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

Interview with Francesca Mancini: “Witnessing the magic journey that starts with a seed in the field.”

Francesca Mancini is a tropical agronomist with 22 years' experience in promoting sustainable agriculture in Asia, Africa and now the Pacific, where she is the regional coordinator for the ACP MEAs 3 programme. She grew up in a family of hard working, value-based people who believe that the younger generation could change things. Her passion is the field: working with farmers on the ground and in nature.

FM: I have always been fascinated by tropical forests and landscapes. While attending university, my interest evolved to embrace ecology and social development science. The Sad Tropics by Claude Lévi-Strauss, a first trip to Benin in 1994 and the lessons of a few great professors in Florence opened my eyes to the rest of the world.

I spent eight years in India, where I worked with cotton farmers day after day, during every cotton season. I witnessed the magic journey that starts with a seed in the field, but also the extreme vulnerability of farmers’ livelihoods to any adverse event. It made me realise the need to build an agricultural sector that is more just and resilient.

The rise of monocultures means less fertility, resilience

In the Solomon Islands, which is our focus country for ACP MEAs 3, there are three types of agriculture: smallholder subsistence farming, smallholder commercial farming, and large-scale commercial farming.

Most rural households in the Pacific Islands are classified as smallholder subsistence farmers. This means they sell the occasional surplus food crop and small amounts of cocoa and coconut products, predominantly copra. Specialty crops targeting niche markets include coffee, kava, vanilla, spices and indigenous nuts, but volumes are low and erratic.

In traditional subsistence farming, food comes from gardens planted close to the villages as well as forests, mangroves, reefs, the sea, rivers, plantations, nut groves, swamps, and agro-forests around the village and in the bush.

However, these systems are increasingly under pressure due to shorter fallow periods, longer cropping periods, and the increased use of fire instead of traditional mulching practices. These practices are diminishing the fertility of the soil.

In addition, the expansion of cash crops such as coconut, tea, and cocoa close to the villages has meant shifting the food gardens to more distant and steeper land, which in turn means women’s workload got tougher.

The Solomon Islands like the rest of the Pacific Island nations are primary centers of biodiversity. The subregion, where land makes up less than 2 percent of the total area, includes some of the richest and most diverse terrestrial and marine ecosystems on the planet. This rich agro-biodiversity heritage includes the indigenous and local knowledge on which its survival depends.

However, it is being threatened by environmental and economic pressures from the farming sector, because it is transitioning from traditional, biodiverse and integrated systems to more industrial paradigms based on monocultures of a few cash crops, overexploitation of land, uncontrolled clearing of forests, and invasive alien species.

Departing from traditional diversified farming has also meant an increased dependence on imported food to meet domestic demand, which in some countries is as high as 80%. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown the vulnerability of societies that rely primarily on imports for food security.

Building capacity for stronger economies, better health

The majority of the Pacific countries have taken important steps to embed the conservation and efficient use of biodiversity into their national strategies, but the capacity to implement these strategies is widely lacking. 

So in our focus country, which is the Solomon Islands, we will work with grassroots organizations to promote organic farming and capacity building for producers. Another area that has come up for evaluation is ecosystem services and monitoring: we want to contribute to a national survey on agro-biodiversity.

As well, the ACP MEAs 3 programme is supporting the recently endorsed Agriculture Sector Growth Strategy and Investment Plan for 2021-2030, which integrates biodiversity.

Multiple benefits are expected from biodiversity conservation and restoration. They include enhanced economic growth, better nutrition and health, more resilience to climate change, less pollution and  stronger environmental governance.

Protecting and restoring the biodiversity that underlies agricultural productivity is expected to build food sovereignty through locally produced, diversified foods and reduce reliance on imports in the wake of the pandemic. Another objective is biosecurity, which means better management of transboundary pests and diseases and invasive alien species.

Other planned activities include preparatory meetings for CBD COP15 and cross-sectorial collaboration on the post 2020 framework. We have also started conceptualising a joint technical publication series involving FAO, the Secretariat for the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), and The Pacific Community (SPC) on integrated systems and, possibly, the evaluation of ecosystem services to guide the region in meeting the new commitments. 

Find out more about ACP MEAs activities in the Pacific here.