Retaining forests benefits African farmers, new study finds

Forest landscape restoration in Ethiopia. CIFOR/Mokhamad Edliadi
Koen Kusters
12 July 2018

This post is also available in: French

BONN, Germany (Landscape News)—The closer a farm is located to a forest, the better it performs in terms of livestock productivity and long-term soil sustainability, according to a recent study conducted in southern Ethiopia. Additionally, proximity to a forest increases the ability to deal with shocks and equality between households.

The findings of the study were published in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, and demonstrate that retaining forests in rural landscapes should be considered as a promising approach to support the sustainable intensification of agriculture in Africa.

The benefits of forests were much more profound than we had expected, said Jean-Yves Duriaux Chavarría, who co-led the study on behalf of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and is currently working as research consultant with Cornell University. The other two leading researchers were Frédéric Baudron and Terry Sunderland, on behalf of CIMMYT and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), respectively.

In discussions on the future of agriculture a need exists to look further than on-farm productivity, according to the authors. It is equally important, they argue, to consider long-term sustainability, resilience and equality concerns in the context of the entire landscape, where there are all kinds of interactions between farms and their surroundings.

FORESTS AND FARMS IN SOUTHERN ETHIOPIA

The researchers studied six villages in southern Ethiopia, along a gradient of distance from the state-owned forest of Munesa in the Oromia region. They found that crop productivity was similar among all farms, but that those close to the forest had higher numbers of livestock than those at a greater distance, because the forest provides access to feed.

Proximity to the forest also increased the resilience of farms, boosting their ability to deal with shocks such as the sudden increase in the price of fertilizers, extreme weather events, or a pest infestation. Farms close to the forest are less dependent on external inputs, and are more diverse, which helps farmers cope in the event of a sudden change.

“Farms near the forest typically have cattle, goats and donkeys, while farms further away from the forest only have cattle,” said Duriaux Chavarría when asked for an example. “In the event of a cattle disease, farmers far away from the forest will lose all their livestock, while the farmers near the forest will still have their goats and donkeys.”

To explore the long-term sustainability of farms, the researchers assessed the balance of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the soil. They found that the forest is an important source of nutrients for the farms in their proximity. The nutrients are transported from the forest to the farm through the manure of livestock and the burning of fuelwood.

Moreover, the researchers found that proximity to the forest had a positive effect on socio-economic equality between households. This is because all farmers who live near the forest—even those with little or no land—have access to common forest grazing areas, which means that everyone can have livestock. It is a crucial benefit, said Duriaux Chavarría, as livestock provide milk, meat, and the chance to sell animals when in need of cash, while they also provide traction power (to plow the fields for example) and play a crucial role in bringing nutrients from the forest to the fields.

Finally, in another article based on the same study, the researchers show that people living close to the forest have more diverse diets. This is not only because they have access to a higher variety of livestock products, but also because the livestock manure allows for more diverse agricultural production in homegardens.

SUSTAINABLE INTENSIFICATION

The findings of the study contribute to an ongoing debate about agricultural development in Africa. Agricultural productivity on the African continent is currently the lowest in the world, while the population is expected to grow from 1.3 billion today to a staggering 4.5 billion in 2100, according to recent projections by the United Nations. As a result, intensification of agriculture is widely considered a priority to ensure food security for millions of people.

To prevent growing agricultural production from exacerbating environmental problems, such as the depletion of water and nutrients, loss of biodiversity and emissions of greenhouse gases, a need exists to invest in sustainable intensification.

The researchers argue that the retention of forests should be considered a key component of strategies for sustainable intensification, because they play an important role in the crop-livestock systems that are common in many countries in Africa.

“Our study shows that the role of forests as a source of livestock feed is crucial. In terms of regulation this means that we should maintain forests, and allow grazing in certain forested areas, while at the same time guarding the precarious balance between sustainable use and over-exploitation,” Duriaux Chavarría said.

UNDERSTANDING THE ROLE OF TREES AND FORESTS

Although there are different views on how to best achieve sustainable intensification, agroforestry features prominently in many of the proposed approaches. This is because trees in agricultural fields regulate water, soils, and microclimates, which helps to sustain long-term productivity while decreasing dependence on external inputs. Including trees in farms also provides farmers with a greater variety of products, such as fruits and fuelwood, that they can sell or use for subsistence purposes.

In addition to the benefits of trees on the farm, forests that are located outside of the farm (but in the proximity of agricultural fields) also influence agricultural production. The forest-farm interactions at the landscape scale, however, are less well researched, according to a recent review of scientific literature.

In an attempt to better understand the complex interactions that exist at the landscape scale, CIFOR initiated the Agrarian Change project, involving detailed cases studies in rural landscapes in seven countries, using a standardized and interdisciplinary method. The study in southern Ethiopia was part of this project.

Find out more about restoration initiatives throughout Africa at the Global Landscapes Forum GLF Nairobi summit, August 29-30, 2018Click here