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Thursday, 26 May 2016

Learning from nature to increase resilience

By Getrude Lungahi, Mercy Corp
More than 80 percent of farmers in East Africa use chemicals to increase farm productivity and keep weeds and pests from destroying their crops.
The Kenyan government imported $1.3 billion’s worth of chemical fertilizers and $578 million worth of pesticides during 2004-11, for agricultural production.
Farmers in Wajir,Kenya add compost and mulch around trees.TRF/Abdifatah Abdikadir
Chemical-intensive agriculture, however, creates a cycle of economic dependency between farmers and chemical manufacturers, discouraging biodiversity and degrading soils and landscapes, making them more prone to drought and floods.
A design philosophy called permaculture can be used as an alternative to the use of chemicals in agriculture. It involves sustainable ecological systems that are self-maintained and regenerative.
By observing and simulating the features observed in natural ecosystems, permaculture replicates productivity patterns that exist naturally in the environment.
As such, it stimulates the cultivation of several crops rather than a single crop. By returning any organic waste (including food waste and manure) into the system, it also nurtures soils and biodiversity.
Techniques include using perennial plants – which live for more than two years, as opposed to annual crops – to create a permanent network of roots that help prevent soil erosion, for example.
While permaculture comes with many benefits, it doesn’t necessarily follow that farmers know how to use it.
As part of the Building Resilience to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme, Mercy Corps is training communities – including farmers and government officials – on permaculture farming with the Permaculture Research Institute of Kenya in Wajir, Kenya, and Karamoja, Uganda.
“In an age where corporations are marketing drought-resistant seeds, it is really landscapes that need to be drought-resistant, not seeds’’, said Natalie Topa, Mercy Corps’ BRACED programme director.
Abdifatah Abdikadir, a farmer from Wajir and one of the trainees, has himself adopted several permaculture techniques such as banana circles, a way to grow fruit and vegetable crops by using up excess water and organic waste.
He is now showing other trainees how to apply permaculture principles in their farm work. “It’s important for more farmers to understand and adopt permaculture,” he said.
Joseph Letunyoi, a young Maasai man from Laikipia, central Kenya, and a trainer from the Permaculture Research Institute, is teaching both Kenyans and foreigners such as NGO workers how to strengthen their land and food production through permaculture.
His pastoralist background in the Kenyan drylands has helped him connect with the Wajir community and advise them on how to make their land and food production more diverse and resilient.
“No matter where you are based, permaculture can contribute to sustainable economic development," he said.
But permaculture isn’t just for adults. Abdikadir and other trainers are developing a permaculture curriculum to be rolled out in primary and secondary schools in Wajir.
Mercy Corps has also built partnerships with educational institutions such as Makerere University in Uganda: its agriculture curriculum now includes permaculture courses.
“Permaculture, agroecology and agroforestry can help mitigate the land degradation and erosion that has been caused to environments by poor land management practices,” said Shuaib Lwasa, a geography professor at the university.
Through the BRACED programme, two of the university’s graduate students conducted field work that involved assessing farms’ soil acidity as well as training farmers on permaculture with Mercy Corps.

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