Page last updated at 14:24 GMT, Tuesday, 29 June 2010 15:24 UK

Calling for an 'old-fashioned' green revolution

Tensie Whelan (Image: J.Henry Fair)
VIEWPOINT
Tensie Whelan

Using "good old-fashioned" farming techniques will help deliver a sustainable green revolution in Africa, says Tensie Whelan. In this week's Green Room, she warns that failure to protect biodiversity, water supplies and forests could spell disaster for the continent.

People walking through a rainforest in Liberia (Getty Images)
I have seen many ways in which farmers in Africa have increased quality and yield... through the implementation of better farm management and farm husbandry

The new green revolution that is needed on the continent of Africa has been much discussed of late.

With pressing development needs in many parts of Africa, and with a growing population, that revolution is desperately overdue.

But when it comes, it must be sustainable; socially, economically and environmentally.

A green revolution created and developed at the expense of sustainable, clean water supplies, good forestry protection and good soil management will not only be a disaster for the people of Africa, it will be a disaster for its ecology as well.

Yet so far, much of the debate has been on the technology of agricultural inputs such as the role of fertilizers and genetically modified (GM) seeds.

Whether the stance taken in the debate around these often controversial issues is pro- or anti-, my overriding conclusion is that those advocating for or against are missing a fundamental issue.

Back to basics

The debate - dominated by the West - has become, like so many western debates on big environmental questions, fixed on the technological solutions that will magically create tomorrow's paradise.

African farmland, AP
Africa's soils are being depleted of nutrients

In doing so, it has largely ignored the role good farming and forestry practices can play in mitigating food scarcity, protecting scarce water supplies and soil productivity, addressing climate related issues and both preserving and enhancing biodiversity across the continent.

Our experience at the Rainforest Alliance shows that by using "good old fashioned" farming techniques, such as good land-use management and harvesting practices, or reintroducing native tree cover to provide shade for the crops, leads to an improvement in the productivity and quality of farmers' crops and reduces susceptibility to pests and natural disasters.

This approach delivers clear economic, environmental and social benefits.

The Ethiopian coffee regions are biodiversity hotspots. Here, more than anywhere else the work to combine sustainable coffee production, forest conservation and biodiversity is vital.

Such an approach directly benefits Ethiopian small coffee farmers. It is also in Ethiopia's best interest and in the collective interest of us all.

Sustainable farm management techniques also increase net farm income. In studies of Rainforest Alliance cocoa farms in Cote D'Ivoire and Ghana, researchers consistently find higher yields and higher net income for farmers who have embraced these practices—without expensive new technologies.

Under pressure

Elsewhere, local populations have relied on Morocco's cork forests for generations.

Tree saplings from the website Great Green Wall website
One scheme hopes planting trees will help halt desertification

The forests provides vital resources and services including; timber, fuel wood, honey, mushrooms, berries and watershed protection.

But illegal logging, over grazing, forest fires and the over-collection of firewood are destroying these biodiversity rich forests.

By working with local people, providing the skills and incentives to maintain their forests, we are laying the ground work for people to gain a sustainable livelihood from the cork and argan oil found in these forests.

And sustainable forestry management and extraction is essential if we are to preserve some of the most charismatic of African species, the great apes.

In the Congo basin - home to the chimpanzee, bonobo and gorilla - only 10-15% of the forests are protected as either national parks or nature reserves.

Most of the Congo's great apes live outside these areas, in forest covered by logging concessions.

Where these concessions are managed under Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification schemes, these populations remain healthy.

There is currently 4.5 million hectares of FSC logging concessions housing healthy populations of gorillas and chimpanzees.

While this sounds a big number, it is only a fraction of the total logging concessions available.

By giving more political and financial support and priority to FSC certification governments, communities and companies can help to meet their commitments under the UN biodiversity conventions while ensuring a sustainable economic use of this natural resource.

Returning to agriculture, I have seen many ways in which farmers in Africa have increased quality and yield, as well as lowered production costs and improved working conditions for themselves and their workers through the implementation of better farm management and farm husbandry.

All of this results in better long-term management and stewardship of soil, water, biodiversity and human resources.

It creates a balanced relationship whereby wildlife is both protected and enhanced and farmers are able to compete in the global market which so many of them supply.

Tensie Whelan is president of the Rainforest Alliance

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website


Do you agree with Tensie Whelan? Are "good old-fashioned" farming techniques being overlooked in favour of hi-tech solutions? Are global demands for resources plunging Africa into an ecological crisis? Is it possible to balance the growing demand for crops with a sustainable future for all in Africa?

Why do we always assume that Western technology is the answer to everything? Technologies developed for temperate climates may not be suitable for sub-Tropical and Tropical regions of Africa. Also the farmers cannot afford the seeds and associated fertilisers and pesticides. There was a program years ago about "front door farming" in southern Africa where starting with small plots, no bigger than a front door, on a soil that was basically sand and by working in small groups to save compostable material families were able to grow firstly fresh veg to support themselves and then eventually a small surplus to sell. Not a single GM seed or artificial fertiliser was used. The system was self sustaining based on good old-fashioned care, and in this case creation of, a fertile soil. Local food varieties have developed over millenia to cope with local conditions and with a bit of support the knowledge of local people can be used to improve the environment for themselves and the biodiversity. The arrogance of the West that we have the answer to everything is extremely worrying and often appears to be purely profit driven. We should be tapping into and supporting the local knowledge before it is lost.
Jane, Cardiff

The old fashioned farming is goood techniques,no model material.Becauce we use simple material like cutless,hoe etc.
mohammed, chad

in my point of view, I think Environment is so important factor in processing of maintaining life. that could be more essential for human-beings who got many achievements from nature, Nature is so marvelous and surprising but It gets annoyed when whatever harmful impacted on it. so Need have a program-me for this campaign!
van, ha noi/ viet nam

A little simplicity will go a long way. We have to stop looking at life in the context of better, faster, cheaper and spend more time doing things right for a healthier and more sustainable future for generations to come.
mary garrett

Dogooder space must be getting pretty crowded these days. How many people work in all these NGOs? Hearing about a different NGO every other day. All funded by the UN?
Schlonz, Hamburg, Germany

Tensie is entirely correct. Why do we have to keep repeating the same mistakes? We don't, but the reality is that traditional low tech options do not support the large multinatinal corporations and their sponsoring governments, they do not stimulate growth of first world economies. Exports support those, so we will continue down the road of self destruction. Naturally we will need more high tech fixes to fix the mess caused by our current high tech fixes ....more profit, more "growth". There is no end to this madness
Dr Sam Slattery, Providenciales Turks and Caicos Islands

The'developing world' has to a greater extent been using sustainable (domestic) agricultural methods for centuries. When foreign capital by way of outside companies look to 'develop' and ramp up production in these nations the problems of irrigation, disease, energy (fuel) can occur plus labour may be 'forced' used. Unfortunately many of these countries are so poor the governments by way of the World Bank and United Nations have no choice but to service debt.e.g Haiti's banana production 'replaced' by western companies.As long as internal governments are not corrupted and support their populations, all the best to them.
Rupert Rols, Elgin

There are conflicts of interest in Africa and of course just about everywhere else in the world about proper land use but it's particularly acute where deserts are expanding, seas are losing their productivity and forests are vanishing. Simply saying 'old fashioned revolution' about land use management doesn't address grazing rights of one through the family garden of another. It doesn't stop a government official out for himself or for what benefits his tribe. Zimbabwe was a good example of why land use management must follow a logical road to change rather than fall to the ravages of mismanagement and lawlessness. Somalia and their reliance on the sea not to mention the spread of weapons stands in stark contrast to places where forests are easier to plant and gardens to grow. Some places are too dangerous to work and some too hot to grow. Religion too often seems at odds to getting plants to grow and good health for many. Perhaps the garden that needs to grow is in the minds of men and women of the world to work together and stop tearing up the planet on which they live. That said it is widely accepted that small scale local farming is more productive than large scale farming so sustainable agricultural policies need to be adopted widely along with security and good health measures.. It's crazy not to help each other and to quickly swing the world from a corporate path to one that recognizes the need to keep the Earth alive.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado USA

At the point where we are on Earth, I do not see an alternatively more ecological method than that presented here. The solution to a greener world lies in Nature itself!
Armoogun, Mauritius

It's absolutely true that "good old fashioned farming", in Whelan's meaning, is better for these regions. But the next problem is that people using these practices are powerless. Illegal logging is a good example. Local people almost universally oppose it; but in the face of corruption and machine guns, they can do nothing. The current theft of African "farm land" by external countries is another example. Corrupt officials are leasing huge tracts of their country's best farm land to other countries, or big corporations. The new renters promise to increase the productivity of the land (for public relations purposes); but in reality, they are there to make a profit; with two inevitable outcomes. As much land as possible will be plowed, wiping out any trace of biological diversity; and the local people will be "relocated" - where they will die. We know this. Any solution including encouragement of traditional agriculture really MUST include some pathway for the local people to acquire, and keep, the power to protect themselves and their lands. Or it will be wasted effort.
Philip Rutter, Canton, MN, USA

The vital thing for Africa is to bring education for local people, they have to be prepared to create own future and not only be dependent on aid from developed countries. I am affraid the continent was not designed to feed so many mouths and the Africans must understand that their mission is not to give a birth to as much childern as possible but to save the environment including many endangared species and always go for sustainable development in the first place.
Andrea, Prague, Czech republic

If the Rainforest Alliance is sincere about farming it will promote methods of feeding people by bringing back into productive use the 15% of tropical forest land globally now depopulated of needy people under a `wilderness' concept imposed and funded from developed countries. One way of doing this is through forest gardening: another the age-old and widespread and very sophisticated shifting cultivation. Both technologies are prevented in reserves, some of which are vast.
Dave Wood, Fyvie, Aberdeenshire

Yes, I grew up on a family dairy farm and I truly believe the only way to sustain healthy ecosystems is to be a functioning part of the ecosystem. Hi tech farming is not and overuse of fertilizer have led to damaged ecosystems in India, must we make the same mistake with Africa? If the warring factions would work together there would be plenty for all of Africa. This is just another excuse for greedy corporations to make money at the Earths expense. The Earth was not meant to be used so.
Mary Jo Kasprzak, Iron Mountain, MI USA

I am agreed with Tensie Whelan. Besides,sustainable agriculture presents an opportunity to rethink the importance of family farms and rural communities. Economic development policies are needed that encourage more diversified agricultural production on family farms as a foundation for healthy economies in rural communities. In combination with other strategies, sustainable agriculture practices and policies can help foster community institutions that meet employment, educational, health, cultural and spiritual needs. Now I would like to say that organic and the ancient plant medicine and the modern management concepts can work magic. At the same time, new policies and institutions must be created to enable producers using sustainable practices to market their goods to a wider public
Engr Salam, LGED,Bangladesh

People may not think technology will bring about some sort of panacea but there are plenty of people who are coming to the realization that technology will be necessary to keep the Earth alive. With all the damage to natural systems and demands on resources it's going to take good governance and sweeping measures at reform on a worldwide scale to promote the kinds of changes in the way business is conducted if any of us are to have a future. The West and growing economies dependent on natural resources would do well to put huge efforts into respecting and supporting the efforts of small scale farmers who use good management practices to restore the soils and vibrant watersheds of their lands.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado USA

There is a lot to be said for 'good' old fashioned farming. The problem is that there is an awful lot of 'bad' old fashioned farming out there. Even before the evil capitalist Western agri-chemical empires moved in, local farmers were more than capable of completely trashing their environment. The solution is a mix of good practice, incentives, and keeping the thieving hands of the local government out of anything you try to do. Throughout the developing world,the urban elites see the farmers as ignorant peasants to be ripped off. Any capital intensive equipment will be stolen and sold.
MFM, Minas Tirith

Cleverly put together! Who could dare to disagree? Yet the argument is based on a misconception and a statement of the obvious. In summary: "A green revolution created and developed at the expense of ... will ... be a disaster..."; and "...using 'good old fashioned' farming techniques ... leads to an improvement (and) delivers ... Benefits". Technology brings about new solutions that are, as such, neutral; it is their use which is( like that of 'old-fashioned farming techniques') proper or improper. The 'green revolution' is designed to contribute to sustainable crop production and resource management with new material, tools, and methods. The good point with the Rainforest Alliance is that it does not share and, worse, promote and spread the hysteria of some other entities about fertilisers, pesticides, etc. Its experience may well show that the practices it recommends "deliver clear economic, environmental and social benefits", the point is that the right combination of 'old' and 'new' delivers MORE benefits. Africa needs both.
André, Thonon, France

The other advantage to local people, besides caring for "soil, water, biodiversity and human resources" and farmers "able to compete in the global market", is that the wealth produced by healthy people and environment stays with the people. Global wealth extraction - that is, transnational corporations siphoning value from all corners of the Earth into the pockets of a few individuals - is the single greatest cause of poverty. The values Ms Whelan takes as good, such as those above and others like preserving great apes, are not the values of these corporations, and they are powerful. How can people do this work? How can farmers win out over Monsanto? By joining together and giving each other voice. Thank you, Rainforest Alliance.
Leslie Breakstone, Middlesex Vt USA

I have been driving the zero till farming initive in Tanzania with great success of improved crop performance. this is without increased fertilizer or new seed... Africa needs to get land use policy right before even starting with GM seed or fertilizer. the most important factor is still soil and this is largely being ignored in the chase for the quick solution. The basics are still the same, look after the soil and it looks after you.
mick dennis, tanzania

I agree with Tensie.We have witnessed the so called green revoluton in India,the consequences of which is to kill the soil and farmers.
Dr.Prabir lahiri, kolkata India

It is very unlikely that "westerners" with little or no practical experience of "Farming" in Africa will be able to understand the complexity of the sociological/legal and practical aspects of land management on very poor soils and an erratic climate. A great deal more effort is needed to support the African Centers of learning to provide long term high quality farming systems demonstration along with land management training for Farmers.
Timothy Havard, Leven Fife (40 years in Africa)

I really liked the news topic Calling for an 'old-fashioned' green revolution describing about the balance and need for green earth. If I consider as a native of India which is actually a developing country and has a vast resources of wildlife and vegetation. In due course India is growing in speed with the process of directly consuming the natural racecourses for the development need. The most adverse effect due to the unstoppable industrialization and growth is affecting the balance between wildlife and vegetation..........The state to which I belong ie Madhya Pradesh is a Tiger State with a largest number of Tigers present.Internationally what I think is that BBC should develop a individual and liked initiative to convey the message of Tiger preservation and conservation......................I hope BBC will make a positive stand and approach to the subject to which we all call " PROJECT TIGER "
Sandeep Rane, Hoshangabad ( Narmadapuram ), Madhya Pradesh , India

For the last 50 or 60 years, and in reality, for the last few thousand, people have been successfully proving that organic, intensive agriculture/permaculture/silvaculture is not only a possible means of supporting a family's needs, but a method of rehabilitating abused and blighted acreage and bringing marginal lands into productivity without degradation. Water conservation accomplished by mulching and "direct to root" watering, with soil amendment from locally available materials can go a long way towards "making the desert bloom". Crops grown for millenia in a particular area are successful for a reason. Finding ways to grow traditional foods better with the aid of new technology is the proper use for said technology, offering new "superfoods", with dramatically different requirements(like chemical fertilizers) to an alien landscape is not. Most of my experience in sustainable agriculture comes from living in the US. Granted, New York probably doesn't hold any lessons in particular for an area like Darfur, and maybe even the Arizona and New Mexico deserts aren't equal in conditions to Chad or Ethiopia, but the lesson learned is that you can take the concepts and apply them to any area if the local variables are taken into consideration. The question of how to promote this philosophy, and fund it, can be answered by re-directing NGOs focus to sustainable farming, individuals earmarking donations specifically towards that objective, and the highly promising theory of providing microloans.
Tom Cunningham, West Haverstraw, NY, USA

the trouble with this 'increasing agricultural productivity to feed the growing population' talk, is that increasing productivity encourages ever more tedious population growth. when will everyone face up to it. we need population reduction urgently as a central guiding policy of every government, so we dont have to constantly increase productivity in a world thats actually overshot human carrying capacity by about 7 times already. oil has allowed us to have short term 'phantom' carrying capacity which will soon evaporate. we will then know how very far we have overshot. we need to break the 'productivity increase - population increase - productivity increase - population increase' vicious circle immediately, before hard ecological limits are reached (that go beyond 'mere' mass extinction and mass poverty of a billion humans).
andyuk, coventry

Tensie, we should not surrender ourselves to the things you mentioned in the beginning of your article 'with pressing development needs' and 'with growing population'. There is lot of scope of improvement on these two subjects. Development must be restructured and we must ensure a sustainable population. But I most certainly support the 'Back to Basics' part. Our old skills and culture is being destroyed in the massive wave of social change and there is urgent need to preserve our inherent agricultural and other related skills. Efforts like FSC certification schemes are admirable. Schemes like FSC certification may be adopted and promoted in other parts of the planet also. The Natural things and biodiversity is 'the real magic' and 'the only known Paradise'. Technological solutions are trying to accommodate more and more human populations and their aggressive activities on the planet.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore, India

Tensie Whelan has a point; "good old-fashioned' farming techniques can help. But, that begs a question, "why did such techniques go out of fashion in the first place?" How will you deliver a "sustainable Green Revolution" with old or high-tech techniques, when 90% (exaggeration?) of the farming community farms a "patch" with woman-power? Picture a woman with a child on her back, on half empty stomach, a long handled hoe (made in china) in her hand, cultivating her field. If you can't get her to use "old fashioned" or "high tech" solutions, the Agriculture is going no where. Pole Sanaa. Tensie Whelan will get her salary and bonuses (for this nice flyer as well) form the good NGO's funded by well-meaning bleeding hearts of the western world.
Vinod Dhall, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

To the commentators who "pooh-pooh" and talk about "touchy-feely idiological sell" - the fact is you miss the point. You make the mistake of only seeing the land pushed for maximum yield of food for our mouths. Well, we've done that, and we've pushed it till we've broken it. Biodiversity is falling in great swathes. "Food security" requires the land to be used evenly, and in balanced partnership with the other life on the planet. Do it how you like; but we have to share. Otherwise the mono culture and the patent claims are going to reduce this world to a lifeless dust bowl - er "briskly".
Steven Walker, Penzance

I do not know of any agricultural expert who opposes the touchy-feely stuff that Ms. Whelan prescribes here for Africa. However, other continents have moved forward much briskly in feeding their population by embracing scientific principles and meaningful ways to improve farming including the use of fertilizers, irrigation, mechanization and better seeds including the use of GM crops. Good farming and forestry practices are not mutually exclusive with modern technology and inputs that Ms. Whelan pooh-poohs here. Africans must consider all options in their quest for food security.
C. S. Prakash, Tuskegee, Alabama, USA

In places where there are little or no substantial farming practices or infrastructure, basic land management techniques and low-tech, low cost solutions do make sense. Most industrialized farming techniques are designed to produce maximal yield out of a given area of land, but requires a lot of technology and resources to be practical. If and when these techniques are appropriate, they should then be considered. Like any situation that covers a spectrum of different conditions, economics, and culture, it is important to find the solution that works best locally instead of pursuing a "ideological" sell.
Jason, Houston,Tx

Spot on. Not only do these communities need sustainable farming, they also need to be self-reliant. So any technology they do use has to be of a type they can service themselves and thus minimise any reliance on outsiders. They must work with the land, not against it, and be their own boss.
Roger, Sandbach

I do not know of any agricultural expert who opposes the touchy-feely stuff that Ms. Whelan prescribes here for Africa. However, other continents have moved forward much briskly in feeding their population by embracing scientific principles and meaningful ways to improve farming including the use of fertilizers, irrigation, mechanization and better seeds including the use of GM crops. Good farming and forestry practices are not mutually exclusive with modern technology and inputs that Ms. Whelan pooh-poohs here. Africans must consider all options in their quest for food security.
C. S. Prakash, Tuskegee, Alabama, USA

In places where there are little or no substantial farming practices or infrastructure, basic land management techniques and low-tech, low cost solutions do make sense. Most industrialized farming techniques are designed to produce maximal yield out of a given area of land, but requires a lot of technology and resources to be practical. If and when these techniques are appropriate, they should then be considered. Like any situation that covers a spectrum of different conditions, economics, and culture, it is important to find the solution that works best locally instead of pursuing a "ideological" sell.
Jason, Houston,Tx

Spot on. Not only do these communities need sustainable farming, they also need to be self-reliant. So any technology they do use has to be of a type they can service themselves and thus minimise any reliance on outsiders. They must work with the land, not against it, and be their own boss.
Roger, Sandbach



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