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African farmers could earn 'green' money

Peter Kagbo, project coordinator of a rural development association at the village of Masongbo near Makeni, in a rice field that is part of the cooperative he runs.
Harvesting rice in the village of Masongbo near Makeni, Sierra Leon (David Hecht/IRIN)

Lack of information is the main obstacle to paying African farmers as an incentive to protect the environment, according to a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation official.

Payment for environmental services (PES) has been applied in parts of the world since the 1980s, and could help to address growing concerns about climate change, biodiversity loss and water supply, suggested The State of Food and Agriculture, the annual report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) released on 15 November.

Applying PES in Africa could be critical in mitigating some of the impact of climate change, said Keith Wiebe, chief of FAO's Comparative Agriculture Development Service and one of the main contributors to the report.

Hundreds of payment programmes for environmental services are being implemented around the world, mainly as part of forest conservation initiatives. "But relatively few programmes for environmental services have targeted farmers and agricultural lands in developing countries," the report said.

Payments can take a variety of forms as voluntary transactions involving farmers, communities, taxpayers, consumers, corporations and governments; they can also be direct payments by governments to producers or indirect transfers by means of surcharges paid by consumers willing to do so.

"Agriculture employs more people and uses more land and water than any other human activity," said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf in his foreword to the report.

Potential of agriculture

"It has the potential to degrade the earth's land, water, atmosphere and biological resources - or to enhance them - depending on the decisions made by the more than 2 billion people whose livelihoods depend directly on crops, livestock, fisheries or forests. Ensuring appropriate incentives for these people is essential."

Overall, the future does not look rosy. Projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) expect food production to halve by 2020; about 25 percent of Africa's population - nearly 200 million people - do not have easy access to water, a figure that is expected to jump by another 50 million by 2020 and more than double by the 2050s.

The United States Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), created in 1985, is the largest PES in the world, providing annual rental payments and sharing the cost of conservation practices on farmland.

''[Agriculture] has the potential to degrade the earth's land, water, atmosphere and biological resources - or to enhance them - depending on the decisions made by the more than 2 billion people whose livelihoods depend directly on crops, livestock, fisheries or forests. Ensuring appropriate incentives for these people is essential''

"First created to address problems of soil erosion and to support farm incomes at a time of declining crop prices, the programme has grown over the years and now pays for land-use changes that promote water quality and wildlife habitat as well," said the FAO report.

But most African countries "do not have access to scientific information, such as soil analysis, to plan programmes," said Wiebe. "Appropriate institutions are also necessary to link farmers who produce environmental services with individuals who benefit from them." Land ownership, and negotiating with a number of small-scale farmers, were also challenges to providing PES in Africa.

However, there are a few African PES schemes, such as the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI) in South Africa, which helps wine producers adopt practices that reduce their adverse impact on biodiversity. "In exchange they receive assistance with farm management and property tax rebates. By mid-2007, the BWI scheme covered about half the total vineyard area of the Cape winelands - over 50,000 hectares," he said.

Agriculture is a notable source of the three major greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. "Carbon dioxide is most significant in relation to global warming, but methane and nitrous oxide also make substantial contributions," the FAO report noted.

"Agricultural activities and land-use changes contribute about one-third of the total carbon dioxide emissions and are the largest sources of methane (from livestock and flooded rice production) and nitrous oxide (primarily from application of inorganic nitrogenous fertiliser)."

Africa's role

Africa's mostly small-scale or subsistence farmers are not responsible for "carbon emissions on the same scale" as their counterparts in the developed world or Asia, "but through tree planting or improved agricultural practices - such as conservation agriculture - they can offset carbon emitted elsewhere and be compensated through payments for environmental services," said Wiebe.

Less deforestation, planting more trees, reducing tillage, increasing soil cover and improving grassland management could, for example, lead to more than two billion tonnes of carbon being stored in around 50 countries between 2003 and 2012, the FAO said.

Forests as well as soils, oceans and the atmosphere store carbon, which moves between the different stores over time. Consequently, forests can act as sources or sinks at different times. Sources release more carbon than they absorb, while sinks soak up more carbon than they emit. Agriculture anywhere could play an important role as a carbon "sink" through its capacity to absorb, store and convert harmful greenhouse gases.

Plan Vivo, a project by non-profit organisation BioClimate Research & Development (BR&D), offers people in the developed world the opportunity to fund sustainable forest and other land use management projects that will help to reduce carbon, run by farmers and communities in the developing world.

Plan Vivo has launched two projects in Africa - in Uganda and Mozambique - but Wiebe pointed out that it was "very difficult" to monitor privately run initiatives.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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