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Conserving wetlands through smallscale agriculture

Wetlands International encouraged small growers back into seasonal wetlands (© Jonas Sampa)
Wetlands International encouraged small growers back into seasonal wetlands
© Jonas Sampa

When Cecilia Pensulo's husband deserted her in remote Northern Zambia, the future for her family looked bleak. Unable to make a living from local labouring jobs she looked for land she could farm herself. There was plenty available in the nearby 'dambo', a seasonally saturated wetland common in the headwaters of many southern African rivers. But farming this peaty, acidic soil is a challenge, and Pensulo did not know how to make the land productive.

During the colonial era, locals were not welcomed onto dambo land, due to fears that cultivation in these areas might negatively impact downstream river flows; this led to prohibitions on their use as agricultural land, and consequently little local experience in how to farm it. So it may seem remarkable that an international conservation organisation encouraged Pensulo to start cultivating on the dambo.

Farming sustainably

Wetlands International teamed up with local NGOs to find ways that the dambos could be put to profitable use without imperilling their long term future. By encouraging small growers back into seasonal wetlands and exploring ways for them to farm sustainably, a valuable source of income was created. Pensulo began with a quarter of a hectare growing pumpkins, squash and tomatoes. Her second year as a dambo market gardener yielded US$200 profit, a small fortune by local standards.

Pensulo began with a quarter of a hectare growing pumpkins, squash and tomatoes (© Jonas Sampa)
Pensulo began with a quarter of a hectare growing pumpkins, squash and tomatoes
© Jonas Sampa

Perhaps more remarkably, it was found that by mimicking traditional ridge and furrow practices, instead of cutting and burning turf, water in the dambos could be utilised to grow crops with little impact on dry season river flows. By working closely with local people to understand their needs and train them in sound soil and water management principles, it was possible to alleviate poverty whilst conserving this unique environment.

This new approach is explored in a recently published research report from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). Based on a number of African case studies, the report suggests that agricultural encroachment may be far less damaging to wetlands than many had feared.

Protecting wetlands

The world's wetlands are under threat. It is estimated that half of the planet's swamps, marshes and bogs have been lost since 1900, much of this to agriculture. But globally, destruction is patchy. Two thirds of wetland loss in Europe is as a result of conversion to agricultural land. The figure for Africa is approximately two per cent loss through conversion and many wetlands remain much closer to a natural state. Wetlands in poorer countries have survived largely because agriculture has not intensified: smallholder farmers rarely have the resources to comprehensively drain and convert wetland areas. Moreover, local wetland communities derive considerable economic benefit from wetlands. They are a valuable source of fish, medicinal plants and building materials like thatch.

Wetlands can sustain relatively high levels of agriculture, particularly if this is seasonal and properly managed (© Nico Sepe/IWMI)
Wetlands can sustain relatively high levels of agriculture, particularly if this is seasonal and properly managed
© Nico Sepe/IWMI

Farming in wetlands, however, is more controversial. Until recently, many environmentalists felt that only a "fortress conservation" model, that forcibly excluded local people, could ensure wetland survival. But the IWMI research is challenging this perspective. "Communities value and conserve wetlands only if they can see value in them," says IWMI's Matthew McCartney, one of the lead researchers. "Many wetlands in Africa and Asia are highly seasonal. They are inundated during the wet season, but are useful for grazing and small scale cropping once the waters recede. Indeed, they can often be a valuable source of water during periods of drought. Wetland farming makes perfect sense when other areas are parched and dry."

McCartney and his team emphasise that a balance needs to be struck. Uncontrolled wetland exploitation can undoubtedly damage the ecosystem. But there is little doubt that wetlands can sustain relatively high levels of agriculture, particularly if this is seasonal and properly managed. "The food security of many communities is intimately tied to wetlands," says McCartney. "In our study of the Bumbwisudi swamp in Tanzania two thirds of households surveyed said that the wetland was used to cope with food shortages. Some of this food is gathered, some cropped. The community's wellbeing would be threatened by wholesale wetland loss."

Improving policies

"Conservationists are struggling to save the world's remaining wetlands, and smallholder farmers may be just the allies they need," McCartney explains. Policymakers are now beginning to appreciate the huge contribution that wetlands and wetland agriculture make to community wellbeing. As Paul Mafabi, Uganda's Commissioner for Wetlands Management at the Ministry of Water and Environment has said, "Wetlands affect the daily lives of every one of Uganda's citizens and provide a powerful wall of protection for Uganda's economic development."

Wetlands are vital to the livelihoods of many millions of people (© Wetlands International Africa)
Wetlands are vital to the livelihoods of many millions of people
© Wetlands International Africa

The same could be said for many countries in Africa and Asia. Data is scarce, but subjective understanding is clear: throughout much of the developing world wetlands are vital to the livelihoods of many millions of people. Farmers can enhance the natural productivity of wetlands, and wetland agriculture can be viewed as an ecosystem service that can, and does, make an important contribution to livelihoods, food security and poverty reduction. A balance needs to be maintained to ensure other ecosystem services are not lost.

"Wetland management policies, however, too often reflect a negative view of farming and ignore the benefits of wetland agriculture for many people," McCartney adds. "As populations rise and climate change adds to stresses on dryland farming, human pressures on wetlands will inevitably increase. Wetland policies and management regimes need to better reflect the realities of wetland agriculture in developing countries."

Written by: James Clarke, IWMI

Date published: July 2012

 

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Why is it that such obvious things go on, and on.... instead... (posted by: Samantha)

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