(a commentary on a WLE blog post by Deborah Bossio, CIAT)
Can poor farmers afford to invest in restoring degraded soils?
This is a rhetorical question. When posed in this way, the answer should be a big NO.
The state of urgency in which poor smallholders live in many parts of rural Africa prevents investments in anything that will not yield immediate benefits. It prevents investments, full stop, especially where land tenure is not secured.
When farmers can make an investment, they prioritise the education of their children as a long-term strategy to move away from agriculture. Most smallholders in rural Africa are not farming by choice, and many of them considered themselves to be ‘unemployed’ rather than farmers.
But what if we are able to offer options to restore soils and ecosystems while ensuring short-term benefits and support farmers, even financially, during such a transition? What if farmers can get other rewards from restoring their landscapes, not only economic but also social, and even spiritual, through engaging in collective action within their communities? Utopia? Just see an example from Brazil’s agroecology movements on this video:
Assuming that smallholder farmers are unbiased utility maximizers that make decisions led exclusively by a short-term cost-benefit rationale is a big mistake. Incentives to restore degraded land may arise too from a sense of belonging, from social recognition, from concerns about a family’s future, or from sheer pride. It takes much more than just the mere promise of higher yields to motivate farmers to restore their soils.
(And, finally, why are we so ready to consider fertiliser subsidies but not prepared to think of smart subsidy mechanisms to foster diversification? For example, subsidies that can absorb the transaction and transition costs of implementing knowledge-intensive agroecological practices that were repeatedly shown to work on African soils…)