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A 'FIRM' approach against desertification

Participatory Rangeland Management workshop held in Okonjdatu area in Namibia (Desert Research Foundation of Namibia)
Participatory Rangeland Management workshop held in Okonjdatu area in Namibia
Desert Research Foundation of Namibia

As the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa, the desert country of Namibia receives only low and erratic rainfall. And yet 70 percent of the population depends on agriculture. The majority of farmers are involved in livestock farming and dryland crop production, although irrigation schemes allow some production of high value crops for export. As in other semi-arid and arid regions, bush encroachment, deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion, salination and deterioration of rangelands contribute to the desertification problems in Namibia. However, a community-based approach, now its tenth year, has achieved notable success in halting land degradation.

The approach, known as the Forum for Integrated Resource Management (FIRM), allows Namibian farmers to participate in gathering the data needed to make informed decisions as well as take the lead in making choices. FIRM has proven highly effective in helping farmers reach their goals and plan for the future, says Bertus Kruger, coordinator of the Land Management Desk at the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia (DRFN) and one of the authors of several recent FIRM impact studies. Piloted in the Grootberg area of northwestern Namibia, this direct input approach is continuing to expand beyond five other locations across the country. It is also being evaluated and implemented by extension personnel in Botswana and South Africa.

Flexibility is key

The operation of FIRM differs in each location according to available support programs and intended goals. Goals may include improvements in community development, livestock farming, health or marketing, rangeland management or water management. This flexibility also means that the implementation of FIRM in any given location may vary from year to year. However, collaborative planning monitoring processes are similar. Farmers organise their own development within existing community-based structures - farmers' associations, cooperatives and development committees - while coordinating locally offered services from traditional authorities, government extension services and NGOs.

At a facilitated annual meeting, all community members and associated service providers review the year's activities in order to reaffirm or revise their goals. "Results obtained from formal or informal monitoring of the previous year's plans and activities are then thoroughly discussed and lessons learnt are extracted. This analysis serves as the basis for the next and key step of the annual meeting, operational planning for the coming year," says Kruger. Service providers must commit themselves to providing specific support during the next 12 months based on the community's own agreed-upon objectives. Regular public meetings to assess progress (and adjust course if necessary) are then held, a process which ensures that service providers follow through on commitments made.

For example, farmers using the FIRM approach in the Omazera community have determined that they can keep about 750 head of large stock on a certain area of land, but their livestock exceed that number by over three times. At their FIRM meetings, the farmers discussed short and long-term strategies to achieve a sustainable carrying capacity for the land in terms of numbers of animals. In the near future, they decided on options such as selling the animals or finding emergency food and, in the long term, they are making plans to improve rangeland productivity by adhering to a rotational grazing plan, which will allow heavily used areas to recover. Their current partner/service provider is the Desert Margins Project funded by the Global Environmental Facility through International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and implemented by the DRFN.

Good decisions

To ensure FIRM farmers establish realistic goals and plan effectively, many take part in a supported monitoring program of local level indicators including livestock condition, rainfall, rangeland condition/bush density and rangeland productivity. As farmers are continuously monitoring the condition of the rangeland, they are better equipped to detect any patterns or trends in the state of the environment and the impact of agricultural activities. They are also able to use the detailed and relatively immediate data to mitigate the negative impact of these trends.

Because each geographic region of the country is unique in culture, climate and ecology, methods of measuring local level indicators were developed by Namibia's Programme to Combat Desertification (Napcod) taking into consideration the unique needs of Namibia's communal farmers. Kruger also emphasises that communities in different areas are encouraged to collect, interpret and act upon data to suit their needs.

The key to the success of the FIRM approach is found in its inherent flexibility and ability to constantly evolve. Kruger notes that although it is advisable that the FIRM approach be used initially for specific needs and objectives such as livestock marketing and rangeland management, it can also be extended over time to address a wider range of community priorities.

Note: Recent studies of FIRM by the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia were funded by German Government, BMZ, through their support of Namibia's Programme to Combat Desertification and continue under the Global Environment Facility.

Written by: Treena Hein

Date published: July 2006

 

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