In Focus89 David Traynor described the attempts of Sierra Leone to strengthen and develop its agricultural sector while protecting the environment
Sierra Leone has faced many challenges since its emergence from a decade of civil war in 2002. In particular returning displaced peoples faced the daunting task of rebuilding their livelihoods. This included rehabilitating their farms, rice fields and livestock numbers. With a growing awareness of the need to protect all aspects of the environment, from soil and water to ecosystems and biodiversity, the question remains: how can Sierra Leone continue to build on recent successes in livelihoods programmes and projects and ensure their sustainability?
Before the conflict, Sierra Leone led the way in Africa for agricultural research. Since the end of the civil war the government (and in particular the current Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, Dr. J. Sam Sesay) has recognised the potential for Sierra Leone’s agricultural sector. This potential includes vast areas of available land and the large portion of Sierra Leoneans working in agriculture. The government has championed this commercialisation of agricultural policy through the Smallholder Commercialisation Programme. This involves moving small farmers from producing enough food for their household to running their farms as a business, and aims to increase both food self-sufficiency and incomes for the most vulnerable. All NGOs and other agencies assisting in the rehabilition of the country’s agricultural sector and ensuring food security must align their programmes to this policy.
However, as we have seen in many other countries including Ireland, without the right checks and balances, commercialising agriculture can lead to terrible impacts on the environment and can threaten food sustainability and security, especially in vulnerable regions. This can be through overuse of land depleting the fertility of the soil, deforestation for farming and agricultural pollution. When threats to the environment are coupled with climate change, unseasonal weather patterns and other factors such as conflict, it becomes ever more critical.
Sierra Leone is renowned globally for its rice production. Indeed, it is said that a Sierra Leonean has not eaten until they have had their fill of rice. The agricultural rehabilitation programmes throughout the countryside focus on converting the Inland Valley Swamps for rice cultivation. Historically these wetlands have proved a valuable land asset with fertile soils and water availability. During the conflict they were abandoned to nature as people fled, but the last 10 years have seen them coming back into use.
Farmer Field Schools, centres established and run by either the government or NGOs, are training farmers to high standards of rice growing. These include water control, drainage, plotting rice paddies and nutrient management. Farmers have also learned to grow other crops in the dry season. Such schemes have culminated in a reduction of lean periods of food availability from four to two months, thereby reducing reliance on imported food during these months. What’s more, these newly-trained farmers have passed on their knowledge to other communities.
However, some problems with new methods have arisen: draining swamps to prepare the soil for planting exposes the decaying plant matter to air, oxidising the iron it contains and harming crops. Farmers have adapted to this by flushing the rice paddies with water to wash this iron out, but this could have further implications for pollution of water courses. Other major issues include the threat of deforestation for forest ecosystems near expanding agricultural areas, reductions in soil fertility caused by continuous cropping and habitat loss for the many species who called these swamps home.
Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) is now the major talk of the majority of humanitarian and development organisations, and most are mainstreaming it into their programmes. DRR involves planning prevention measures with communities to reduce the risk and cope with disasters. The way in which it integrates with environmental management is key to DRR’s effectiveness in the developing world. Protecting forests, soils, wetlands and wildlife where these rice cultivation programmes are implemented has myriad benefits beyond carbon sinks and species protection. Properly managed land is more resilient to the flood/drought pendulum of climate change that causes soil erosion, landslides and flash flooding, as well as to the ‘high yield’ pressures of commercial agriculture, making it fundamental to the security and sustainability of food production in rural areas.
So how can a balance be achieved to ensure Sierra Leone and other countries vulnerable to food insecurity can protect the environment while feeding themselves and increasing their incomes, both now and in the future? A big part of the answer, as is often the case, is education: already the foundations for environmental awareness have been laid through Primary School Green Clubs that have been established throughout Sierra Leone and West Africa. These clubs foster environmental awareness and teach valuable crop growing skills to equip the next generation with the knowledge they’ll need for a food-secure future. Perhaps we can also look at other examples throughout the world where farming and conservation go hand in hand to see what can be learned.