February 22, 2013

It's Wild! Taking a Market Approach to Land Management

This week, the Landscapes Blog explored market approaches to promote integrated landscape management. Payment for ecosystem services and corporate commitments have served as ways to manage land and natural resources more sustainably. Today’s post looks at an example where the combination of different incentive mechanisms, including eco-labeling, market infrastructure, and technical assistance – can shift the management within a landscape to more sustainable agriculture practices and preservation of key habitat and forest resources.

At the southern edge of the Great Rift Valley, tucked between the Northern corners of Zambia and Malawi, lies the Luangwa Valley. While the valley is a hotspot for ecotourism due to its vast amount of ecological wealth and high levels of biodiversity, the needs of the local rural population often conflict with sustainable land and ecosystem management. Large scale contract farming has prompted households to grow cotton and tobacco. While this makes sense financially for the farmer, transitioning to these commodities has come at the expense of surrounding forests. Additionally, without use of chemical fertilizer, farmers change plots every two or three years as soil fertility declines, significantly increasing the rate of land clearing. Both of these factors have helped contribute to Zambia’s high rate of annual forest loss. Moreover, the reliance on natural resources for income has left those living in the valley susceptible to the consequences of land degradation and climate change. Fluctuations in commodity market prices exacerbate the biophysical challenges. To compensate for depressed wages, farmers often turn to alternative means of income generation including poaching and making charcoal, which in turn have disastrous effects on the local ecosystem.

Business initiatives, such as the Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO), are a means to provide more sustainable livelihoods for those living in the Luangwa Valley. The non-profit is stewarded by the Wildlife Conservation Society in partnership with Zambian community and government organizations who work directly with the locals of the Luangwa Valley. COMACO – awarded the 2008 Equator Prize from the UNDP’s Equator Initiative – identified that a market-based approach was the best way to motivate farmers to use sustainable agricultural practices. COMACO provides ongoing training in sustainable methods of food production, provides seed support, and offers a “conservation dividend” in the form of cash, seeds, or farm inputs to those who remain compliant with sustainable agricultural practices. This dividend is often given during the beginning of the wet season, when household food and financial supplies are low and a new planting season is about to begin. In addition to training and support, COMACO has facilitated the sale of farmers’ raw materials through the creation of 57 local trading depots spread throughout the valley, and also turns these raw materials into value added products branded as “It’s Wild”. By combining a market-based approach with farmer supports, COMACO aims to help participants become financially self-sufficient and food secure by the end of four years.

Over the ten years that COMACO has been running, there have been measurable improvements to the biodiversity and socioeconomics of the area. According to a study undertaken by COMACO, farmers who adopted conservation farming techniques, like composting and crop rotations, had yield increases on average of 15% more than those who followed a traditional shifting cultivation regime. This change in practices is just one contributing factor in raising average household income 179% from 2000-2012. Additionally rates of food security of grains rose 30% in just a 9 year period. In seeing how effective COMACO’s approaches have been at reducing poaching , a study conducted by Dale Lewis et.al, showed marked improvements in local wildlife populations from  2006-2008 compared to 1999-2002. In particular, elephant and wildebeest populations showed the most improvement, increasing 60% and 50%, respectively. Though market-based approaches are just one method to promote successful landscape management, if the results of COMACO are any indication, it is a powerful one.

To learn more about COMACO, please read the Equator Initiative Case Study.

Photo credit: Alex Berger

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