Under the hot, tropical sun, Joseph Banda, a local farmer in the village of Mtika in Zambia’s Eastern Province, proudly points to his small but lush plot of soybeans he is working on as a student at the Luso Farmer Field School.
“I volunteered because I’ve personally seen the impacts of drought in previous seasons, and I recognize that climate change is happening. I realized that the old farming methods weren’t working. I wanted to ensure that should a drought occur, I wouldn’t lose my crops, and at the same time wanted to learn new techniques that could improve my yields and raise my income,” says Joseph.
The Zambian Ministry of Agriculture—with support from the BioCarbon Fund Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes Zambia Integrated Forest Landscape Project (ZIFLP)—set up the school because the agriculture sector is extremely vulnerable to climate change and the country is already experiencing climate-induced hazards, most notably an increase in the frequency and severity of drought.
“The field school in my locality started in late 2018 with 45 participants,” says Joseph. “First, the farmers decided which crop they wanted to cultivate and learn more about: maize, soybeans, or sunflowers. Then they divided into groups and began preparing their demonstration plots of 20 by 20 meters.”
Revitalizing the soil to take pressure off forests
Zambia’s Eastern Province has high levels of poverty among its population of 1.9 million, the majority of whom depend on agriculture and natural resources for their livelihoods. Here, the farmers typically work their small plots using traditional methods of slash and burn agriculture. With this system, known as chitemene, farmers clear woodlots for planting. In a few years when the soil loses fertility, the farmers move to another area.
In the past, when farmers grew a variety of crops like cassava, maize, sorghum and millet, these rotating chitemene fields had enough time to lay fallow and replenish before farmers planted in the same area again. Today, as farmers switch from more traditional crop rotations to monoculture (often maize to be sold as a cash crop), soil is depleted of its nutrients more quickly, thus speeding up the continued expansion of planting areas and putting more pressure on surrounding forests and biodiversity.
Using the techniques learned from the field school, farmers are learning how they can remain on the same plot longer and increase their yields with a lower impact to the local ecosystems. The program is also teaching new practices such as rainwater harvesting and using drought resistant crop varieties.
Farmers are also learning how to increase yields and more sustainably manage their fields through methods like minimum tillage, crop rotation and the use of legumes to fix nitrogen in the soil. These practices all help keep plots fertile for longer, which means farmers don’t have to expand growing areas as quickly to make room for new plots, thereby helping to prevent forests being cut down for agricultural use.