Building capacity related to Multilateral Environmental Agreements in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP MEAs 3)

Interview with Ivy Saunyama: “I call myself a champion for sustainable development.”

An entomologist by training, Ivy Saunyama is the ACP MEAs 3 regional coordinator for Africa and has 25 years’ professional experience in pest and pesticide management. Growing up on her parents’ maize, dairy and poultry farm sparked her love of nature: at 14 she knew she wanted to work in natural resource management. Today she is very passionate about empowering farmers to produce more food with less risk.

IS: I grew up exposed to mixed farming systems and I think they work very well for household food and nutrition security: we never went lacking and we always had a very balanced diet. We had three-course meals, and most of our food was home grown.

I particularly have a soft spot for smallholder farmers and would like to see them empowered to play a key role in ensuring food and nutrition security, healthy communities and biodiversity conservation. Outside work, my hobbies include community and advocacy projects involving children. These are things that I do because I feel it’s best to catch them young.

If you don’t implement, the problems remain

The MEAs are there for a very good reason: first and foremost to safeguard the environment, to ensure that we use our biodiversity sustainably and that there is sound chemicals management so that we avoid risk to human health and the environment. Most countries in my region have ratified these conventions. But it’s one thing to ratify, and another thing to implement. If you don’t implement, the problems remain. And this is where we are.

We are battling rapid erosion of biodiversity. We have increasing agrochemical use, translating into more severe impacts on the environment and human health, pollution of water and soil. Pollinators are dying — yet we are saying our countries have ratified these conventions. So we really need to strengthen how the countries implement these MEAs.

ACP MEAs 3 does this by fostering cross-sectoral collaboration. For example, we talked to private sector players who say we really want to produce safer alternatives to agrochemicals that are not as harsh on the environment — but there is no market for them, and the existing policies are very pro-agrochemical.

In talking to farmers, when we say, “You should diversify your production, you should as much as possible embrace agro-ecological practices” the feedback we get is: “We don’t have people to direct us on that. The technologies are not there.”

Another issue is that existing policies make it appear as if the softer techniques are “backward”. If you rely on your indigenous knowledge and the old practices which were kinder on the environment it means you are backward, because there is a lot of hype on monocultures and promoting hybrid crops, and disregarding crop and animal biodiversity. So cross-sectoral collaboration means bringing these stakeholders together to work on these issues, and finding solutions.

Without evidence, it will be the status quo

If I tell you that you have to eat sustainably produced food, you will ask me why. So we must give evidence. Whenever we say that something works, we need to demonstrate that these practices are healthy and profitable. This is especially true for farmers. Farming is a livelihood, and 70% of the population in Africa relies on agriculture for their livelihoods. So it has to have returns for them.

MEAs 3 works on these aspects: incentives and evidence, for example by linking farmers to markets for sustainably produced goods. We have to produce the evidence to raise awareness and influence policies. Without the evidence, it will be the status quo.

Closing capacity gaps

One barrier to sound implementation of the MEAs is that there is no capacity. The environment is just not conducive, it is not enabling. So under the ACP MEAs 3 program, a lot goes into creating enabling environments.

For example, enabling farmers to adopt sustainable production practices that don’t rely so much on the agrochemicals that erode our biodiversity.

It also builds capacity for extension staff, who are on the frontlines with the farmers: right now their resources talk about modern agriculture, monocultures. And in terms of resilience and conserving biodiversity, monocultures are not healthy.

So we need to provide them with the tools to embrace sustainable practices. And MEAs 3 is developing guidance documents for extension staff, pesticide regulators, farmers, and small and medium enterprises that are working on pest management alternatives.

Safer alternatives for human health

The reality is that we are fast losing our biodiversity. There is a lot of pollution and people are dying —- from both short-term and long-term poisoning. Chronic diseases like cancer are on the rise on the African continent, and some of the pesticides that are currently in use are known carcinogens.

So within MEAs 3 we work with countries that have shown they want to phase out HHPs and phase in safer alternatives, such as biological pesticides and integrated pest management, where we rely on nature itself to grow healthy plants. If we have to use pesticides we make sure to use the least toxic ones, and only as a last resort. Otherwise, rely on the system itself to remedy itself.

Deforestation is also a big issue, and through ACP MEAs 3 we promote agroforestry and diversified farming to restore landscapes and tree cover.

One very good case study is the Chaga community: historically, they have practiced a multi-tiered farming system at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro. On the same plot of land they grow coffee, avocado, bananas and vegetables, and also keep some dairy cows. In one corner they’ll have pools where they breed fish and in another corner they’ll have poultry. This mixed farming model works very well for resilience and household food and nutrition security, and we will try to replicate it wherever possible.

Regional collaboration for scale: a unique feature of MEAs

In Africa we have a scarcity when it comes to human, technical and financial resources. So our model is to promote collaboration through the regional economic communities and to harmonise it as far as possible, especially when it comes to pesticide management.

Regional collaboration is a top priority for Africa. It’s a model we have been using since MEAs 2 and we will continue to do so under MEAs 3. I think it allows for scale — it’s easy to make a broader impact when you work with countries collectively through regional collaboration. This is a unique feature of the MEAs program, and it’s our strength.

Find out more about ACP MEAs activities in Africa here.