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HELLO, TREES Persuading farmers to adopt more sustainable practices

For millions of poor farmers cultivating small plots in Sub-Saharan Africa, agroforestry should make sense. Traditional farming methods and the con- stant search for fuelwood have stripped landscapes of trees. Planting leguminous trees alongside a field of, say, maize adds nutrients to soil and has been shown to double yields. “You can reduce fertilizer use by more than half,” says IFPRI Senior Research Fellow Ephraim Nkonya.

The benefits of agroforestry are especially striking when rains fail. Farmers using agroforestry in years of poor rainfall can match the yields achieved by farmers using traditional farming practices in years of good rainfall. And when agroforestry is combined with fertilizer use, yields are even higher. Plus, the trees help prevent erosion and can provide fodder, fuelwood, and fruit. Yet poor farmers in most African countries typically don’t adopt agroforestry.

IFPRI researchers Ephraim Nkonya and Paswel Marenya decided to find out what it would take to get

farmers to practice agroforestry and use fertilizer. They conducted an experiment with 271 randomly selected maize farmers in central Malawi to try to understand which policy solutions would be the most effective incentives. Farmers could choose to receive fertilizer subsidies, cash payments, or crop insurance on the condition that they practiced agroforestry.

A big part of the researchers’ project involved using games to educate farmers on the workings of insur- ance, with which they were completely unfamiliar. Some farmers who played the games did express an interest in insurance. Most, however, preferred fertil- izer subsidies, which promised to increase their yields.

These results suggest that better information could help farmers make better decisions and that despite its shortcomings, returns to the current fertilizer subsidy program could be greatly enhanced if the cou- pons are given on the condition that the beneficiaries adopt conservation agriculture, agroforestry, and other improved land management practices.

Intercropping of cabbage, sugarcane, and poplar trees in Punjab, India.

dues to their livestock or sell them to others as fodder. IFPRI’s Magnan points out that for some farmers, the benefits of using these residues for livestock feed outweigh the benefits of conservation agriculture, in terms of their immediate income.

“You have trade-offs between a rela- tively short-term return on feeding crop residues to livestock and a more long-term return on protecting the soil and maintaining good nutrient balances,” says Gerard.

To achieve the large-scale public environmental benefits of conserva- tion agriculture, says Mrabet, govern- ments should support farmers willing to try the technique.

And it’s important to look beyond yields. Without effective markets, increased yields can, in fact, depress prices. Without infrastructure, there

can be no effective markets. Conser- vation agriculture produces concrete benefits in the field, but like all development efforts, it needs markets, roads, value chains, and more to sustain its impact.

In the face of dramatic land and water degradation, the main obstacle to advancing sustainable agricultural practices, says Spielman, is not a lack of potential solutions. “Many methods have been proven effective both for farmers and for the greater good,” he says. “What we need is more knowledge dissemination, more coordination among researchers, extension agents, governments, and wholesalers. We need better infra- structure and reliable markets.”

We also need to think differently. “Te immediate need for poor farm- ers is just to produce in a given year,” says Gerard. “Tey don’t think about

productivity in five or ten years.” So it could be that the fastest route to sustainability is to boost farmers’ productivity and then push them to- ward more environmentally friendly practices. “Te pathway to sustain- able systems may not be a straight one. You might have to go through transient unsustainability,” he says.

Of course, as IFPRI’s Paswel Marenya points out, governments could decide to promote these sustainable practices, through policies and extension services, just as they currently promote more conventional practices. “Just imagine if every smallholder farmer used conser- vation agriculture practices like these just a little,” he says. “Not only could they potentially improve their own productivity and livelihoods, but they could help reduce or repair harmful environmental consequences of unsus- tainable land management practices that affect us all.”


© 2010 D. Spielman/IFPRI

© 2010 D. Spielman/IFPRI

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