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WC Retro: Conservation Agriculture and Global Warming in Africa

ACTN.jpg By Jamais Cascio, posted on October 17, 2005

It reads like a story from decades past: experts are trying to get African farmers to change their farming practices. But this time, the experts are also from Africa, and the modest changes they suggest are to encourage the conservation of quality soil and water. But while the changes may be modest, they hint at a much more dramatic question: how long can traditional farming methods withstand an era of climate disruption?

The African Conservation Tillage Network, based in Zimbabwe, is assembling a manual on "conservation agriculture," a set of agricultural practices based on the specific needs of farmers in Africa, intended to reduce erosion and to save water. ACTN has pilot projects underway in Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Ghana and Zambia, all trying to implement conservation and sustainability-focused agricultural practices. In each location, the overall model of "conservation tillage" is adapted to particular regional needs. The manual, which is still in preparation, provides an overview of the desired practices:

African farmers could boost yields and save money by taking simple steps to conserve soil quality [...] The manual recommends breaking the soil only where seeds are to be planted, as ploughing entire fields can degrade soil. Farmers are also advised to rotate crops to increase soil fertility and grow 'cover' crops along with their main crop to prevent runoff.

Although these are seemingly sensible practices, the conservation agriculture movement is meeting some resistance from local farmers unwilling to change their methods. Traditional farming methods arise from generations of experience. One of the failures of the "green revolution" was that it failed to listen to the hard-won wisdom of local farmers, and tried to bring to the developing world methods and technologies best suited to other regions. It was a painful lesson to learn, both for the agencies that truly believed they were improving the lives and economic conditions of the farmers they worked with, and especially for the farmers themselves. Resistance to expert suggestions to change farming methods is understandable.

But the utility of traditional agricultural techniques is related to the overall stability of the environment. How will traditional practices fare in an era of climate change? Although indigenous farming techniques have to deal with cycles of drought, insect invasions and storms, these traditions emerged over a period when these cycles were more-or-less consistent. As global warming changes climate patterns, the consistency of those cycles are likely to change. Can farming practices that "know" how to handle a drought year every so often also handle a persistent near-drought every year? Can farms that take advantage of a monsoon storm season adapt to an extension of that season, or more storms during the seasons, or stronger storms?

Few organizations seem to be asking this question, at least with regards to the developing world. Although global warming is likely to have its most profound impact on the developing world, particularly Africa (brief discussion here, longer discussion of the effects of global warming here), most of the debates surrounding climate disruption and agriculture -- on the necessity of GMOs, the resilience of factory farms, issues around petroleum and fertilizer -- focus on the ways in which the West will handle a changing climate. Although it's tempting to argue that the traditional agricultural practices perfected over thousands of years will be less fragile than technology-dependent farming when faced with global warming, such a conclusion is by no means certain.

It may be that one of the ways in which traditional farms can become better able to withstand climate disruption has little to do with agricultural practices. The Food and Agriculture Organization arm of the United Nations (FAO) published a document in 1999 looking at the relationship between climate risks and agriculture, with a focus on the developing world. The FAO document suggests that what's needed is risk management -- tools for helping indigenous farmers withstand unexpected and unprecedented climate events. The authors suggest:

  • Structural measures that reduce the variability of climate resources at plant level, including water harvesting, frost protection and windbreaks;
  • Non-structural measures such as credit and insurance for farmers, and legislative efforts such as watershed protection;
  • Improved use of climate knowledge and technology, including the use of weather modeling, monitoring and information systems.

    All three of these should be familiar concepts for WorldChanging readers, and each has seen some advances in the years since the FAO document was published. In particular, the last of the three has seen substantial improvement, with the rapidly-growing use of mobile phones and the Internet to provide weather and agricultural information to developing world farmers. Credit and insurance is the component that still needs the greatest innovation, however, as the "microcredit" models are likely insufficient to support the rebuilding of farms, and the "microinsurance" model has yet to take off.

    Disruption to the agricultural practices in Africa is hardly the most glamorous aspect of global warming, but it's an effect that is likely to have widespread repercussions. Moreover, the potential solutions entail both innovation and a willingness to experiment. It's not yet clear what kinds of changes to the actual farming techniques will be needed by a disrupted environment, only that these changes are almost certain to be necessary. The African Conservation Tillage Network appears to be taking the right approach, however, by suggesting incremental steps intended to maintain good agricultural conditions, and consulting with local farmers and communities to determine the best practices for each region. Global efforts, at least for now, are best concentrated on providing an infrastructure to mitigate and reduce risk through information and insurance. In time, as global warming begins to take a serious toll in the region, we may be asked to do more.

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