Thompson Tembo served three prison sentences for poaching elephants in Luangwa Valley, in the Eastern Province of Zambia. But now he has handed over his once-prized gun. Today, Mr. Tembo makes more money from his 43 beehives and his cash crops than he ever made from poaching.
Not long ago, you could hear guns firing at wild animals across Luangwa Valley almost every day. Just as deadly but silent were the thousands of snares set for the same purpose. Behind each gun and trap was a family struggling to survive.
Without alternatives, poachers would continue their actions. Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) is an ambitious initiative to help them find other ways of making a living. COMACO aims to reduce human poverty while protecting wildlife.
The organization asks farmers to give up poaching and adopt farming methods that improve their soils. In return, the farmers benefit through an assured market which pays top prices. They also learn new farming skills. New income-generating activities include raising small livestock, beekeeping, gardening and carpentry. Over 650 poachers, like Mr. Tembo, have joined COMACO. This has silenced more than 1,800 firearms.
COMACO operates six regional processing centres. The centres store and process commodities from 57 community trading depots. Area extension managers are based at these depots. They coordinate the work of over 650 lead farmers, who help train farmers, assist with the formation of producer groups, and help distribute inputs. This network connects over 35,000 small-scale farming families that live in remote areas near wildlife.
COMACO offers a higher price to farmers who grow organically and use conservation farming techniques. Dale Lewis is executive director of COMACO. By targeting hard-to-reach farmers who live near protected areas, Mr. Lewis says, “We’re trying to turn things around.” He says that when farmers “…comply with COMACO, they see benefits.” This includes improvements in food security and health.
Jairos Phiri failed as a farmer. So he turned to trapping. Mr. Phiri was the proud owner of 111 snares, supplementing his meagre crop yields with the few animals he killed. Yet after years of exchanging meat for maize, he has now surrendered his snares. Today he sells his surplus maize to COMACO. He can now send his children to school.
In 2009, COMACO purchased more than 2300 tonnes of products from farmers like Mr. Phiri. They paid out over five billion Zambian kwacha (around 100,000 American dollars). Since COMACO started operations, food security has improved and household incomes have more than doubled. Wildlife populations have stabilized and many species show signs of increasing.
In many supermarkets in Zambia, you will find food products labeled with COMACO’s “It’s Wild” brand. Items such as peanut butter, rice, honey and groundnuts are grown by the farmers linked to COMACO. Many products are organic.
Next year, COMACO plans to export its products to Botswana. The organization is trying to handle product distribution itself as much as possible, so that profits stay with the farmers.