Learning from farmers in Southwest Cameroon
By Elizabeth Kahurani
A characteristic of the ASB Partnership project meetings is a field trip that helps to combine the sharing of ideas and presentations in the meeting room with a field tour to expose participants to practical action on the ground in the different REALU sites.
During this year’s REALU (Reducing Emissions from All Land Uses) project planning meeting held in Douala, Cameroon, the field trip involved a visit to cocoa and rubber farmers in Muyuka; as well as a tree nursery initiative supported by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in the seaside city of Limbe, Southwest Cameroon.
We set off for the 42km or so journey from Douala to Muyuka very early in the morning, opting to have packed breakfast while on our way. The ride is an incredible treat to the country’s agro ecological wealth of unending banana plantain, rows of rubber and palm oil plantations, diverse forest mosaics and the towering Mt. Cameroon, which is the highest peak in West and Central Africa.
Our first stop is to a Cocoa farmers’ field school where we are ushered in with song and dance. The farmers here belong to the Malende Farmers’ Cooperative that was formed after they went through the farmers field school (FFS) two years ago.
They explain the integrated crop and pest management techniques that they learned from the school. “Applying the farm management techniques I have learned from the school has helped me to drastically reduce the use of pesticides in my cocoa farm, and I have had a much higher produce,” explains Atabong Alexander who noted that before attending FFS, he would use up to 3,000grams of pesticide per hectare on his cocoa farm but now only uses about 1000grams at most. “My cost of input has really gone down,” he says.
According to Ewane Nathalie of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, FFS is an initiative under the Sustainable Tree Crops Program (STCP), which is a collaboration between various stakeholders geared towards improving smallholder agricultural systems based on tree crops in West and Central Africa. The program ensures wider outreach and sustainability by encouraging those who go through the school to share what they learn with their neighbors.
This is confirmed by a visit to a cocoa farmer who is experiencing an upsurge in his production because his FFS graduate neighbor has passed on the skills and techniques on better farm and pest management. “Some of the techniques I have learned from my neighbor include pruning of branches to allow more light into the farm, frequent harvesting and less use of pesticides. Applying this has given me better results,” explains Ngwa Clement.
We appreciate the impact of the FFS school by comparing cocoa farms that are managed using the skills and techniques garnered from the school with those that do not, and there are remarkable differences in plot cleanliness, as the later have a lot of weed in their plots and parasitic plants on the branches, as well as a thick canopy of the cocoa branches that shields light from streaming in.
Many factors about this group of farmers including the gender balance leave us quite impressed. “What I find unique about the FFS program is the farmer to farmer learning involved. This is a more effective and sustainable approach as farmers understand each other’s language best. It is different from when farmers have ‘experts’ advising them on what to do,” noted Lalisa Duguma, ASB Partnership Post-Doctoral Fellow.
In our discussions with the farmers, they express the need for more information to help them understand and appreciate the importance of having trees on farm, especially because trees take a long time (some up to 40 years) to mature and to yield any benefits such as timber sales. Another factor which seems to hinder motivation to have trees on farms is the policy on tree tenure in Cameroon where farmers do not have express rights to trees on their land. According to related ASB research in Cameroon, “the Central government owns all natural growing trees including those on farmlands.” (http://www.asb.cgiar.org/PDFwebdocs/CAMEROON_REALU.pdf).
Our next stop is to a rubber plantation farm. We learn that growing rubber requires huge investments in terms of time and resources. Studies estimate that a total of US$ 2000 is needed to establish rubber plantation in a one hectare piece of land and it takes a minimum of ten years before the plantations mature. As such, rubber farming is out of reach for the majority of Cameroon’s smallholder farmers and most of the rubber farms are established and managed by the Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC).
However, Abbi Andreas, a farmer who runs a rubber plantation farm under the CDC tells us that the initial investment is worth it and benefits from the harvest far outweigh the waiting period. This is especially so because once they mature, the rubber trees require minimum inputs, for example weeding takes place only twice a year.
Good Friends Nursery is our final stop. This is a group of farmers that have been assisted by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) to establish a tree nursery with varieties appropriate to their soil and climate environment. The group has integrated the plants in their farming systems as well as sold to other farmers within their community. The initiative has not disappointed. According to Foncha Francis, the leader of the group, profits accrued have enabled them to buy more land to expand the nursery. It has also resulted to improved living standards for the group members and their families.
“We hope this model can be replicated extensively among farmer groups and networks as it is one effective means of fighting poverty while promoting environmental conservation,” notes Ebenezar Asaah of ICRAF West and Central Africa region.
On our journey back to Douala, the farmer’s experiences and their success at implementing techniques to manage their farms and environment better give us renewed determination to engage in research that adds meaning, value and results to their work.