Land regeneration for food security

By Mieke Bourne and Yvonne Otieno

An example of integrated agroforestry land use systems in Mwanza, Tanzania

Environmental degradation can only be reversed by addressing direct and indirect drivers of change. The said drivers of change include public participation in decision-making, cultural factors and technological change. Collectively these factors influence the level of production and consumption of ecosystem services and sustainability of the production base.

This was said by participants at the Beating Famine Conference who were speaking during a panel discussion that sought to address the issue of land regeneration for food security. During this panel session, different presenters from World Vision and the World Agroforestry Centre made presentations on approaches that had worked in different areas.

The major limiting factor to food security in Africa may be based on land health. Other impacts of shocks on food production such as weeds and drought can be increased by building resistance into the systems. This was according to Douglas Brown, Director, Agriculture and Food Security, World Vision International who made a presentation titled The foundations for resilient livelihoods: soils, savings and trees.

He observed how the systems around livelihoods of smallholder farmers are complex and interlinked with   many aspects from labour availability, land resources and food consumption variations.

“By understanding the system you can effect change and for World Vision the main areas that have been identified for investment as a foundation for resilient livelihoods are soils, savings and trees,” he said. He proposed that while there are many other important factors in land regeneration, if these three factors are not considered, then building resilience in the system would be a great challenge.

“These three areas of investment are activities that smallholder farmers can undertake on their own farms that contribute to resilience in a positive way,” he added.

Picking up on the issue of challenges, the second presentation focused on how Landcare programmes are working to address some of the institutional challenges that have led to land degradation within East Africa.

According to Joseph Tanui from World Agroforestry Centre, Landcare has worked in the region using an action research approach and has linked individuals and groups to address issues at landscape level while ensuring that individuals still benefit.

“We present Landcare as an ethic and a philosophy that enables individuals and communities to approach agriculture in a nurturing way,” said Tanui.

“Landcare often uses a community identified need as an entry point activity. It seeks to develop innovative platforms to represent a number of groups to influence policy and negotiate by-law creation on behalf of the community,” he added.

Tanui explained that Landcare works through principles that ensure participation, ownership and demand-driven development and use of multi-institutional strategies. Additionally it involves understanding and managing trade-offs with the community, enhancing the role of local government and building on past experiences.

Tanui’s presentation focused on Grassroots participation in land regeneration through the Landcare approach. Landcare is defined as a movement of autonomous farmer-led organizations; it is an extension approach that inexpensively disseminates agroforestry and other technologies as a set of appropriate land management practices.

Some preliminary results indicate that improved water and soil conservation and knowledge management and access was reported by those participating in the Landcare programme. A table was presented demonstrating how Landcare programmes have been funded and launched in different countries in unique ways. Of particular interest is the case of South Africa where the programme was mainstreamed into the Ministry of Agriculture compared to East Africa where a combination of donor, the World Agroforestry Centre and NGO support laid the foundation for Landcare activities.

Rowland Bunch, Agroecologist  (and author of Two Ears of Corn: A Guide to People–Centered   Agricultural) Improvement changed the focus of the session to the subject of soil by making a presentation on Green manure: soil recuperation at zero cost. According to him, experience from Central America in the 1970s and 80s has shown dramatic improvement of the soil using mulch and then green manure. Composting had a large impact however, for cereal production the cost of its production exceeded its benefits. Green manure cover crops for this purpose include trees and bushes and can be cut down at any stage of growth and are often left on the soil surface to be broken down by natural processes including worms and termites.

Rowland explained how hundreds of thousands of farmers in Latin America are using a variety of green mulch systems and incorporating zero tillage once the soil biomass is sufficient. Green manure in addition to improving soil biomass can control weeds, improve fertility and can be used as food. For many farmers there are edible leaves or beans that are consumed before the green manure crop is incorporated into the soil. He also noted that within the semi-arid and arid areas the green mulch system is almost exclusively dominated by woody perennials. He recommended that since green manure crops do not occupy space that the farmer uses for crops, they must not incur cash costs and they must not increase labour costs.

Triple bottom line of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) was the subject of the fourth presentation made by Rowan Reid, Project Manager- FMNR,  World Vision Australia and Rob Francis Coordinator, Australian Master TreeGrower Program. According to the presenters, the FMNR technology is considered simple and effective, and since it conveys knowledge and not materials, it is affordable. They explained that though there is little data and impact, what is available suggests about a 70% increase in yield and farmer accounts.

“Farmers don’t need an economist, if the technology matches their immediate needs, capability and resources; perception of risks and aspirations then it is common sense,” said Rowan.

FMNR takes away the risk of planting trees and losing them, a good entry-point and advantages for scaling up. FMNR is a good idea, the question now is how do you introduce a simple idea and scale it up?

The final presentation during this session was by Jonathan Muriuki who focused on Evergreen Agriculture in East Africa. In his presentation, he described how the highlands of East Africa are characterized by steep slopes with erosion threats while the drylands are generally overgrazed and degraded. The area is subject to conventional farming practices with intensive tillage that destroys the biological and ecological integrity of the soil system.

One way to help regeneration was through Conservation Agriculture. Conservation Agriculture involves the application of three principles – permanent soil cover, minimum soil disturbance and crop rotations and associations.  Conservation Agriculture with Trees  (CAWT) is one of the three forms of Evergreen Agriculture. The other forms are regeneration practice/method and trees in conventional agriculture. Evergreen Agriculture is a type of agroforestry in which trees are intercropped with field crops.

According to Jonathan, when trees are integrated into the Conservation Agriculture system, one sees increased benefit in the three principles. Tree roots and soil fauna take over the tillage function, the increased biomass from trees protects the soil and feeds the soil biota and reduce weeds, pests and diseases.

However, three things; right germplasm, proper practices and enabling environment are needed to scale up CAWT. There are plans to implement three Evergreen Agriculture projects in the East Africa region. One of the projects will be implemented in Machakos in Kenya and Mbarali in Tanzania. This project will focus on characterization of typologies, germplasm distribution systems, approaches for extension, demonstration and participatory trials and knowledge management and communication.

Other parallel sessions focused on land regeneration for climate change adaption and  Carbon sequestration, sustainable water & water energy for land regeneration.

Useful Resources

Biographies of experts at the Beating Famine Conference

Paper by Joseph Tanui, Diane Russell, Delia Catacutan, and Thomas Yatich Landcare in East Africa

A short history of FMNR by Tony Rinuado

Watch videos Landcare in Kenya, Uganda and  Tanzania



Yvonne Otieno

Yvonne works as Communications Officer at the World Agroforestry Centre. She has 11 years’ experience in communication, writing, editing, and media management and is a social media enthusiast. Yvonne has a Diploma in Broadcast Journalism from the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication and a Degree in Journalism and Media Studies (Development Communication) from the University of Nairobi, and is an active member of the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK). She is currently undertaking a Masters in Development Communication

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