Enhancing Food Security, Increasing Coastal Resilience

Enhancing Food Security, Increasing Coastal Resilience
June 4, 2018 1:55 pm Blog

Integrated Rice–Mangrove Cultivation brings Renewed Hope to Farmers.

Rice–mangrove integration, also known as rice agro–silviculture, is a best practice employed in several African countries such as The Gambia, Guinea and Senegal as a smart way of sustaining food security while increasing resilience to climate impacts and promoting biodiversity conservation. In other countries, this practice concentrates on rehabilitating abandoned rice farms and managing soil and water. The USAID/West Africa’s Biodiversity and Climate Change Program (WA BiCC) approach involves planting mangroves on the edges of rice farms to prevent the loss of farmland and crops to erosion as well as to protect crops from pests. This initiative was piloted in 2017 in selected communities in Sierra Leone’s coastal areas. The intervention initially met a great deal of apprehension from community members. But now, eight months into the pilot program, beneficiary-farmers are beginning to see the potential for rice-mangrove integration.

A climate change vulnerability assessment, conducted by WA BiCC in the coastal landscape of Sierra Leone in 2016, revealed that about 1% of mangrove forests in the Sierra Leone Coastal Landscape Complex are depleted annually. The main drivers of this change are clearing of mangroves for rice farming, sand mining, and cutting of mangrove wood for fish-smoking and construction, among others. Coastal communities rely on these activities for livelihood purposes, and convincing people to stop cutting down mangroves requires the availability of alternative solutions.

Rice farms fenced by cut mangrove sticks
Old Method: Rice farms fenced by cut mangrove sticks

Cutting down mangroves for rice cultivation poses a significant threat to the coastal environment in Sierra Leone. For instance, clearing mangroves for rice farming in the Scarcies coastal area, located to the North of Freetown, resulted in the loss of about 25% of mangroves over a 26-year period. At the same time, while communities are clearing mangroves to expand farms, rising sea levels and strong water currents increasingly erode the newly exposed land, reducing available farm land and threatening food security. This reduction in farm size perpetuates a vicious cycle as communities must continually remove mangrove forests to expand their farms. Due to erosion and other factors negatively impacting rice farming, such as debris from adjacent farms washing over farms and large fish and manatees feeding on planted rice, farmers respond by cutting down small mangrove trees and branches to build protective fences at the edge of their farms. Collecting this additional wood is time consuming and often very laborious, with some farmers traveling up to 4km at times to locate desired materials, using only hand-paddled canoes.

Demonstrating Rice Mangrove Cultivation
Demonstrating Rice Mangrove Cultivation
Demonstrating Rice Mangrove Cultivation
Demonstrating Rice Mangrove Cultivation

The practice involves planting mangrove strips at a width of one (1) meter along the edges of rice farms and, as the trees grow, they provide a natural, living barrier to buffer the farms against external threats and reduce the need to cut and collect additional wood for temporary barriers. After a series of discussions with communities to assess these challenges to coastal farming and identify possible solutions, a group of farmers agreed to work with WA BiCC to introduce and pilot the rice–mangrove agro–silvicultural concept in the Sierra Leone Coastal Landscape Complex, one of WA BiCC’s focal learning landscapes. In August 2017, WA BiCC began a campaign to pilot this practice in the Bonthe-Sherbro Region to the South of Sierra Leone.  Four coastal communities in Bonthe District, Yargoi, Momaya, Keiga, and Borpu, were selected for piloting to see how community members might adopt this practice before scaling it up to the wider landscape. WA BiCC held sensitization workshops, radio discussions and a community-to-community visit to measure farm size as well as to train community members on the rice–mangrove practice.

Rice Farm Fenced by planting mangroves
New method: Planting Mangroves at the edge of rice farms

During the sensitization campaign, various reasons for pessimism and optimism were recorded. There was push back from some members citing reasons such as “…planting mangroves along our farms will invite primates and birds to nest on the trees, giving them easy access to destroy our rice.” The most intriguing challenge was the widespread belief that WA BiCC was not telling them the full story. Explanations that this activity and others were for conservation and the sustainability of their livelihoods were often met with incredulity. In some instances, they bluntly or subtly demanded financial compensation for participation.

Fortunately, it was not all gloom, as some farmers readily agreed to try this practice on their farms. 8 months after the initial sensitization and training, WA BiCC was back in the field to assess progress with 23 farmers who had agreed to implementation. Assessments of these farms show the health of the young mangroves and the farmers are excited about the fact that they have no need to go back into the forest to cut sticks to fence their farms. Mariama, a farmer in Keiga, pointed out that, “After planting the mangroves, I realized that it was really good for me because previously I used to go to the bush to cut trees to use as fence to protect my rice from seaweed. Now I know that planting mangroves is of a good benefit to me as I don’t have to travel to the forests for trees every year.”

Mariama, rice farmer practicing agrosilviculture
Mariama, rice farmer in Keiga practicing agrosilviculture

Even more exciting is the seeds of inspiration that these few optimists have planted to the community. Some of the farmers who initially decided not to adopt this practice are now starting to see the benefits of this practice and plan on initiating it on their farms come August this year. Lamine, a rice farmer in Borpu said: “I have decided to start this practice this coming planting season because our lands are getting narrow, one of our brothers by the name of Mr. Amara came to us in 2017 and told us about this WABICC program of planting mangroves and we refused but they came again in 2018 and we have now agreed to do the same as our brothers are now seeing real benefits. We want to benefit too!”

Lamine from Borpu, pledging to start the practice the coming season
Lamine from Borpu, pledging to start the practice the coming season

 Sally from Keiga admitted: “I did not start the practice of rice–mangrove integration because I did not see the direct benefits at the first instance. But I’m now noticing that my peers who started this initiative are no longer going out to cut sticks to protect their farms from unwanted debris and animal pests. This is a significant benefit which is going to attract me to start this rice–mangrove activity.”

 Although only 55% of the farmers who pledged in 2017 implemented this practice, our assessments of those farmers who did and the testimonies from potential adopters give hope that more farmers will take up the practice in the coming year, and that the seeds of a sustainable practice that provides multiple benefits will sprout and grow beyond the limited life-span of WA BiCC. Capacity building efforts have successfully enabled these farmers to implement the practice with minimal supervision and monitoring, as well as to train their neighbors to try the approach in the coming planting season. This means that in the next couple of years when WA BiCC has completed its work in the region, there will be local champions to continue this practice and hopefully it will become a tradition passed on from one generation to the next.

This activity is thus a potential win-win approach for the farmers as well as the ecosystem. If adopted at a large scale, the practice has the potential to transform the practice of cultivating rice on flood plains in mangrove habitat. In addition to protecting and stabilizing farms, the living mangroves provide habitat for fish spawning, crabs, oysters and other species, further increasing food security and increased incomes for local communities, while reducing the erosion of soil and arable farm land. Adopting this practice holds the promise of promoting food security and biodiversity conservation in the region.

Mapping farms to record progress from the practice
Mapping farms to record progress from the practice
Mapping farms to record progress from the practice
Mapping farms to record progress from the practice