Resilient small-scale agriculture: A key in global crises

Biodiversity and sustainable agriculture ensure the nutrition of societies. And they also provide better protection against the outbreak of pandemics. Preserving ecosystems is becoming a global survival issue.


Small farmers in Paraguay harvesting mate. Photo: Sonja Ritter/WWF
Small farmers in Paraguay harvesting mate. Photo: Sonja Ritter/WWF

Kerstin Weber

(c) Kerstin Weber / WWF

To change the world with small steps. Kerstin Weber and her team at WWF work every day in the field of sustainable food and agriculture. A core area that often gets lost in everyday life is the massive waste of food, which is still far too great in Germany. After all, each of our consumption decisions has an impact on nature and resources. She wants to create this awareness for reflected consumption. Every step counts!


Brit Reichelt-Zolho

(c) Brit Reichelt-Zolho/ WWF

Brit Reichelt-Zolho is an ecologist and has worked for the WWF since 2000. Before that she worked in Belize, Central America and Scotland, where she studied. From 1997 she lived in Mozambique and managed an environmental training centre and various conservation projects for 10 years. Afterwards she was Nature Conservation Director and Country Director at WWF Mozambique, where she was responsible for the whole range of marine, terrestrial and political nature conservation work. Since 2012, she has been working for WWF Germany as a consultant for Southern and Eastern Africa, with a focus on the KAZA transboundary network of protected areas, and is in charge of projects on community-based nature conservation, anti-poaching, lion protection and above all sustainable agriculture adapted to climate change. She firmly believes that nature conservation in Africa can only be successful together with the local population.


World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF)


Especially in times such as the unprecedented global Covid-19 crisis, it becomes clear how important the resilience or durability of local agriculture is to ensure domestic food security. Many countries in the global South have been hit particularly hard by the current situation, since the already unstable national economy is now being further weakened by the Covid-19 crisis. In addition, they are experiencing a deterioration in the supply situation and food security of their own population. In times of crisis, we see once again how important it is to sustainably structure local and national production and food systems in order to ensure the food supply to the population.


It is also clear that the protection and preservation of important ecosystems plays a major role in preventing a pandemic of this kind from occurring in the first place. It turns out that the destruction of ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity are key factors that lead to the manifestation and spread of diseases such as the newest coronavirus outbreak.


Mate seedlings in the tree nursery. Photo: Pedro Ferreira/WWF
Mate seedlings in the tree nursery. Photo: Pedro Ferreira/WWF

Therefore, a sustainable form of agriculture is needed that does not harm valuable ecosystems and habitats for numerous animal and plant species, such as forests, wetlands, savannahs and grasslands. Essential aspects include the creation of cultivation diversity in combination with resource-conserving cultivation methods, which lead to a sustainable increase in yields, but also maintain soil fertility, avoid soil erosion and ensure sustainable use of local water resources. At the same time, cultivation systems should be resilient to other external factors, such as the progressing climate crisis, which is already causing droughts in many regions of the world. Moreover, decentralised and local value chains and markets should be strengthened to ensure a resilient local and national supply of key staple foods.


The goal of environmental protection organisation WWF is to bring precisely these aspects together in its project work. The following examples of the establishment of agroforestry systems in the Atlantic rainforest in Paraguay and of soil-conserving agriculture in Zambia adapted to climate change are funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). They show how the preservation of ecosystems and important habitats can be combined with stabilisation of the local food situation through agro-ecological concepts.


Improved living conditions or rural communities through climate-adapted, sustainable agriculture and the establishment of sustainable supply chains


Our example in Paraguay shows a type of agriculture that works in harmony with local ecosystems. It benefits from them and simultaneously preserves these ecosystems. One of the world’s most species-rich rainforests, the Atlantic Rainforest, once stretched across the eastern part of the country in the Alto Paraná region. Due to the rapid expansion of agricultural land for the large-scale production of mechanised agricultural commodities like soya, only very fragmented and isolated patches of the forest remain. More than half of the agricultural sector in Paraguay still consists of small family farms, mainly producing for their own consumption.


However, they are increasingly being displaced by highly specialised, large-scale agricultural enterprises. Family farms also face other hazards caused by climate change, such as flooding and heat waves. It will put the resilience of agriculture to a tough test; food security could deteriorate quickly.


Zambia: Farmer in her maize field with improved, climate-adapted cultivation. Photo: WWF Germany
Zambia: Farmer in her maize field with improved, climate-adapted cultivation. Photo: WWF Germany

The MATE project of WWF Paraguay in a joint effort with WWF Germany is striving to create a near-natural type of agriculture that is adapted to the consequences of climate change. The goal is to prevent further deforestation in the region, to restore new forest areas and to improve living conditions for local farmers. By establishing agroforestry systems, near-natural systems are created and degraded areas are made usable again. The yerba mate (tea) tree is cultivated together with other indigenous tree species. Other plants such as manioc or even melons are planted under the trees. The trees and plants benefit from each other. They provide each other with shade and enrich the soil with nutrients. These types of systems deliver many other advantages.


They are more resilient, bind more carbon, prevent soil erosion and use resources such as water, light and nutrients more efficiently. With this project, the WWF also wants to ensure that communities receive sufficient food. Many of the families lived at the existential minimum level and consumed an unbalanced diet; for example, they only ate cassava and maize, which in the long term leads to malnutrition. In an effort to establish more variety, the project set up vegetable gardens for the communities. Among other things, they grew lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and pumpkins. Part of the harvest is left for their own use, while the rest is sold on the local market.


The Covid-19 epidemic is proving that this system works. Since the trade routes to the important supply countries Brazil and Argentina are closed, the food demand in the country needs to be covered by the domestic agriculture. The farmers involved in the project are able to provide for themselves and at the same time make a significant contribution to improving the food situation in the entire region. They regularly donated part of their harvest to an aid organisation in the nearby town of Ciudad del Este, which distributes the fruit and vegetables to the most needy.


They are also adapting their cultivation plans to the growing demand for staple foods. The government of Paraguay reacted quickly to the crisis at the national level and created a network to strengthen the nationwide supply system. In addition to national and international civil society organisations such as the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity, WWF Paraguay is supporting this network with its expertise from the project producing healthy organic food to develop a strategy to strengthen the food security of the national population.

Further information can be found here.



Protection of natural resources and food security by strengthening and stabilising sustainable agriculture in the Zambian KAZA region


Fear of the effects of the coronavirus crisis is also spreading in KAZA, the largest cross-border terrestrial network of protected areas worldwide. This 520,000 km2area in southern Africa is home to an overwhelming diversity of charismatic wildlife. Half of all African elephants live here, a third of all lions as well as gigantic populations of buffalo, antelope and many endemic species. There are still vast natural habitats such as savannahs, wetlands and forests.  Community-based nature conservation and ecotourism are supposed to generate income streams for sustainable development.


But now the drop in tourism is not only endangering the salaries of community gamekeepers. Supply chains are also breaking down and the fear of a food shortage and new waves of poaching is becoming increasingly real. Two million people live in KAZA, mainly smallholders who try to make a living through subsistence farming in the barren Kalahari sand, which is poor in groundwater. But the small harvests from the nutrient-poor soils are often not enough. Periods of starvation thus occur almost every year. Every three years, new forest areas have to be cleared to create a field of 2 – 3 hectares, where they can grow maize and beans for their families (shifting cultivation). This means that humans are increasingly invading the habitat of wild animals, resulting in conflicts with the animals.


In order to protect the habitat, increase yields on existing fields and ensure food security for families, the Bengo/SEWOH- and WWF-funded project in the Zambian part of KAZA supports 3,200 smallholders in establishing climate-adapted and agro-ecological farming methods. Since 2015, the smallholders have been attending practical field lessons to learn agro-ecological farming methods such as minimum soil cultivation, sowing in plant hollows and the use of crop rotations and catch crops. This keeps the soil fertile longer and improves water storage. The training is carried out by trained, local smallholders, the contact farmers. This locally based advisory service ensures sustainability and reduces costs. The new methods have tripled crop yields, with farmers now harvesting 3-4 tonnes of maize per hectare instead of 1.5 tonnes.


Zambia: meeting of a small farmers cooperative. Photo: WWF Germany
Zambia: meeting of a small farmers cooperative. Photo: WWF Germany

In order to build greater resilience to the effects of climate change, the main focus is on drought-resistant crops (millet, sorghum). During the extreme drought of 2018, farmers were able to achieve a solid millet harvest; in contrast, 80% of the maize harvest dried up.  Smallholders are also being trained in reducing post-harvest losses. Locally adapted silos, called fellumbus, were introduced to minimise losses.


The establishment of a government-certified post-harvest seed programme enables smallholders to supply themselves with locally adapted seed and sell it. Some smallholders have already been able to improve their living conditions sustainably from the income.


In order to manifest these successes long term and secure self-financing for the smallholders, the project is now supporting the establishment of agricultural cooperatives. These cooperatives will sell their sustainable products to hotels in major tourist locations such as Livingstone and will use part of the proceeds to support the community-based advisory service. In return, they will continue to receive technical support. The development of local supply chains is especially important in the current situation, since Covid-19 prevention measures have closed the country borders. Consequently, the supply of mostly South African products is interrupted.

Further information can be found here.

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