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Zambian poachers convert to climate-smart organic farming

by Georgina Smith | @georginajsmith | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 11 April 2011 17:17 GMT

'It's Wild' scheme gets organic produce into supermarkets while helping farmers adapt to climate shifts and conserving ecosystems

LUSAKA (AlertNet) - Leaning on a post in the shade of a tree beside his thatched house, Moffat Mwale reflects proudly on his progress over the last two years. Having ditched animal poaching for organic farming, his vegetable produce is now stocked on supermarket shelves across the country.

Shifts in the local climate are pushing small-scale farmers like Mwale, working on the fringes of eastern Zambia’s South Luangwa national park, to join cooperatives linked with a non-profit company called Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO).

“Sometimes rainfall is prolonged; sometimes there is too much rain in a short space of time followed by longer dry spells,” explains Nemiah Tembo, COMACO’s agricultural conservation manager. 

In addition, the average temperature in Zambia has increased by about 0.3 degrees Celsius over the past few decades, according to Professor Prem Jain of the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Natural Resources. This is roughly twice as fast as the global average, and the warming trend is predicted to continue.

Farmers are struggling to cope with the changes in their climate. “The shortening of the rainy period delays the planting of crops, and too much rain in a short duration brings flooding and water-logging,” Jain said.

Mfuwe is not an easy place to farm. On a flood plain between two valleys, it experiences natural flooding every year. But this has been exacerbated by increased rainfall intensity and deforestation. Trees in the valley are chopped down for firewood, leaving vast areas open to floods and erosion as water washes away top soil.

Money-making opportunities are few, and most families find it hard to make ends meet. Agricultural markets are limited by poor road infrastructure and the predominant production of low-value crops like maize.

Only a handful of game hunting licences are available. It is prohibited to live inside Zambia’s national parks, but in the bordering game management areas, where animals roam free, two out of every 10 households struggle to feed their families.


Many, like Mwale, turn to illegal poaching. “I was not a free person,” he says, recalling his days as a hunter. “I was leading a life of hide and seek from the authorities.”

After killing an elephant, he was caught and sentenced to more than two years in prison. Being away from his family forced him to rethink his priorities.

Backed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, COMACO’s original goal was to protect and preserve local wildlife in game management areas by teaching organic farming and conservation techniques as an alternative to poaching.

But the focus has expanded to encompass humans. “We realised that this is about much more than saving elephants. It’s about making families food secure,” says director Dale Lewis. “Now we have families in a food surplus situation.”

Since 2004, in consultation with the government and conservation authorities, COMACO has helped 845 poachers across 10 districts to surrender their guns and snares in exchange for organic farming advice.


The farmers are grouped into cooperatives that supply supermarkets across the country under COMACO’s “It’s Wild” trademark.

The Kakumbi Green Market is a small “It’s Wild!” store in the heart of Mfuwe town. Every Monday and Thursday, it is restocked with colourful non-traditional vegetables: yellow, red and green peppers, carrots, spinach, and herbs and spices, including ginger, garlic, coriander, parsley, basil and mint.

The number of different food crops grown by COMACO’s 45,000 members rose from 10 to 16 between 2008 and 2009 alone, and they are encouraged to add value to their raw produce.

As a result, the Mfuwe store’s shelves are stacked with an enticing range of products - pots of organic honey gathered from local bee hives and delicious natural peanut butter made from groundnuts.

Twelve local tourist lodges and hotels stock up their kitchens from the market, and the produce is also sent to a national network of shops.

The organic non-traditional crops and vegetables introduced by COMACO - from soya beans and groundnuts to legumes and salad vegetables like cucumbers - have improved both local biodiversity and diets, the organisation says.

“People here never used to eat aubergines, for example, now they do,” observes horticultural extension officer Simon Banda. “We’ve also given people a wider source of nutrients and variety of relish.” 


Farmer groups and regional-level cooperatives receive training from COMACO representatives and over 700 “lead” farmers, whose role is to introduce organic farming practices and skills, while motivating communities to adopt them.  

Participants are taught organic methods of horticultural, rice and livestock farming, as well as pest management techniques like crop rotation.

Treadle pumps have been distributed to groups as an incentive to raise quality standards. These provide a year-round water supply which not only boosts yields but leads to better, healthier crops and a higher income. 

Another technique is to improve soil fertility by interspersing rice plants with nitrogen-rich acacia tree saplings and pigeon pea, a leafy legume and high-protein food crop.  


Given the climate difficulties faced by many farmers, the COMACO initiative is helping them adapt to changing rainfall patterns by growing a combination of hardy crops like cassava, which can survive drought, alongside soil nutrient-boosting crops such as soya bean and higher-value crops they can sell to boost their income.

“There are going to be dramatic changes (in the climate),” says COMACO director Lewis. “Today more than 50 percent of our farmers grow cassava. It may not have commercial value, but people have food all year.”

COMACO also assists farmers through its seed recovery programme. When harvests fail in one part of the country, leaving farmers without seed to plant the following year, they can access the network’s seed stocks.

“Mitigating climate change is a global effort,” says Lewis. “But I think at the local level we are making an effort to reduce the need to cut and burn trees, and encouraging better management of soils and water resources to help farmers withstand future climate shocks.”

Georgina Smith is a freelance journalist and photographer, based in Lusaka, Zambia. She reports on environmental and humanitarian issues. 


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