grass cover and erodes topsoil – as well as climate change are also major contributors to desertification.

Desertification is on the march.  Many people are going hungry because degraded lands affects agriculture, a key source of livelihood and food in much of Africa. More than 2.6 billion people live off agriculture in the world. More than half of agricultural land is affected by soil degradation, according to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

It gets worse. The UN body says 12 million hectares of arable land, enough to grow 20 tonnes of grain, are lost to drought and desertification annually, while 1.5 billion people are affected in over 100 countries. Halting land degradation has become an urgent global imperative.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that by 2030 Africa will lose two-thirds of its arable land if the march of desertification — the spread of arid, desert-like areas of land — is not stopped.


How Agroforestry Is Reshaping the Kenyan Countryside

Author: Steve Zwick | Published: February 2, 2017

Prisca Mayende still remembers the lush, tree-covered countryside of her youth, when the farms in this part of Kenya, about 50 kilometers from the Ugandan border, yielded consistent harvests – year-in and year-out – of sorghum, white corn, and the dark green, kale-like sukuma wiki. Then came the sugar boom, and its bitter consequences.

“They destroyed all the trees to plant sugar,” she recalls. “And that is where the problems started.”

First came the floods, because the trees weren’t there to stop them; then came the dry spells, perhaps because the trees weren’t there to draw in the rain. Finally, the soil stopped producing – as it had in North America during the Dust Bowl, and as it’s doing across Africa today – because the trees weren’t there to replenish the earth.

But then, in 2010, Mayende’s neighbors told her about a man on a motorcycle.

“He was just moving around, looking for those farmers who were in groups,” she recalls. “So, when he [asked] some of the communities, they said, ‘Mama Prisca is one of the farmers who is interested in doing the agroforest.’”

As a leader of the Naikai Community Water Project, she’d been working to coordinate water-use and well-drilling, but the man on the motorcycle asked if members of her group would be interested in planting trees – lots of them – in their cornfields and cabbage patches. It was a tough sale – but not for her.

“People really feared that, maybe, when there are trees on the farm, the production cannot be good,” says Mayende, adding: “But me, I like trees.”

So she took the plunge, and within three years her farm was covered in trees – some fruit-bearing varieties like mango and banana, but mostly varieties like sesbania, albizia, and grevillea – which provide fodder for her cow.

Soon, the birds returned, and today her corn, cabbages, and potatoes are thriving – largely because the trees helped revive the soil – and she’s not alone. All across Africa, Latin America, and Asia, small farmers are replenishing soil by planting trees on formerly sunbaked row-farms; while consumer-facing giants like Danone and Mars are beginning to accelerate the process by investing in programs that support sustainable agriculture.

“We have all forgotten that food starts in soils,” said Danone CEO Emmanuel Faber at 2015’s Paris climate talks – sounding more like a soil scientist than a businessman. “We have disconnected the food chain.”

To fix that, Danone spearheaded the creation of two separate Livelihoods Funds, which “create mutual value for smallholder farmers, businesses and society as a whole.”

In 2014, Danone took a 40% stake in Kenyan dairy group Brookside, which had built a nationwide network of collection facilities that gathered milk from more than 130,000 farmers. As Brookside grew, however, they noticed something unusual: in some parts of their territory, farmers brought in three liters per cow on a good day. In other parts, they brought in seven or more, and consistently.

Driving this, they found was agroforestry: those farmers who embraced the practice ended up delivering more milk than those who didn’t. And there was another benefit as well: those who adopted agroforestry spent more time on their farms and less in the forests.

“Most of them used to cut trees,” says Takin Arnold, who runs the cooperative. “But because of the market that Brookside has created, those farmers have left the cutting of trees and embarked on selling to Brookside.”


More Than a Buzzword? Resilience to Climate Change in Zimbabwe

Author: Tawanda Majoni | Published: January 6, 2016

Climate change-induced disasters will keep on coming, as sure as the sun rises. But rather than governments and aid agencies swinging into belated – often chaotic – action after they’ve struck, the smarter move is to strengthen communities by building their resistance ahead of time.

It’s cheaper, faster, and devolves more control to the affected communities. But while resilience has long been a buzzword among aid agencies and governments alike, it’s difficult to gauge yet how effective the measures have been.

Zimbabwe is a good place both to highlight the need to develop people’s resistance to “shocks” and to illustrate how difficult it is to put that idea into practice.

Agriculture is a key sector of the economy. It employs 60-70 percent of the population, contributes to about 40 percent of total export earnings, and, in a good year, covers the country’s cereal needs.

But Zimbabwean agriculture is mostly rain-fed, and therefore vulnerable to climate change-induced drought. An El Niño event in 2015 has produced two consecutive seasons of failed rains. The cumulative result is that more than four million people are in need of food aid over the next three months, until the 2017 harvest comes in.


How Cattle Can Fight Climate Change

Author: Alexander Lykins | Published: January 12, 2017

In Nouakchott, a town on the edge of the Sahara in the North African country of Mauritania, lives a woman named Nancy Abeiderrahmane. In 1989 she founded an organization called Tvivski (PDF) (spring in Arabic) to connects local milk producers in Mauritania with the consumers.

Abeiderrahmane created Tiviski out of frustrations over having to rely on expensive powdered European milk. Today Tiviski provides affordable, locally produced milk to Mauritanians. For the thousands of families who produce milk, the dairy provides a livelihood.

In Richard Toll, a small Senegalese town rich with cattle, a veterinarian by the name of Bagoré Bathily had a similar dream. He founded La Laiterie du Berger, French for “the herder’s dairy.”

Despite Senegal’s having nearly 4 million herders, until 2006 almost all of the milk consumed in the country was imported, powdered milk from Europe. Now La Laiterie du Berger produces over 650,000 liters of milk a year, providing a stable income and food supply to nearly 7,000 people.

In Keffi, Nigeria, a dairy farm with a similar mission of improving development through local agriculture is even more impressive. Nagari Integrated Dairy farm was founded by Alhaji Abdullahi Adamu, a former governor, in 1982. In contrast to the previous two farms, Nagari is reported to be one of the largest single integrated dairy farms in Africa, boasting over 37,000 cattle on nearly 3,000 acres. However, Nagari has a similar vision for their organization, in which indigenous ownership, equity and sustainability are key components.

All three dairies have improved food security in their local areas and created economic opportunities for thousands of citizens. All of these dairies cite sustainability within their supply chain as a priority, and all have taken steps to work towards and measure their goals. The good news is agricultural businesses such as these are increasing in sub-Saharan Africa, as locals become invested in combating food insecurity and international funds from companies such as Danone arrive to support these efforts.

These dairies have, however, a less obvious opportunity to take advantage of: the opportunity to help the planet. They have access to tens of thousands of acres of land. All that they need to implement true sustainability is to recognize that the secret to reversing the impact of climate change lies in the soil. A style of grazing, holistic management, uses grazing animals to repair soil health, increase carrying capacity, sequester carbon in the soil, increase its fertility and capacity to retain moisture.

All of these features can hold back deserts and roll back climate change.


Agriculture and Food Security — Where Are We Headed in 2017?

Author: Lisa Cornish  | Published: January 11, 2017 

As climate change impacts the global ability to grow food, both in quality and quantity, researchers in agriculture have become an important asset for establishing long-term food security as the world’s population continues to increase.

In December, agriculture and food security researchers visited Canberra for high-level discussions on development matters with the Australian Center for International Agricultural Research and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. And as 2017 will be an important year for establishing long-term goals and making important inroads into advances within the sector, Devex spoke with attendees to better understand where we are headed.

Crosscutting agriculture and food security across the SDGs

The adoption of the sustainable development goals has provided the agriculture and food security sector with a greater understanding of the development sector’s focus over the coming decades. According to Andrew Campbell, CEO of ACIAR, the sector want to be involved more widely in development discussions and a focus in 2017 is establishing greater ties across all development issues.

“The 17 Sustainable Development Goals capture the challenges well,” Campbell told Devex. “Australia’s Foreign Minister [Julie Bishop] wants us to take leadership role within the Indo-Pacific region climate change mitigation and adaption and there are important links to the effects on food production. But gender, the empowerment of women and girls, is also important because there is clear evidence that creating equal opportunities for engagement based on gender, you get better outcomes — and we want to create opportunities through business or employment.”


Why Drought-resistant Farming Could Be a Feminist Act in Lesotho

Author: Ryan Lenora Brown | Published: January 3, 2017

Maleloko Fokotsale’s garden isn’t very photogenic. From a distance, it looks like little more than a jumble of rocks and dirt piled high beside her neat fields in the rolling hills outside Lesotho’s capital.

And it wasn’t easy to build – there were stones to be hauled and trenches dug, dirt and leaves and fertilizer to be layered delicately like sections of a parfait.

However, this “keyhole” garden – so named for its unusual shape, like the body of an open-mouthed pac man – has a crucial advantage over the fields that surround it. It uses far less water to produce a given quantity of vegetables, helping subsistence farmers here to weather one of the worst droughts of the past century, which is now barreling toward its third year across southern and eastern Africa.

But for farmers like Ms. Fokotsale – also the chief of this small village – building a drought resistant garden gave her another, less obvious benefit, too.


Like most women here, hours of Fokotsale’s days are peeled away collecting her family’s water – wheelbarrows full of it – from nearby streams and wells. So for her, making farming more resistant to drought isn’t only a way to grow more in a parched season – it eases her domestic burdens. And that’s an effect that’s likely to continue long after this drought passes.


Nigeria: Agricultural Policies and Climate Change

Author: Martins Eke | Published: December 19, 2016 

Climate change has emerged one of the most challenging environmental issues of the 21st century. As a driver of many kinds of environmental changes, climate change poses risk to fresh water supply, food production and economic development. The massive shrinking of the Lake Chad in the North-East geopolitical zone of Nigeria which played a key role in predisposing the people of the zone to enlistment into Boko Haram terror group is a clear example of how far-reaching the consequences of climate change can be. Agriculture has being identified as having huge potential in the adaptation and mitigation of climate change. However, the ability of the government to formulate good climate change policies and effectively implement the agricultural sector strategies of the policies are key to the fight against climate change.

One major policy of the Nigerian government in the fight against climate change is the National Adaptation Strategy and Plan of Action on Climate Change for Nigeria (NASPA-CCN). This strategy envisions a Nigeria in which climate change adaptation is an integrated component of sustainable development, reducing the vulnerability and enhancing the resilience and adaptive capacity of all economic sectors and of all people particularly women and children to the adverse impacts of climate change, while also capturing the opportunities that arise as a result of climate change. Some of NASPA-CCN strategies for the agricultural sector includes: Increase access to drought-resistant crops and livestock feeds; adopt better soil management practices; provide early warning/meteorological forecasts and related information; increase planting of native vegetation cover and promotion of re-greening efforts. Considering the huge adverse effects of climate change, Nigeria has no other option than to move from business-as-usual model of agriculture to climate-smart agriculture. Capturing the opportunities arising from climate change entails taking full advantage of the employment opportunities arising from climate change in terms of the new and sustainable jobs it will create through use of new and improved ways of doing things. Planting of native vegetation cover and promotion of re-greening efforts will provide employment for those producing nursery bags as well as those on the field who plant and nurture the trees.


The Smarts of Climate Change Agriculture

Author: Paul Harman | Published: December 12, 2016 

US President-elect Donald Trump has made no bones about his dismissive stance towards climate change – an approach our farmers can ill afford to emulate. It just makes sense for them to adopt sustainable farming practices – for the environment, as well as their bottom line.

But, for our farmers to adopt sustainable farming practices, we need robust support structures in place, especially from the government.

The South African government and industry associations have indeed provided support to farmers to help them farm sustainably – starting in the Western Cape, and hoping to branch out to the rest of the country.

This support comes in the form of initiatives such as SmartAgri, the Greenagri portal, GreenCape’s sector desk, FruitLook and other interventions focused on community-based adaptation and disaster risk reduction and management.

The Western Cape Department of Agriculture and the Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning launched SmartAgri in 2014.


Africa at Highest Economic Risk From Climate Change

Author: Alex Whiting | Published: December 18, 2016

Countries most dependent on agriculture are also at high risk of experiencing changes in climate over the next 30 years and face the biggest costs in dealing with the effects of extreme weather, according to a global climate index published on Monday.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 17 of the 20 countries most economically reliant on agriculture in the world.

Of the 17, all but two are at “high” or “extreme” risk of experiencing changes in temperature and rainfall, and extremes such as drought and floods, according to the Climate Change Exposure Index.

These are typically countries whose governments lack the financial or technical resources to plan 20 or 30 years in advance, said Richard Hewston, principal environmental analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a UK-based risk management company which compiled the index.

“They’re dealing with droughts now, they’re dealing with food security issues now, they don’t have that capacity to be looking 30 years down the line,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

The majority of farmers in these countries are smallholders using traditional farming methods, who do not have the financial safety nets to invest in new crops which may improve yields in years to come, Hewston said.


Drought in Southern Africa Points to Urgent Need for Climate Change Plans

It is expected that temperatures in southern Africa will rise by between 1.5°C and 3°C due to climate change by the year 2050. This is likely to cause heavy fluctuations of weather patterns and more frequent severe weather events like droughts and floods. Agriculture will be severely affected.

In turn, many economies in southern Africa which are dependent on agriculture will feel the impact. The effects of climate change are already being felt. The 2015 agricultural season in southern African was considered the driest in 35 years.

Five countries in the region – Swaziland, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe – declared national drought disasters. Eight of South Africa’s nine provinces and the southern and central areas of Mozambique declared partial drought emergencies.

Massive crop failures were experienced across the region. This led to a deficit of 9.3-million tons in cereal crop harvests. On top of this 643 000 cattle were estimated to have died in the drought. Because of these agricultural failures, food insecure populations increased by 31%. This implied that more than 40 million people needed humanitarian assistance.