Smallholder farmers in Cameroon nearly ready for REDD+ — with a bit of help

A recent study of two villages in Cameroon indicates that small farmers there are not far from having the capacity to make REDD+ projects work in their communities.

As the links between agriculture and climate change are discussed at the COP19 global climate conference and at the Global Landscapes Forum, the research shows how projects intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation could build upon farming communities’ existing skills to achieve results.

The study of the villages of Awae and Akok in central and southern Cameroon concluded that “currently, the smallholder famers in the study region do not possess adequate capacity to implement a local REDD+ initiative.”

Yet CIFOR scientist Denis Sonwa, who co-authored the paper, said: “This does not mean we should give up. The villagers identify very clearly those areas where they need additional training to improve their practices, such as the management of non-timber forest products.”

This is important because, although conducting REDD+ projects may be easier on large farms with a single landowner, previous studies have shown that smallholder agriculture is a leading driver of deforestation in Cameroon.

The U.N.-backed REDD+ program assigns financial value to carbon stored in trees, creating an incentive to leave them standing.  REDD+ is still in preliminary stages — referred to as the “readiness phase”, and scientists are involved in monitoring various pilot projects around the world sponsored mainly by international development funds.

However, research shows that successes occur in projects that upon existing local knowledge and skills.

“These farmers are pretty sophisticated in how they organize their co-operative activities, especially those who work with cocoa,” said co-author Gillian Cerbu formerly of the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA). “They collect a lot of data, for example on yields. This could be used for a REDD+ project.”

Sonwa and Cerbu conducted group and individual interviews with farmers in Awae and Akok in 2008, seeking information on their abilities in four areas:

  • technical capacity, such as financial planning and record-keeping;
  • resource management, i.e. the agricultural savviness required to juggle production options in a changing environment;
  • how organized their community was;
  • and their capacity to deal with the risks better forest conservation posed to their livelihood.

Both villages proved strongly organized, with solid community and farming organizations.

The researchers found their bookkeeping and farming capacity to offer strong foundations, though not strong enough to make REDD+ projects work at the local level. This is because such projects would involve fine-tuning of agricultural production and complex monitoring to prove how much carbon emissions have been avoided in the process.

The researchers noted that local farmers already used techniques incorporating high number of trees or happening under forest cover. REDD+ could be an opportunity to promote such agro-forestry practices.

“The farmers are aware that their activities can be diversified. In Awae, for example, food crops and cocoa already contribute equal levels of income. Agro-forestry could be developed, alongside better trading of non-timber forest products,” Sonwa said.

To achieve this, the paper recommends external support to help farmers through training and better access to visits by agricultural consultants.

But the research shows that this should be done only in a way that builds upon their existing knowledge and skills. “If REDD+ is about imposing something from the outside, it will not be welcome,” Sonwa said. “Reinforcing the farmers’ existing capacities could make their activities less detrimental to the forest.”

Cerbu made it clear that Cameroonian farmers were well aware of environmental issues – including the links between deforestation and climate change. But, she added, “ultimately, they want to provide food for their kids and sell more products to the market to send their kids to better schools.”

Therefore, they should not be regarded as ignorant, but as people who have to make personal choices in which reducing deforestation is one factor among many. “Just think of how long it takes to achieve any kind of behaviour change towards more sustainable pathways.” Cerbu said.

She argued REDD+ should be about making forest-friendly alternatives more attractive to them — for example through providing better access to fertilizer to ensure higher production without forest clearing.

This is part of the fourth type of capacity the study set out to measure: risk management.

First — and Cerbu said this was largely outside the farmers’ own control – land tenure should be strengthened and incorporate forest conservation objectives to tackle future projects’ risk. At the moment, the “right of the axe” applies: farmers gain customary rights to agricultural land by clearing forest areas, without acquiring formal titles.

Specific to farmers’ risks, beyond this issue, the paper concludes: “Instead of adapting farmers’ livelihood strategies to a REDD+ project, REDD+ project requirements (…) could also be further tailored to be mindful of the farmers’ needs.” The risk to farmers in engaging in these activities and changing their agriculture practices, is beyond that of reducing emissions from deforestation – it is an issue of not producing enough food to feed their families.

According to Cerbu, this would be the best way of enlisting small-farmer support, by addressing the potential threat reduced deforestation can pose to the way they make a living. “When you’re including farmers, the issue that’s sticking out is their risk, and you want to improve their livelihood, not increase their level of risk,” she said.

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