What role does the environment play in the livelihoods of African farmers?
Consider this example, drawing from data collected and aggregated by our Vital Signs pilot project in Tanzania. According to the 2010 National Panel Survey, over 70% of farmers surveyed in Tanzania’s “Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor” earned US$ 183 or less in annual household revenue from agriculture.
But farmers also get services from nature for free — protein from wild meats, nutrients from healthy soil, energy from fuelwood, etc. If the environment is degraded, farmers instead have to pay to get these services from an outside source. By adding up the yearly cost of meat from local markets, fertilizer and electricity, we found that the annual value of their household benefits from nature is greater than the amount they earn from agriculture.
Even though there are currently a number of initiatives to increase yields and farmer income in Africa, these initiatives often don’t account for the value of intact ecosystems for agricultural productivity and human well-being. The Vital Signs monitoring system — a partnership between CI, the Earth Institute, Columbia University and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research South Africa — was created last year with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help address this problem.
Two weeks ago, I was able to see firsthand the close ties between nature, agriculture and human well-being in Tanzania. After traveling to Dar es Salaam for the first meeting of the Vital Signs Oversight Council — a group that includes CI’s Peter Seligmann, directors from the Earth Institute, Columbia University and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Tanzanian minister of water — I headed to Tabora with our Vital Signs monitoring system team to observe the work being done there to promote improved agricultural practices and livelihoods for farmers.
From the city of Tabora we drove out to the Mbola Millennium Village cluster — a group of six villages that are practicing a community-led approach to ending poverty, hunger and disease. There, we talked with local farmers and witnessed the deforestation of the Miombo woodland, stumbling upon stacks of fresh-cut trees that would soon be turned into charcoal.
These forests have historically provided a variety of non-timber forest products for local communities, such as fruit and honey. However, the expansion of cropland and livestock pasture — as well as a lack of sustainably grown fuelwood that has led to the use of forest trees for fuel — is taking a toll.
On our second morning in Mbola, we visited a field where maize trials were being conducted by the Tumbi Agriculture Research Institute. The idea was to determine what levels of fertilizer will lead to increased yields. Yet as we examined the corn, even the plants that had been fed the most nutrients looked stunted and weak.
When asked why this was the case, farmers were honest; soil quality is degraded after years of mismanagement, and climate change has led to reduced and erratic rainfall, so crops aren’t getting enough water.
Vital Signs seeks to help decision-makers in Africa reverse these trends by collecting integrated data on agriculture, human well-being and ecosystems and making it available to governments, communities and other stakeholders. The monitoring system will also give policymakers data-based tools to help them understand the benefits and services provided to farmers by biodiversity and natural landscapes.
Vital Signs has just completed its first year, and has held policy consultations and stakeholder workshops in Tanzania, Ghana and Ethiopia to determine local partners for data collection. This summer, field training will begin in these three countries.
The need for data and tools to demonstrate the value of nature to farmers has never been more urgent. While there have certainly been challenges and lessons learned along the way, I am glad to see that we are several steps closer to providing information that will help lead to healthy, sustainable societies that can conserve critical ecosystems while providing us with the food we need.
Sara Barbour is the senior coordinator for Vital Signs.