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Seeds of Hope Take Root in Kenya

Stephen Leahy

NAIROBI, May 22 2010 (IPS) - Countries have paid too little attention to the importance of biodiversity, and as result, species and ecosystems are in sharp decline and the public does not understand the concept.

That was the reason the first International Day of Biodiversity was established 18 years ago on May 22, and there is still a long way to go, according to Angela Cropper, deputy secretary general of the U.N. Environment Programme.

“Biodiversity is an abstract concept, invisible to most people even though it underpins all life on the planet,” Cropper told IPS at the celebration of this year’s International Day of Biodiversity here in Nairobi’s National Museums [stet] of Kenya.

As the first executive secretary of the Convention on Biodiversity, established to stem the decline in the loss of species and ecosystems, Cropper said awareness of the problem is key to the convention’s success. “It’s taken long, but we are seeing progress in education,” she said.

In short, biodiversity is the sum of all living things and their interactions that comprise the ecosystems which provide humanity with food, fibre, clean water and air. Over the past few hundred years, human beings have greatly disrupted those natural processes through deforestation, overfishing, and more recently through pollution and emissions of greenhouse gases.

Today, species are going extinct at 1,000 times their natural pace due to human activity, recent science has documented, with 35 to 40 species vanishing each day.

“There has been a big gap in implementation by countries and therefore the public is not informed,” she said.

Kenya is losing biodiversity at an unprecedented rate and has only three percent of its original forest cover left, Ahmed Djoghlaf, current executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, told attendees at the International Day of Biodiversity celebrations here.

At the same time, 70 percent of Kenya’s energy needs for cooking comes from wood, said Djoghalf, adding that the country has launched a national ambitious tree-planting effort and the Green Belt Movement that has planted 45 million trees in the country.

“These are seeds of hope, the seeds for our future,” he said.

Biodiversity is now enshrined in many pieces of Kenyan legislation and at least 10 percent of all agricultural lands must have forest cover under new regulations, Kenyan Agriculture Secretary Wilson Songa told delegates.

However, at the same time, the country has launched an ambitious goal of achieving a 10-percent annual economic growth rate to 2030, with a modern and competitive agricultural sector as a crucial component. Songa acknowledged this plan could conflict with protecting and enhancing biodiversity, but he promised that his ministry was focused on increasing agrobiodiversity and agroforestry to alleviate poverty and increase food security.

There is a major push for a “new green revolution” in Africa, but those involved are not thinking about enhancing agrobiodiversity (enhancing both biodiversity and food production).

“It’s bigger farms, more machines and fertilisers and more GMO (genetically modified) seeds,” said Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute in Virginia. The World Food Prize winner in 1995, Herren is credited with implementing a biological control programme that saved the African cassava crop, averting a major food crisis.

“Ensuring there is good habitat for bees can increase yields in coffee fields by 20 percent,” Herren told participants. However, practices like using insecticides and lack of biodiversity around the field means fewer bees to pollinate crops, he noted. “And then people wonder why their yields start to decline.”

The transformation that African agriculture needs is not more large-scale industrial farm production relying on outside inputs of fertilizer, but small farmers practising a multifunctional agro-ecosystem approach, he said.

That was also the finding of the three-year International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) that Herren co-chaired. It concluded the best hope for the future are agro-ecosystems that marry food production with ensuring water supplies remain clean, preserving biodiversity, and improving the livelihoods of the poor.

The Assessment remains controversial, barely acknowledged by international agricultural experts and institutes that remain wedded to the current industrial, large-scale production model, Herren concluded.

Parts of Kenya have been hit hard by a multi-year drought, but “Mrs. Kimonyi is never hungry”, said Patrick Mangu, an ethnobotanist at the National Museums.

The local farmer’s one-hectare plot of land has 57 varieties planted in a mix of cereals, legumes, roots, tubers, fruit and herbs. Mangu conducted studies in the drought-stricken region because there are farms that were doing quite well while many were disasters.

It is this diversity that produced edible products virtually every day of the year, buffering Kimonyi from the impacts of drought, said Mangu. “Often it was local varieties she planted that survived best during the drought.”

“Is this the basis for a new green revolution for Africa? The answer is yes.”

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