On the International Day of Forests, Nicolas Mounard, CEO of Farm Africa, urges action to rescue the ailing voluntary carbon market that forest communities in Ethiopia are counting on. Building farmers’ incomes from forest-friendly businesses and the sale of carbon credits is the first approach profiled in our new blog series “Agroecology in Action”, produced ahead of the Second International Symposium on Agroecology held by the FAO in Rome from 3-5th April 2018.
The tension that exists between agriculture and environmental conservation is one of the oldest on record. Balancing the needs of rural people to utilise natural resources to eat and earn an income with the global need to protect the environment is a tall order – but there are many ways it can be achieved.
At Farm Africa, finding the equilibrium between these two priorities is in our DNA. In Africa, where hunger levels are high and productivity is low, boosting the productivity of smallholder farmers is vital. But its environmental cost must be minimised. Future generations depend on the continent’s vast forests and watersheds remaining intact.
The term “agroecology” was coined over 50 years ago to describe the interactions between agriculture and the environment. Now more than ever, as food production is threatened by a changing climate, rising populations and a dwindling resource base, we need to strive to find effective ways to balance these two priorities.
Farm Africa is taking action with the principles of agroecology in mind. Our programmes analyse ecosystems and work with communities on solutions that will benefit both farmers and the local environment.
Taking Ethiopia as an example, in the low-level rangelands of the Oromia region, this usually involves improving options for animal feed, so that grazing can be kept out of protected areas. At mid-range altitudes, where livelihoods depend more on farming than livestock keeping, we have been working to introduce high-yielding potato varieties, so that more crops can be produced on less land. One recent success story however, comes from the highland forests of the Bale eco-region in the Oromia region of Ethiopia.
Building forest-friendly livelihoods in Bale
Due to high poverty levels in Bale, the government has found it difficult to control rising levels of deforestation. People are driven to cut down the forest for food and firewood. Farm Africa has been working in the region since 2006, helping the community develop forest-friendly businesses, such as beekeeping and forest coffee production. These businesses have provided economic incentives to reduce the land clearing that was previously occurring. Tree planting and the introduction of improved cookstoves have also helped to reduce the unsustainable harvest of fuelwood.
The benefits are clear for farmers like Tahrir Malima. Before, he was making 20-30 Ethiopian birr per kilo of coffee ($0.30). When his co-operative signed an agreement with the local government to take part in forest management, he received training on coffee harvesting, drying and storing methods to preserve the coffee’s unique flavour and to allow his co-operative to command a better price at the market. He now sells coffee at up to 50 Ethiopian birr per kg, meaning he no longer needs to cut down trees to supplement the money he makes from coffee. He has invested his additional income in his children’s education, and beamed with pride as he showed us the new home he has built with a corrugated iron roof that affords far greater protection from the elements.
However, the income that forest-based enterprises generates tends to be small compared to what could be earned by converting forests into cropland. This fact spurred Farm Africa to introduce a supplementary source of income for forest communities to further incentivise them to protect the forest: the sale of carbon credits.
In environmental terms, Farm Africa estimates that the combination of income from forest enterprises and the anticipation of income from the sale of carbon credits in the Bale region has saved 12,496 hectares of forest between 2012 and 2015. The reduced deforestation stopped 5.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (MTCO2) from being released into the atmosphere, the equivalent to taking 1.2 million passenger-driven vehicles off the road for one year, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
To combat deforestation, forest degradation and land use change which accounts for approximately 12 per cent of carbon emissions, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) developed the REDD+ initiative, a scheme that enables developing countries to sell carbon credits for reductions in carbon emissions generated by avoided deforestation and forest degradation. Communities like those we work with in Bale have shown that curbing deforestation and reducing carbon emissions through this pathway is possible, and that this can be done sustainably.
Urging action to rescue an ailing carbon market
The concept behind REDD+ was simple and compelling: communities would be paid for conserving their local forests. The deal was straightforward: don’t cut down trees, prevent carbon emissions and earn a living by selling carbon credits. Forest communities stepped forward, made the effort and generated the credits. Sadly, there is a major discrepancy in the supply and demand. Millions of tonnes of carbon credits are languishing unsold. The volume traded on the voluntary market fell sharply in 2016 by 24%, and credits equal to 56.2 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide were reported as unsold across the market that year.
The market is on the point of collapse, with an ever-increasing supply of credits far exceeding the private sector’s demand for them. Collapse of the market could spell disaster for global efforts to curb deforestation and reduce carbon emissions. Carbon credits have been generated in good faith by forest communities in anticipation of being financially rewarded for their conservation efforts, but that income has failed to materialise. This means they could return to having to convert forests into agricultural land to feed themselves. They have been let down by the global private sector’s lack of will to pay for conservation.
Promoting forest-friendly livelihoods has proven to be an effective way to advance both agricultural and environmental goals, the balancing act at the heart of agroecology. Now is the time for companies and governments, those most responsible for high carbon emissions, to step up to make the effort to ensure communities receive the reward they expect and deserve for protecting forests and reducing emissions.