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Study pushes for climate smart agriculture to curb deforestation in DRC

Farmers expand production areas
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A woman tends maize near Yangambi, DRC. CIFOR/Axel Fassio

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Farmers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who have experienced reduced crop yields from the negative effects of climate change resort to clearing forested areas to expand production, in turn accelerating global warming as sequestered carbon is disrupted.

Congolese farmers in Yangambi faced with the effects of climate change, not only experience reduced production capacity, but observe increased invasive pests on their crops and the emergence of new weed species, according to a new study produced by a team of scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF).

The best response is to deploy climate smart agriculture (CSA) techniques, which offer both mitigation and adaptation potential, by reducing planet-warming greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and increasing agricultural production to ensure food security, while also conserving the rich biodiversity found in the forests of the Yangambi region, said Senior Scientist Denis Sonwa, who led the research.

“In the case of yield reduction, most farmers are not using adaptation friendly, resilient techniques,” Sonwa said. “Although some use effective crop rotations, fallow practice, or replant the same type of seed, others open up new fields, posing an additional risk to the forest by accelerating the climate change process through deforestation.”

Farmers in the region with limited adaptation capacities who rely on rain-fed agriculture are particularly at risk.

Climate change has driven down yields, according to 54.8 percent of those surveyed by the CIFOR-ICRAF researchers, while 43.6 percent reported the appearance of various new crop pests attributed to the negative impacts of climate change.

Data gathered by the scientists, including Lisette Mangaza from DRC’s University of Goma found that close to 70 percent of the farmers had noticed the appearance of new weed species; and 22.4 percent reported crop wilt to rice, maize and cowpeas, which they said were most affected by the increase in temperature and decrease in rainfall, whereas cassava and groundnut were most affected by the increase in rainfall.

“Almost 90 percent of farmers said they were not using adaptation techniques while a large proportion of respondents did not know the causes of these climate changes; with some of them attributing it to divine phenomena – such as God’s will or punishment being fulfilled – deforestation, slash-and-burn agriculture or population increase,” Mangaza said.

The team of scientists also affiliated with DRC’s University of Kisangani found that while farmers do not stand by in the face of negative impacts of climate change on agriculture, some of their solutions ended up worsening climate change and making the effects more severe.

Without well-structured CSA, the opportunity to use agriculture as a response to reducing deforestation while at the same time lowering agriculture’s carbon footprint and promoting a resilient and more productive farming system would be missed, the scientists said.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC ), climate change negatively affects crop production, with Africa being the most vulnerable continent because of its heavy dependence on rain-fed agriculture, widespread poverty, low adaptive capacity and lack of investment in mitigation and resilience-building systems.

While farmers have tried to adapt to climate variability over the years, the pace and intensity of climate change continues to render their actions insufficient.

In the DRC where the study was conducted, 70 percent of people live in rural areas and depend on rain-fed slash-and-burn agriculture (a direct cause of deforestation) to live, adding to their vulnerability.

In the Yangambi landscape, agriculture is the main activity and accounts for between 70 and 85 percent of the income of three-quarters of households. The search for fertile land pushes the population to clear more forest areas to meet their ever-increasing needs and to cope with greater demographic pressure.

The European Union and CIFOR-ICRAF-funded the  study, which surveyed 250 farmers, and revealed that the vast majority (98 percent) felt the effects of climate change, including changes in temperature, rainfall, and weather patterns.

To alleviate the agricultural challenge in a climate change context, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recommends CSA, an approach based on three pillars – food security, adaptation and mitigation.

Related techniques increase productivity and resilience in a sustainable manner, reduce the intensity of GHG emissions, curb deforestation and improve the health of soils, landscapes and forests, according to FAO.

CSA is not a prescribed practice or a specific technology that can be universally applied, but a practice that requires adoption of an integrated approach that considers specific local conditions, including site-specific assessments of the social, economic and environmental conditions to identify appropriate agricultural technologies and practices.

The study was conducted to establish a framework toward deploying CSA in the Yangambi landscape by identifying current agricultural practices and their constraints in terms of yield as well as assessing vulnerability to climate change and identify adaptation options, the report said.

The scientists, who also focused on identifying options for improving the performance of agricultural systems from a climate-change mitigation perspective, urged assistance to upscale the already existing CSA approaches in the region and curb negative effects of climate change.

“To date, insufficient policies and investments has applied to popularizing CSA practices among farmers in the Yangambi Landscape, although they are completely accessible and feasible at the local level,” said Sonwa, adding that adjustments to the agricultural calendar for planting and sowing, more agroforestry techniques, the use of tolerant and improved crop varieties, crop rotations are all effective in thwarting the deleterious effects of climate change.

Developing lowlands, the use of bio-fertilizers and bio-pesticides are also alternative CSA approaches, according to the study conducted as part of the CIFOR Global Comparative Study for achieving the REDD1 (GCS-REDD1) project funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD).

Related studies on other regions like the Tshopo province of the DRC demonstrate how other innovations in agriculture have helped reduce pressure on forests.

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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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