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Agrobiodiversity Key to Adaptation

Isaiah Esipisu

NAIROBI, May 21 2010 (IPS) - Mechanisation, increased use of fertilisers, and the planting of hybrid seeds have underpinned huge increases in the world’s agricultural output over the past 40 years.

Zai pits are an example of indigenous farming technology that enhances resilience to climate change: Kenyan farmers have adopted it from West Africa. Credit:  Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

Zai pits are an example of indigenous farming technology that enhances resilience to climate change: Kenyan farmers have adopted it from West Africa. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

Biotechnology is the latest gambit, but agronomists warn that climate change could wipe out that progress unless farmers begin combining these techniques with indigenous knowledge.

“The world is headed for an anticlimax. Climate change is already frustrating agricultural productivity all over,” said Dr Frank Attere, at a side-event at a Nairobi conference on biodiversity.

“And if this continues, the world will be left without indigenous seed that can survive all weather conditions, and this would lead to serious food insecurity and loss of biodiversity in the coming generations.”

Attere is the Special Assistant to the President of the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). AGRA is an NGO working to achieve food security in Africa by promoting productive and sustainable agriculture among smallholder farmers.

The Alliance aims to do this by ensuring the availability of good seeds, the protection of healthy soils and better access to information, markets and financing, storage and transport.

A paper released at one of the side events of the Nairobi conference reveals that as fears rise over the impact of climate change on agricultural productivity, traditional agricultural and pastoralist communities worldwide are amongst those with the most resilient mechanisms to cope.

The conference in Nairobi is the Fourteenth meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice of the Convention on Biodiversity (SBSTTA 14); taking place at the United Nations Environment Programme’s buildings, in conjunction with the Third Meeting of the Working Group on the Review of the Implementation (WGRI 3, if anyone asks). The purpose is to provide advice relating to the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

“The Use of Agrobiodiversity by Indigenous and Traditional Agricultural Communities in Adapting to Climate Change” paper, put together by out by a consortium of researchers, farmers and policy-makers united as the Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research, provides examples from all over the developing world.

“Farmers in Eastern Kenya are employing permaculture, a traditional farming method where different types of crops ranging from vines to fruits trees are grown together as a strategy to cope with erratic weather,” said Patrick Maundu, an ethno-botanist at the National Museum of Kenya, and a representative of farmers from eastern Kenya.

The eastern part of the country, commonly referred to as “Ukambani” in Swahili, is mostly semi-arid, receiving only erratic rainfall with long spells of drought that can last as long as three years.

To survive this long-standing dryness – which could potentially be aggravated by climate change – crops grown here include perennials such as indigenous fruits which cope well in erratic weather; important legumes such as pigeon pea, lablab, climbing bean (ngelenge) and creeping forms of cowpeas (ndamba) which have been successfully cultivated in these tough conditions for generations.

“Such indigenous knowledge is what must be integrated with the new technology in order to develop resilience to climate change especially for the next generations,” said Dr Attere.

Another example, from Burkina Faso, talks about how farmers in the country have resisted desertification and rehabilitated degraded land through planting trees in the fields and around villages.

They also use traditional water harvesting and storage methods, and soil moisture storage techniques such as zai-pits. A zai-pit is a square hole 60 centimetres deep and 60 by 60 cm wide, sunk into dry, sandy soil. It is filled with compost manure mixed with topsoil. When, the mixture of compost and topsoil is saturated say with rain water (or by irrigation), it is able to retain moisture for several days – whereas the sandy soil that surrounds it dries out again almost immediately.

In drought prone regions of Bangladesh, the resilience of traditional homestead gardens is strengthened through intercropping of fruit trees with vegetables, small scale irrigation and organic fertilisers. In the flood-affected regions, floating gardens have been created for cultivation of mixed traditional crops, red amaranth and kohlrabi.

“Adaptation to climate change has usually involved a range of different actions at all three levels: ecosystem or landscape, farm or agricultural system, and involving both inter and intra-specific diversity” said Paul Bordoni of the Platform for Agro-biodiversity Research, Climate Change Project.

He said that maintenance of intra- and inter-species diversity using traditional crops and livestock and access to new diversity is a good way of adaptation and resilience against climate change.

“But there is an urgent need to revive traditional farming practices. The continuous process of innovation requires involvement and the use of traditional knowledge combined with access to new knowledge,” Bordoni said.

This message brushes against the grain at a time when market forces as well as government policy and subsidies more commonly promote agricultural techniques that threaten the survival of indigenous farming knowledge.

The promotion of improved seed – whether conventionally developed hybrids or genetically modified – and the distribution of industrially-produced fertiliser is generally seen as a replacement for traditional varieties and methods.

“We appreciate all these technologies,” said Attere. “The biggest problem is that once they are tried, the harvests are in most cases very high, to the extent that farmers may seek to destroy all the indigenous species on their farm due to the low yield and poor quality.”

He continued: “While destroying the indigenous variety, we very quickly forget that the technologically improved variety was developed from the same varieties we are condemning. Society must make a step back and return to learn once again from indigenous communities.”

Bordoni observed that local agrobiodiversity could be the basis for integration of adaptation and protection of indigenous peoples’ rights.

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