December 12, 2012

Finding the Agriculture-Conservation Nexus in the Democratic Republic of Congo

forest, Congo, conservationAs the climate change negotiations continued in Doha, one of the overarching themes when including agriculture was how it is in fact possible to achieve synergies between food production and forest cover. This requires a landscape approach to consider how different land uses interact and complement each other. A prime example of how agriculture and conservation can coexist within a landscape comes to the Landscapes Blog from Kathleen Fitzgerald, director of land conservation at African Wildlife Foundation. She explains how addressing agriculture as a driver of deforestation, while involving the community and promoting sustainable agricultural practices, can yield a win-win result.

Wildlife conservation and agricultural sustainability are taking center stage in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Local communities, NGOs, and the government have come together to protect what is the world’s second-largest rainforest, while also building agricultural capabilities. With the help of African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), the DRC is proving that conservation and development can go hand-in-hand.

Harnessing the power of NASA satellites, AWF used Landsat imagery to identify areas of highest land conservation priority in the DRC. We then began working with local communities to determine, and ultimately map out, the usage of these lands into distinct zones for protection, logging concessions, and agriculture. The participatory land-use planning was the first in DRC and allowed for agricultural expansion to accommodate community needs in particular zones, while conserving large tracts of forest in the other zones—and, best of all, it was driven by the community.

In exchange for protecting the forest, AWF provided technical support to the local communities in agricultural sustainability and production. These are smallholder farmers who tend to move on to new parts of the forest when their crop output begins dwindling. It was imperative to address this issue, as the main driver of deforestation in the Congo is the shifting cultivation style of agriculture practiced by many local communities. Now, education regarding proper crop rotation, and access to better seed varieties, has helped preserve soil integrity, increase crop output, and improve sustainability. Often, farmers would only grow produce like cassava and beans, not realizing that only growing these crops would deplete the soil’s essential nutrients and make future farming difficult.

Following AWF’s guidance, farmers are growing a wider variety of vegetables—in addition to the staples, including maize, soybeans, and rice—that will not damage soil and allow for a longer period of farming. Farmers who previously moved every two years to clear new areas and find new agricultural plots are now staying and farming in the same place for at least four, thereby keeping the forest intact. And, with the better varieties of seeds now being used, crops are more immune to disease and yield a greater quantity of robust produce. In addition to greater production, the incidences of forest fires have decreased, largely due to sustainable agriculture practices.

Of course, reaping a greater crop output is certainly beneficial to food-security for subsistence farmers, but with no access to broader markets, communities were unable to sell their produce. AWF therefore completed the supply-chain by providing, with assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development, a barge that transports agricultural goods from AWF’s Congo Heartland, in the northeast part of the country, to the capital of Kinshasa.

AWF’s work in the DRC demonstrates how conservation and agriculture can coexist. AWF believes that with proper planning and community integration, countries like DRC can benefit from both. With global attention on the need to secure the Congo Basin Forest and address food-security, these creative and carefully planned solutions are required across Africa and at scale.

Read another post from AWF: Landscapes of the Week: Zambezi Heartland, Zambia.

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