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

Interview with Diomedes Kalisa: "Our only option is to protect the gift of biodiversity"

Diomedes Kalisa is the ACP MEAs 3 programme coordinator for Tanzania, where he grew up in a smallholder farming family that practiced agroforestry: mixing crops, trees and animals and using no chemical pesticides or fertilizers. He says this system supported his family and the entire community while protecting a thriving environment that was rich in biodiversity.

DK: Our main crop was bananas, which we intercropped with coffee. We kept cattle and pigs, and grew seasonal food crops such as cassava, maize, beans, yams, local varieties of tomatoes, eggplant, and sugar cane. We also had mango, citrus, and guava trees, and palm trees from which we made palm oil for cooking.

As well, we grew herbal shrubs in different layers, from which we extracted traditional medicines and natural pesticides. The farm was surrounded by trees that provided fodder for our goats and sheep, as well as firewood and timber for building houses.

Among its many benefits, our mixed farming system controlled erosion and kept the soil fertile. We had enough highly nutritious, chemical-free food to support a family of 10 throughout the year.

It may seem like a joke, but the first time I ever set eyes on a chemical fertilizer was when I went to secondary school. On our farm, all we did was apply animal dung and composite manure to fertilize our land. This provided a wealth of microorganisms that kept our soil healthy and productive, and it also maintained conducive habitats for a wide range of pollinators and natural enemies of different pests.

We must protect and conserve the gift of biodiversity

Biodiversity makes farming possible: it ensures functioning ecosystems that supply oxygen, clean air and water, plant pollination, pest control, soil formation and protection, nutrient storage and recycling, and much more.

Sometimes we may need to ask ourselves, why do we look healthy and happy? The smiles on our faces would not be possible without a diversity of plant, animal, insect and fish species to provide us with nutritious food. This leaves us with no option but to protect and conserve the gift of biodiversity by all possible means.

With this in mind the ACP MEAs 3 project comes at the right time for Tanzania, which is one of the 12 mega-diverse countries in the world in terms of biodiversity. This wealth of plant and animal species contributes significantly to people's livelihoods and to the country on a socio-cultural, economic and environmental level. However as is the case in many other countries, it is being threatened by unsustainable farming practices.

The problem is that while Tanzania has put in place policies and strategies for environmental conservation, the sustainable use of biodiversity and pesticide risk reduction, in many cases they're not implemented on the ground due to scarce resources. 

ACP MEAs 3 helps close that gap. Through farmer field schools, it gives smallholder food producers hands-on experience in ecosystem-based practices and biodiversity-friendly agriculture on their land. These practices include agroforestry, woodlot management, and push-pull technology to reduce reliance on pesticides.

The project also builds the technical capacity of extension officers — those who transmit the policies from the government to the field, and who are in touch with the farmers. A knowledgeable field officer can make the difference between a farmer adopting or not adopting a more environmentally friendly technique that will also ensure food security for the community.

ACP MEAs 3 is working on several fronts in Tanzania. One of them is reducing risks from highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) and promoting safer alternatives to protect pollinators and soil biodiversity in general. We are also promoting beekeeping, especially among women. The idea is to diversify their livelihoods and generate income for food and nutrition security, while also supporting pollinators and sustainable forest management. We plan to work with at least six women's groups, totalling 180 members.

Farmers "ask challenging questions"

In my experience farmers are always inquisitive and ask a lot of challenging questions. Unless you are well prepared, you may find yourself losing focus and end up with a lot of frustrations. In the course of over 10 years in the field of pesticide risk reduction, I have come to realize that it's not easy to convince farmers to shift to biological alternatives, which may not deliver the same immediate results as chemicals.

So it is our job to explain that the alternatives are very effective in the longer term, that they will eventually kill damaging insects and protect crops, and that unlike toxic pesticides, they will not harm the farmers' health during spraying, pollute the environment, or affect the health of consumers.

Farmers also ask about the availability and the cost of alternative pesticides. We reply that yes, they are in the shops and they may be a little more expensive, but their advantages outweigh those of chemical pesticides. Another option we talk to them about is how to prepare their own bio-pesticides with local materials, such as oil from neem plants, cattle urine and ashes.

It's a slow process, but in Tanzania some of the farmers are beginning to see that the alternatives are better if they want to stay healthy, access external markets for their products, and protect their land for the benefit of their children.