To tackle deforestation in Africa, start with farmers

Session at GLF Nairobi 2023 explores the crucial role of smallholders

This article is brought to you by the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration (FOLUR) Impact Program.

In June, the European Union regulation on deforestation-free products came into force, targeting commodities including beef, cocoa, coffee, palm oil, rubber, soy and wood, as well as some products derived from them.

These new rules will have implications for Africa’s smallholder farmers, who produce 80 percent of the continent’s commodities. How can we ensure that their work doesn’t contribute to deforestation?

This was the key question posed by a session at GLF Nairobi 2023: A New Vision for Earth titled “Putting smallholders at the center of deforestation-free value chains in Africa,” hosted by the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration (FOLUR) Impact Program.

FOLUR at GLF Nairobi
A session at the World Bank Pavilion: Landscapes for a Livable Planet. GLF

Bridging small farmers and international regulations

On average, exports of tree commodities currently account for almost 20 percent of African countries’ GDP, said Peter Minang, Africa director for CIFOR-ICRAF.

“This is huge,” he emphasized. “Our economies are hugely connected to these value chains. A lot of deforestation on the continent – almost 90 percent – is linked to these commodities.”

The work needs to start now, said Gillian Kabwe, an associate professor at the Copperbelt University’s School of Natural Resources in Zambia: “I doubt that most of our farmers are even aware that there is this deforestation-free value chain regulation – they need to start planning.”

After all, she pointed out, the E.U. is Africa’s biggest trading partner, accounting for 30 percent of Africa’s exports.

Traceability is key, she added: “If you can’t trace the products, tell people that the area where they were grown was deforested before 2020, it becomes a problem.”

Governments need to assist smallholders and other disadvantaged groups with capacity building, technology and education, she said, “to appreciate what these international regulations mean to them.”

Land tenure security and access to information will be crucial to helping farmers comply with the regulation, said Kabwe. “Who gets the information – and do they pass it on to the smallholders so they can use it to make decisions and go ahead with their farming practices?”

For Nancy Rapando, Africa Food Futures Initiative leader at WWF, a pivotal question is how to allow smallholder farmers to be a part of the process and decide their sustainability pathways – “especially at a time when the sustainability pathway has already been chosen. We know, as we discuss these transitions, that the identity of people is going to be affected because we have communities who dwell in these deforested landscapes.”

Some smallholders may be left out of the marketplace, she said, but WWF has already been working with communities on land use planning so that they are aware of which areas can be farmed and where forests need to be conserved.

Participation and representation are critical aspects of a fair and just transition, Rapando emphasized. “We are seeing a multi stakeholder movement in Africa whereby we see many actors wanting to convene and talk about sustainability issues. In that spirit, I would expect that this should also happen at the lowest level, where farmers are able to talk to the business actors and be part of the decision making process.”

Peter Minang
Peter Minang, Africa director for CIFOR-ICRAF, speaks at the World Bank Pavilion. GLF

Traditional knowledge meets AI

Minang raised the issue of how to balance traditional knowledge with evidence-based decision making in the transition towards sustainable farming practices, and convince communities to adopt alternative farming methods.

While Indigenous knowledge will be key to the transition, said Rapando, it’s a question of looking at what knowledge does – or does not – ensure sustainability.

“Shifting cultivation has been taken to be a traditional form of farming to manage soil health,” she pointed out, “but we also have other knowledge, managing the soil without necessarily having to shift to other areas.”

“We need to have enough evidence to challenge what communities believe is right. How do we convince them that there are other forms of farming where you can still build your soil without necessarily shifting?”

While advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are helpful, especially in terms of data collection, it’s important to ensure to keep farmers involved, said Rapando. “How do we make farmers part of the process of understanding which knowledge is being gathered, or part of the data gathering process?”

AI can also help farmers recognize which areas were deforested before the EU’s cutoff date of December 2020. “Artificial intelligence becomes very necessary in mapping out the areas, but also when it comes to traceability, to understand the source of this commodity: if it’s coming from a deforested or non-deforested landscape,” Rapando said.

Will the benefits – and costs – be passed on?

Addressing questions from the audience, Minang also asked about incentives for smallholders as well as how to avoid the costs of compliance being passed on to them.

Governments will definitely have to a role to play in both issues, said Kabwe, “but also the private sector,” she added, “because it is able to directly link with these international markets. They can also provide some service to the smallholder farmers and meet some of the costs.” Otherwise, she said, they may not be able to afford to meet the criteria set out in the regulations.

For Rapando, compliance with the E.U. regulations should come with better sale prices for smallholders “because they’re actually complying with sustainability,” she said. “Farmers need to be paid because they’re the ones who are taking care of biodiversity.”

“So, whether it is a government subsidy, a carbon credit, or a biodiversity credit, let’s ensure that all of these are passed down to the farmers.”

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