Tanzania and Malawi are agricultural countries: more than two thirds of the population are small farmers who eke a meagre living from the land. Most of them are aware of the benefits of sustainable land management. They put different methods into practice on their land with a positive effect on the condition of the soil and efficiency. But often such methods do not correspond with scientific recommendations, nor are they supported by development and agricultural research projects.
As sociologist Judith Rosendahl from the IASS explains, “The reasoning behind the farmers’ decisions is often not understood. Investments in sustainable land management have often failed in the past because they did not take account of the land users’ scope for cultivating their land.” In the AGORA project – Acting Together Now for Pro-Poor Strategies Against Soil and Land Degradation, Rosendahl and colleagues from four partner organisations have spent the last three years investigating how decision-makers can support farmers in their efforts to use their land sustainably. The project was funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Poverty is a barrier to farmers applying sustainable methods
In-depth research in Tanzania (Lushoto District) and Malawi (Ntcheu District) has shown that farmers are not in a position to apply some of the methods they favour. Instead, they use other, less favourable methods. This is due to a discrepancy between what the farmers would like to do and what they are actually capable of doing given their economic situation and the resources at their disposal. For example, during the planting season poor farmers are often forced to take on badly-paid casual work, with the result that they are unable to devote enough attention to their own fields. But sustainable land management is often labour intensive.
Furthermore, in areas located far from urban centres with a poor infrastructure the prices of agricultural products are low, and trading conditions are bad because the farmers there lack pricing information, storage facilities and access to distant markets. For that reason they make hardly any profits and are therefore unable to invest in their land. Typically, there is a vicious circle of low agricultural productivity, poverty and land degradation. As long as projects aimed at promoting sustainable land management fail to take these circumstances into consideration, they have little chance of lasting success.
AGORA action plan promotes more effective and fair support of sustainable land management
In Tanzania, the researchers didn’t just integrate farmers and local decision-makers and NGOs into their research activities; they also cooperated with them to design a process to improve the situation. This transdisciplinary work was headed by the IASS. One of the insights gained was that while most actors know a lot about sustainable land management, the efforts to promote it are not well coordinated and have not reached many villages. This explains the surplus of projects in some areas, a lack of communication between key actors like the district government and NGOs, and the unfair distribution of support across the wider region. Both the district government and various NGOs highlighted this as a central problem that they would like to tackle together.
With AGORA’s support, these actors founded a stakeholder forum, elected a governing committee and developed an action plan to improve the coordination of activities. The Usambara Ecological Forum is now registered under Tanzanian law and has secured the support of the district government and begun its work. “The process was characterised by open communication, the broad participation of various actors, free expression, constructive debates, a democratic structure, and the continuing commitment of the actors. I’m particularly pleased that we were able to cooperate so well with the local actors,” stressed Rosendahl. The evaluation carried out at the end of the project showed a high level of satisfaction among the participants. And the researchers are also optimistic that the changes will have a lasting effect.
In Malawi, AGORA concentrated on testing, disseminating and promoting methods that land users prefer under the leadership of its project partner Total Land Care.
- CIAT Working Paper: Assessing the economic costs, benefits and drivers of sustainable land management for farmers in Ntcheu District, Malawi & Lushoto District, Tanzania