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Cultivation and conservation in conflict

High maize prices have made the crop an attractive option for smallscale farmers (Patrick Luganda)
High maize prices have made the crop an attractive option for smallscale farmers
Patrick Luganda

For farmer Fred Baisi, 2007 was a bumper year. In Nawakonge village, eastern Uganda, Baisi cultivated over a hectare of maize and, with the recent rise in international prices, his harvest made him a happy man. Encouraged by his record earnings, Baisi has cleared an additional two hectares of thorn forest for maize cultivation in 2008. The situation, not unique to Uganda or indeed Africa, highlights the increasing conflict of interests between rural development and the need for conservation, which was addressed recently at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, Spain.

More than 8,000 of the world's leading decision makers from governments, NGOs, the private sector, United Nations and academia were in attendance for what is the world's largest conservation event. They noted that subsistence agriculture is a growing challenge to biodiversity conservation, and called for more to be done to improve rural livelihoods without damaging the environment.

"An enormous amount can be done to improve agriculture and people's lives without clearing more land or forests," said Dr. Simon Stuart, Chair of the IUCN Biodiversity Assessment Initiative. Stuart proposed that farmers should be encouraged to control soil erosion, manage soil fertility and have access to appropriate seeds, but accepts this will be difficult when "funding of agricultural extension in Africa is woefully low."

Self-interest or common sense?

Farmers argue the extra crops they grow allow them to buy staples such as rice, and pay for school fees (Patrick Luganda)
Farmers argue the extra crops they grow allow them to buy staples such as rice, and pay for school fees
Patrick Luganda

Baisi sees nothing wrong in clearing the forest. "I made the right decision," he says. "Paying school fees for my children will not be a problem next year." Like Baisi, many farmers in Nawankonge are eager to fell trees along the river Lumbuye - to grow more food and deny monkeys and other wild animals, a base from where they can raid and destroy their crops. Conserving biodiversity is not their top priority: "This was the last piece of forest along the river where the monkeys were staying," says Isakaali Kalireku, Baisi's neighbour.

Mohammed Batwale, is a farmer from the opposite side of the river: "Business is thriving. Traders are buying any foodstuff at really high prices," he says. "We are running out of food to sell." It seems like simple economics - the incentive of higher profits is driving the agricultural expansion into the forests.

Farmers in Nawankonge have already planted large tracts of maize, beans, sweet potatoes, cassava and vegetables and more land is being cleared for next season. "We cannot feed on monkeys!" says Frances Mwisiwadho. "We eat and sell maize, rice and any food we grow." And Janat Mukwaya, Uganda's minister of Trade, Tourism and Industry, insists that, "The challenge is to grow more food for the growing market and the rising global food prices." However, she added that the government is working to encourage sustainable production.

What options?

Farmer Fred Baisi inspects his soya crop - grown on cleared forest land (Patrick Luganda)
Farmer Fred Baisi inspects his soya crop - grown on cleared forest land
Patrick Luganda

As farmers try to grow more food from fragile soils, animals, birds and plant species are driven to extinction. "With increased risk of climate change in Africa, we anticipate increased habitat loss and there are big challenges in balancing development and conservation," said Dr. William Karesh of the Wildlife Conservation Society, at the release of the Red List of Threatened Species during the Congress. The updated list categorises over a quarter of all mammals that are now under threat of extinction, many due to the expansion of human settlements and increasing agricultural production.

Improving farming methods, including use of fertilisers, would help to increase agricultural efficiency and reduce the pressure to clear more land. But, with high fuel costs, inorganic fertilisers have become expensive to buy and transport or they are simply unavailable. One alternative is to use natural substitutes and Kozaala Isabirye, a farmer in the neighbouring village of Nawanyingi is using urine from his family members to raise crop yields. "We are not wasting anything," he says. "At night we collect the urine in a container and later apply it on the farm. Because of this, I am now getting more produce."

Other options include intercropping with nutritious nitrogen-fixing legumes (peas and beans), composting crop residues and mulching with the foliage of leguminous shrubs and trees. But nearly all alternatives are more labour-intensive and farmers living at the edge of subsistence will naturally take the easiest option: fell forest, exploit the residual fertility, and then move on to clear more land. Unless there is a clear benefit from conservation (see Mabira Forest and conservation in Ghana and Indonesia) the drive to clear and crop land will continue to override appeals for conservation.

Written by: Patrick Luganda

Date published: November 2008


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