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Farmers Save Rainforest and Reap Rewards

By Emilie Greenhalgh and Emmanuelle Beguin

Two years ago, Oleyi Manga Fis walked 9 to 12 miles from his home into the equatorial forest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the world's second largest rainforest, to find farmland that he would burn, clear and, finally, cultivate.

A farmer stands in his lush cassava field.

A farmer stands in his lush cassava field in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. CRS is teaching more than 8,000 farmers how to use no-till methods to avoid traditional slash-and-burn practices that destroy the rainforest, deplete the soil and produce less. Photo by Emilie Greenhalgh/CRS

In the village of Lubangwana, south of the forest zone capital of Kindu, farmers like Oleyi practice slash-and-burn agriculture for subsistence farming, producing staple crops such as rice, cassava, maize, peanuts and cowpeas. But as his crop yields decreased over time, Oleyi became unable to feed his family of 12, forcing him to expand his fields, exert more labor, burn more land and travel farther into the forest.

These days, Oleyi cultivates a field less than a mile and a half from his home and has doubled his harvest. The new farming system that he's discovered, thanks to an agriculture development project funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, is called no-till agriculture.

Farmers have been practicing slash-and-burn agriculture in the region for centuries; it's a practice passed from father to son. Slash-and-burn agriculture allows farmers to provide instant, yet short-lived, nutrients for the soil. Although newly sown plants grow quickly for a few years, farmers must allow the forest to grow back for several decades before replanting it.

Today, the poor quality of land in the region means producers generally cultivate their fields for 1 year, at the price of creating a sterile savannah unsuitable even for livestock.

Adapting to a New Way of Farming

No-till agriculture substitutes the short-term benefit of using forest ash as fertilizer with the sustainable fertility of decomposing organic material, renewed by the farmers' own crops. This protects the soil and its organic matter from the harsh rays of the sun and tropical rainstorms, which cause extensive erosion on hillsides. The process also suppresses weeds. Manual tillage is replaced by the soil-nourishing activity of earthworms, beneficial insects and bacteria. No-till agriculture not only protects forests, the principal asset of the farmer, but also the soil.

After watching his soil depreciate, Oleyi jumped at the opportunity to benefit from the Catholic Relief Services No-Till Agriculture project, implemented by Caritas Kindu and Caritas Kasongo.

After being trained in mulching, crop rotation and other techniques that help protect the soil and increase its fertility, Oleyi chose a small parcel of land—several acres within his own fields—to begin experimenting. This gave him the opportunity to compare his progress with that of the project's two pilot fields in the village. One project closely followed conservation agriculture practices while the other used slash-and-burn techniques.

Farmers weigh a bountiful cassava harvest

Farmers weigh the bountiful cassava harvest they grew using no-till methods taught through a CRS program. Photo by Emilie Greenhalgh/CRS

At first, Oleyi was skeptical of the unkempt, untilled field and questioned the work required to clear a new forest plot. Instead of simply burning the potential field, he was faced with using a machete to cut the vegetation into small pieces to promote healthy decomposition.

When the time came to harvest, however, he was shocked by the difference in yield between the two fields. The untilled plot produced twice as much as slashed-and-burned fields. It was then and there that he decided to use no-till methods on 90 percent of his fields.

Oleyi realized that the initial effort to clear a new field for no-till agriculture would result in a decrease in labor, thanks to fewer weeds and the fact that he would no longer have to clear new fields every year. Now, he will be able to keep the same fields over time without experiencing a decrease in production.

Reaping the Rewards

Today, Oleyi proudly displays a mulch-covered field of cassava planted 6 months ago, only a mile and a half from his home. Before he adopted no-till methods, he barely survived on his crop's weak yields; now he feeds his family with crops that are rich in protein and also act as mulch. And his harvests enable him to sell half his yield to help pay for medical care for his aging parents and school fees for his three children and seven younger brothers.

Additionally, Oleyi has been able to start a small business, selling fish in the village, with his savings. Oleyi is happy that he no longer has to destroy the forest in order to farm. He is so impressed by the changes that he has vowed to cultivate the same fields for as many years as possible, and to teach the techniques to his wife and brothers.

Oleyi Manga Fis is one of the 8,200 participants in the CRS No-Till-Agriculture pilot project in his province. After 2½ years of experimentation, farmers living in the rainforest zones have already converted half of their land to the new conservation techniques.

Emilie Greenhalgh is the livelihoods program manager at CRS. Her work includes organizing voucher-based seed fairs and working with local authorities and farmers to implement emergency agricultural programming. She is based in Herat, Afghanistan. Emmanuelle Beguin is the conservation agriculture program manager at CRS. Based in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Emmanuelle specializes in creating strategies and business plans for farmers.

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