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Conservation Agriculture: Keeping People and Wildlife Safe

by Danielle Nierenberg

One of the first things you notice about grocery stores in Zambia is the plethora of processed foods from around the world, from crackers made in Argentina and soy milk from China to popular U.S. breakfast cereals. Complementing these foreign foods, however, are a variety of locally made and processed products, including indigenous varieties of organic rice, all-natural peanut butter, and honey from the It's Wild brand.

It's Wild was started by the Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO), an organization founded over 30 years ago to conserve local wildlife. COMACO helps farmers improve their agricultural practices in ways that can protect the environment-such as through conservation farming-while also creating a reliable market for farm products. It organizes the farmers into producer groups, encouraging them to diversify their skills by raising livestock and bees, growing organic rice, using improved irrigation and fisheries management, and other practices, so that they don't have to resort to poaching elephants or other wildlife.

By targeting hard-to-reach farmers that live near protected areas, "we're trying to turn things around," says Dale Lewis, Executive Director of COMACO. For decades, many farmers in eastern Zambia practiced slash-and-burn agriculture and were involved in widespread elephant poaching. Farmers killed elephants and burned forests not because they were greedy, but because it was their only alternative, Lewis explains. Degraded soils, the lack of effective agricultural inputs, and drought left many farmers in the region desperate, forcing them to turn to poaching and environmentally destructive farming practices.

By training more than 650 "lead" farmers to train other farmers, COMACO hopes to not only protect the environment and local wildlife, but also help farmers increase their incomes by connecting them to the private market.

COMACO supports the creation of regional processing centers and trading depots to make it easier for farmers to process their crops and transport them to market. The group also offers a higher price to farmers who grow rice and other products organically, and for those use the conservation farming techniques they've learned from COMACO trainers and lead farmers. Where farmers "comply with COMACO, they see benefits," Lewis says, including improvements in food security and health.

The resulting products are then sold under the It's Wild brand in major supermarket chains across Zambia, such as ShopRite, Checkers, and Spar. Next year, COMACO plans to export its products to Botswana. The organization is trying to do as much of the product distribution as possible so that the money stays with the farmers and not middlemen.

COMACO has also gotten technical support from multinational food giant General Mills. The company paid for a COMACO food technician to visit its headquarters in early 2009 to learn how different food processing techniques can increase the nutritional and economic value of the foods that the organization is selling.

Lewis hopes that eventually COMACO will be self sufficient-and profitable-without the current heavy dependence on donor funding. But that's not easy for an organization that works with thousands of farmers and has high administrative, transport, and salary costs.

Visit Worldwatch's Nourishing the Planet website to watch Lewis describe how COMACO helps farmers practice conservation farming and create reliable markets to sell organic rice, honey, peanut butter, and other products.

Danielle Nierenberg is a senior researcher with the Worldwatch Institute and co-director of the Institute's Nourishing the Planet project.

This article originally appeared on the Worldwatch Institute blog Nourishing the Planet. For permission to republish this report, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org.

Photo courtesy Will Lord.
Photo caption: Conservation farming provides alternatives to farmers who practice slash-and-burn agriculture and elephant poaching. Many farmers killed elephants and burned forests not because they were greedy, but because it was their only option.

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