forest agroecology comoros

Dense forest cover protects the soil from erosion and maintains fertility

Agroecology refers to systems of agriculture that conserve the land and increase yields through respecting ecological principles and learning from nature.

Tropical forest cover maintains fertile soil through recycling nutrients and protecting the soil from erosion and desiccation by the sun, wind and rain. If trees are cleared for agriculture, the soil is left exposed and loses fertility quickly, as has happened in areas of Anjouan which have turned to padza: eroded and unusable land. Agroecology is about growing crops in ways that protect the soil and its fertility, allowing improved and sustainable production over long periods, as well as the protection of natural resources.

Agroforestry, the integration of trees into cultivation systems, is a key component of an agroecological approach in the Comoros. Different trees can have different uses, whether for soil and water retention, for supplying fruits, for forage for livestock, or as cash crops such as ylang-ylang or cloves. Another system used in Anjouan involves growing crops such as bananas and taro under the shade of the forest understory, and cutting big forest trees when in need of cash from timber.

The project started by copying agroforestry techniques, aimed mainly at preventing erosion, which were introduced in the Niumakele region in the south of Anjouan in the 1980s and have shown impressive results. These involve planting cuttings of fast-growing trees around the edge of fields and along the contour lines. The roots of these ‘hedges’ fertilise and hold onto the soil, preventing erosion and nutrient loss, the leaves serve as forage, and the enclosure helps farmers protect their fields from theft. Once the soil is stabilised through these erosion barriers, manure from livestock, compost and crop rotations can be introduced to increase the fertility of the soil and improve yields in both the short and long terms.

As of June 2012, the project has supported over 750 farmers with these techniques.

Examples of live (left) and dead (right) soil covers as part of agroecology techniques.

Another important principle in agroecology is to ensure that the soil is constantly covered, fertilised and protected in ways that mimic the leaf-litter and undergrowth layers of a forest. This is a technique called “semis sur couverture végétale” or SCV which was developed in Brazil and has since been introduced to Madagascar. The idea is that the soil should never be left bare, as this leaves it vulnerable to erosion. Soil cover can be dead, in the form of leaf mulches, or live, using specially selected cover plants which grow underneath or among crops, protecting the soil and recycling nutrients.

In many areas of Madagascar traditional agricultural techniques have led to the degradation of soil and other natural resources, as well as declining yields. SCV techniques were introduced in X and have since shown impressive results throughout the country. Farmers using SCV produce better yields, are freed from a lot of intensive labour (as they don’t need to weed or work the soil, crops need less fertiliser and there are fewer pests) and reduce soil erosion.

Towards the end of 2011, the ECDD project started testing SCV techniques in Anjouan through our partnership with AVSF.  Initially, cover crops were grown at our experimentation plot, and then introduced to demonstration plots in the villages. Project technicians work intensively with a small number of farmers in each village in order to put in place the best examples of the techniques and their results as a demonstration to other villagers. Our outreach and engagement programme involves bringing groups to visit these fields to see for themselves how the techniques work and what the benefits are.  As of mid-2012 we have put in place over 40 demonstration plots. A communications programme is being developed to use the results of these tests as a basis to encourage roll-out of the techniques within the project intervention zone in the second half of 2012, and later more widely within the Comoros.