1. Southern Africa: Conservation methods help farmers cope with climate change, high fertilizer costs (New Era, UN Integrated Regional Information Networks

September 08, 2008
A translation for this article is available in French

For farmers, there’s no sweeter sound than the spatter of rain hitting their field in the right amount at the right time. And there’s hardly a sweeter sight than green sprouts poking their way through rich earth. Farmers in much of Namibia were deprived of these sights and sounds of a promising growing season when floods swept through the country earlier this year. Heavy rains can wash away soil and waterlog sprouting seedlings, leaving farmers with little hope for harvest time. But thanks to new agricultural techniques, Letta Sebron’s harvest was better than ever.

For the past two agricultural seasons, Ms. Sebron has practiced conservation agriculture – a method that improves soil quality, making it better able to retain water and less likely to wash away with heavy rain. When preparing the land for planting, Ms. Sebron forgoes traditional tilling or ploughing. Instead, she rips and furrows the land, two agricultural techniques that, when used together, allow water and roots to penetrate deeply. She says that with conservation agriculture, her crop yields are less dependent on having a good rainy season.

Twenty Namibian farmers participated in on-farm trials of conservation farming techniques through the Conservation Tillage Project, or CONTILL. Rod Davis works with CONTILL. Farms on which conservation practices were paired with fertilizer use produced four times higher yields than farms using traditional methods such as tilling and ploughing. Even on farms where no fertilizer was used, farmers yielded twice as much with conservation techniques than they used to with traditional practices.

In fact, conservation agriculture not only prevents soil erosion and encourages moisture retention, it also boosts soil fertility. And as chemical fertilizers have skyrocketed in price, the Zambia National Farmers Union is promoting conservation techniques as an alternative to heavy fertilizer use.

Guy Robinson is president of the Zambia National Farmers Union. He says fertilizer costs have tripled in his country. The Zambian government provides fertilizer subsidies to some vulnerable groups, but Mr. Robinson says that most small-scale farmers will not see a subsidy. He encouraged farmers to reduce their need for fertilizer through conservation farming practices.

Conservation agriculture involves leaving crop residues on the field. Residues protect the soil from heat and heavy rain, and they fertilize the soil as they break down. Intercropping and crop rotation are also important conservation techniques. Together, these practices reduce depletion of soil nutrients, and deter pests and plant diseases.

According to Mr. Robinson, the Zambia National Farmers Union has conclusively proven that conservation agriculture can boost yields and “do wonders.”. Ms. Sebron would agree. She says that her crop yields are less dependent on rain because conservation agriculture techniques retain fertility and moisture in the soil. She says these techniques have restored her livelihood to the level she enjoyed in past years, when the climate was more predictable.
Click here to see the notes to broadcasters on conservation agriculture