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Africa has a vital role to play in mitigating the climate crisis. The continent is home to the tropical peatlands of the Congo Basin, which are one of the world’s largest carbon sinks – absorbing almost 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year.
Forests account for about 21 percent of Africa’s land mass, providing considerable climate-related benefits for humanity. According to a 2021 study, intact tropical mountain forests in Africa store about 150 tons of carbon per hectare. In fact, some African rainforests sequester more carbon per unit area than the Amazon rainforest.
But deforestation and land degradation are hampering the ability of these ecosystems to store carbon, conserve biodiversity and provide natural resources to support local livelihoods. Now, it’s more important than ever to invest in landscape restoration on the world’s second-largest continent.
One of the most effective ways to restore Africa’s landscapes is to invest in its people to enable them to sustainably manage their own land.
By providing access to education and microfinance and promoting alternative forms of land ownership, investors and policymakers can help farmers adopt more sustainable practices to boost their incomes while also minimizing harm to the planet.
Land rights can be a valuable tool to help farmers break the cycle of poverty, which is a major driver of environmental degradation. Poverty is one of the main reasons why many farmers have adopted slash-and-burn agricultural methods, which are an affordable way to clear land for crop and livestock production but release vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
To tackle this issue, it’s crucial to secure the land rights of women, who produce some 70 percent of Africa’s food but have few rights to the land they work on. Women farmers often face discrimination under highly patriarchal land ownership systems, leaving them dependent on men for access to land.
African Women Rising (AWR) was founded in 2006 to help women in a conflict-affected region of northern Uganda rebuild their lives through increased food production, natural resource management, financial security and education.
For decades, a low-level insurgency has raged between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, and the Ugandan government under President Yoweri Museveni. This brutal conflict has forcibly displaced millions of people, devastated the region’s economy and left northern Uganda with the country’s highest rates of poverty, food insecurity and illiteracy.
After hostilities spilled over into neighboring countries, Uganda now hosts 1.6 million refugees who have fled conflict, hunger and poverty in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere. Most of them have settled in the rural north, with many living in the communities where African Women Rising is based.
“The main challenge is poverty,” says Linda Eckerbom Cole, AWR’s executive director and founder. “Northern Uganda is recovering from decades of conflict. It’s difficult to create change from nothing, especially when the daily challenge is basic needs such as food and shelter.”
At the same time, weather patterns are becoming increasingly unpredictable, with floods one year and drought the next, she explains. AWR’s activities in regenerative agriculture, microfinance and education combine to help women adapt to the climate crisis and support themselves while making a positive impact on the environment.
“It will take some time before we can see the impact of regenerative farming on the climate in the area,” says Eckerbom Cole. “For now, people are focused on how to live with it, and regenerative farming provides them with practices that have proven useful to mitigate some of those impacts.”
Regenerative agriculture is a range of farming practices that aims to promote soil health to build more resilient food systems, restore biodiversity and reduce the carbon footprint of food production.
AWR teaches farmers to avoid burning fields, to adopt garden intercropping, to leave trees in fields, to apply mulch to soil surfaces, to use water-harvesting earthworks and to remove weeds on a regular basis.
“We don’t burn our fields – a practice that is very common in the region,” says Eckerbom Cole. “We have noticed that an increasing number of people living in areas where we have participants are no longer burning their fields.”
Regenerative practices allow farmers to cultivate more diverse crops on smaller plots of land, to sustain productivity all year long, to feel less pressure to deforest land, and to protect against drought and heavy rain, according to AWR. These practices also reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon sequestration.
Around 80 percent of women in the project area have adopted and sustained at least three of the recommended regenerative practices, while all women have managed to increase their crop yields.
Trees can help promote healthier and more diverse crops, increase yields, improve soil quality and increase carbon sequestration.
Some ways to integrate trees into agriculture include agroforestry and farmer-managed natural regeneration.
A mulch is a layer of material applied over the soil and around plants. It can be either organic (e.g. leaves, wood/bark chips, manure, compost) or synthetic (rubber or plastic).
Mulching conserves moisture, improves soil fertility, prevents soil erosion and combats weeds.
Swales, ditches, ponds and dams are all effective ways to increase water quality and crop availability.
Intercropping refers to growing two or more crops together at the same time in the same space to complement each other.
This method helps control weeds, prevent pests and disease, improve pollination, condition the soil and produce more diverse and secure harvests.
Weeds take valuable resources away from crops. They tend to reproduce quickly and may also be harmful or poisonous.
It’s important to control weeds on a regular basis by identifying and either killing or removing them.
By not burning their fields, farmers can reduce their carbon emissions, prevent soil erosion and improve soil fertility.
AWR is also breaking down barriers to women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. The organization works in 79 villages in the Acholi region of northern Uganda to help girls obtain an education and take control of their reproductive futures by adopting family planning.
“Poverty is also what is keeping many girls from attending school,” Eckerbom Cole explains. “A lack of ability to pay for school fees – combined with cultural norms and expectations – keeps girls at home. Girls who don’t have access to education tend to have a harder time breaking the cycle of poverty.”
AWR aims to plant 500,000 trees in the next four years, and it has mentored more than 9,000 girls to work towards that goal. Each girl who enrolls and remains in school is given trees to plant, which can boost her family’s income, sequester carbon, prevent erosion and improve soil fertility.
“There is certainly an understanding in northern Uganda that educating girls is good for the long-term growth and wellbeing of the nation,” says Eckerbom Cole, who recently opened a farm and training center in a refugee camp to educate trainers in regenerative agriculture.
Recent legislation also points to gender equality gaining momentum in Uganda: following the 2021 Succession Amendment Act, women and girls are now legally entitled to land and property ownership.
Cooperatives and community-owned land hold immense potential to democratize food production in Africa. Farmer-owned agricultural cooperatives aim to boost members’ production and incomes by providing access to finance, information, agricultural inputs and markets to sell their produce.
While cooperatives have been successful in some sectors, such as dairy in Kenya, coffee in Ethiopia and cotton in Mali, this form of ownership has failed to achieve its full potential in Africa due to poor management, a lack of capital, inadequate training, government policies and other factors.
In Zambia, the Restore Africa program aims to reverse that historical trend.
Run by the Global EverGreening Alliance and implemented by Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO), the reforestation project brings together 31 cooperatives made up of 62,532 smallholder farmers.
These cooperatives manage 20,000 hectares of community-managed land and over 600,000 hectares of community-protected forests. So far, the initiative has distributed 60,320 kg of farming seed inputs to 6,032 farmers.
Restore Africa promotes the adoption of evergreening practices such as farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), a highly affordable sustainable land management approach that helps farmers reverse land degradation by regrowing trees on farmlands, on grazing lands and in degraded forests.
FMNR works by promoting the systematic regrowth and management of trees and shrubs from felled tree stumps, sprouting root systems or seeds already in the soil. It can also combat poverty and hunger among poor subsistence farmers by increasing food and timber production and building climate resilience.
“This program is equally focused on improving sustainable livelihoods of smallholder farming families, restoring degraded lands and resolving human-wildlife conflict, so it explicitly looks at the interface between farming systems and forests,” says Chris Armitage, CEO of the Global EverGreening Alliance.
“It works closely with all key stakeholders in the landscape – from traditional chiefdoms, local government and community cooperatives to individual smallholder farmers.”
One key obstacle to success for agricultural cooperatives in the region has been governance, which the program is supporting by providing regular training guidance and mentorship for smallholder farmers.
“This approach ensures the development of technical capacity at the community level to provide extension support for more sustainable and productive farming systems,” Armitage says. “This improves access to high-quality inputs, reduces post-harvest losses, adds value to produce, and increases access to local markets.”
Restore Africa’s next steps in Zambia are twofold, according to Armitage: “The program will continue to support participating farmers, learning from and refining implementation as it progresses,” he says.
“At the same time, we need to showcase the incredible success of the program and explore opportunities for complementing other initiatives and massively scaling this approach across appropriate landscapes in Zambia and neighboring countries.”
Text by David Henry
Illustrations by Inês Mateus
Produced by Eden Flaherty