Survival of indigenous communities and forests amidst the pandemic

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This blog post is written by Anudini Wijayarathna, Master’s student in Rural Development & Natural Resource Management at SLU.

Image by cultur668 from Pixabay

‘Impacts of the pandemic on forest communities and forest resource use – what do we know, what do we need to know and how to find out?’ have been one of the most enlightening discussions that I have participated in. It was a dialogue co-arranged by Focali (Forest, Climate and Livelihood research network) and SIANI (Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative).

It’s been around a year since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged worldwide. Yet, the impacts of it will extend over many years. Currently, there are various entities that are deeply impacted by the pandemic globally as well as nationally.  Forest resources and forest communities can be considered as one of them. Most importantly, the world is still in the process of identifying the extent of these implications. This dialogue has been an instrumental platform in creating awareness on that. However, my attention was grabbed particularly by the discussion on the disruptions that occurred in the livelihoods of indigenous people.

Absence of state and regressive actions of the governments

Having forest-based livelihoods, indigenous communities are affected by the pandemic in different ways. To a certain extent, the pandemic has been a positive cause of livelihoods for some of the indigenous communities. They got the chance to depend more on the forest resources as there are fewer external activities functioning within the forests due to lockdowns. Nevertheless, for some indigenous communities, the pandemic has been a cause of destruction.

In this event, Ricardo Camilo Niño Izquierdo, Technical Secretary of the Indigenous Secretariat of the National Commission for Indigenous Territories, Colombia and Keyla Barrero, Anthropologist, National University of San Marcos, Peru, shared their views on how the pandemic has affected the indigenous communities. According to their experience, the indigenous people are subjected to negligence with insufficient health care and sanitation by the state during the nationwide lockdowns.

The absence of state governing authorities in the forest territories during the lockdowns allowed powerful actors to expand their illicit activities. Those are illegal logging, use of land for illegal plantations, presence of armed groups, drug trafficking etc. These activities aggravated deforestation in 2020 in comparison to the previous years. Moreover, there has been a significant increase in human rights violations of indigenous communities, which sometimes ends up in murdering them.

The situation becomes worse when the governments are trying to overcome the ongoing financial crisis through detrimental policies and actions towards the forest resources. Renewal of mining and excessive extraction of resources by the authorities is such an instance that threatens the sustainability of the livelihoods. In addition to that, indigenous people who are not yet given proper land titles or tenures, get further suppressed when the local governments endorse illegal invaders to occupy the forests. Lack of effective policies and excluding indigenous community representation in the government consultation procedures has also been a stimulating factor for this vulnerable situation.

Ultimately, all these activities cause not only the deterioration of indigenous people’s livelihoods but also many other destructive consequences such as degradation of natural resources and climate and increase of global hunger and poverty. Thus, reaching UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 has become an immense challenge to the whole world.

For a brighter future

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Under such circumstances, it is a dire need to put forward remedial measures to decrease these vulnerabilities. Yet, identifying the needful actions to overcome these issues is the toughest among all. I believe, primarily it is important at this stage to lay a legal framework to ensure indigenous communities’ land tenure and to include them in the government consultation in policy making.

As discussed in the dialogue, it is also crucial to strengthen the local capacity building on merging the voice of indigenous and local communities. I consider this kind of effort will be essential to involve indigenous people and their lay-knowledge in local sustainable development efforts such as smallholder farming and plantations. It will be beneficial to upgrade the livelihoods as well as to promote sustainable use of ecosystems. In order to make the procedure more effective, the researchers and practitioners also need to collaborate in building knowledge and applying it in implementation.

Apart from that, creating public awareness continuously through global partnerships on the challenges and opportunities for indigenous communities is also needful for the long-term survival of indigenous communities as well as the forests. Accordingly, strengthening indigenous communities will not be merely an effort of uplifting indigenous livelihoods but also a part of green recovery. However, in order to see a brighter future, the implementation strategies of these remedial measures might have to be shaped according to the situation while aiming towards sustainable development.

Embracing a better future through school feeding

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This blog post is written by Anudini Wijayarathna, intern at SLU Global & Master’s student in Rural Development & Natural Resource Management at SLU. The content is based on her experience in participating in a Committee on World Food Security (CFS) 47 Side Event and thoughts on it.

Having participated in the CFS 47 Side Event on ‘How COVID-19 affected school feeding programmes and how to strengthen them post-COVID, including through home-grown school meals’, I realised the importance of having a school meal system. Besides, I have been able to contemplate the necessity of prioritising school feeding even amidst a scenario where schools are closed and students are getting adapted to distance learning currently.  

Providing school meals has been one of the main prevailing initiatives to ensure food security for children. Thus, I believe school meal programmes can be considered as a vital step taken by several countries to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal ‘Zero Hunger’.

School meals as a factor beyond food security

In the event, different international professionals with hands-on experience spoke about many positive impacts on the society by school meals, beyond ensuring food security. Ville Skinnari, Minister for Development Cooperation and Global Trade, Finland, said; “Providing nutritious food in schools is among the best investments for the future”. Evidence gathered from Finland indicates that “school meals produce high returns in terms of education results, gender equality, health, social protection and economic and agricultural development”. The minister highlighted that, Finland suffered from poverty after World War II and had low literacy rates. In such a situation, school feeding became a transformative innovation to attract children to schools and to increase their literacy rate.  He also emphasised that, school meals in Finland provide one-third of a person’s daily nutrition requirement.

The discussion among the practitioners further revealed that the school meal is a key factor to initiate especially girls’ education. Indirectly, school feeding programmes have also become significant in reducing female child marriages and teenage pregnancies. Additionally, providing nutritious school meals is also a crucial matter of uplifting the nutrition status among girls.

Furthermore, Samuel Mulinda, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education, Rwanda stated, “having a meal in the school is a right to every child within the government of Rwanda” and it has been nearly a decade since Rwanda initiated school feeding. Recently, they embraced a new policy to expand the school feeding system in the basic education levels. A new scheme includes a procurement method to give easy access to purchase food from local smallholder farmers. Accordingly, school meals have become a source of stabilising the agricultural market system within the local economy.

Will it still be feasible during the pandemic?

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

While countries like Rwanda, Brazil, USA, Finland, India, and many others all over the globe are having different school feeding programmes, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world in 2020. Many governments had to shut down schools completely or partially for the safety of children. Yet, it wasn’t the end of school meals. Even if the schools shifted to distant learning, some countries modified their systems to maintain school feeding. The event unfolded how Finnish municipalities adopted providing in-kind food or food vouchers for children during the pandemic.

Moreover, Bruno Costa e Silva, National School Feeding Programme Analyst, National Fund for the Development of Education, Brazil, stated that Brazil implemented a programme to distribute school meals during the crisis. The involvement of municipalities and civil society organisations is remarkable in executing this programme. He also highlighted the significance of incorporating smallholder farming into the school feeding system. He described how in the state of Amazonas, food production and food supply for school feeding is continuous under family farming during the pandemic. It is also essential that public policy should be in favour of smallholder farming and home-grown school meals. Besides, Paola Barbieri, Project Analyst, Brazilian Cooperation Agency, drew attention to the important role played by South-South Cooperation in continuing school feeding programme in Brazil.

Furthermore, Lindsay Carter, Director, USDA McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, USA, spoke about the strategies utilised under the McGovern-Dole Program to stabilise school feeding in the needful countries. The programme is actively engaged in providing commodities and technical and financial assistance to school feeding. During the COVID-19 crisis, the McGovern-Dole Program shifted to distribution of take-home rations to children while monitoring the processes. Additionally, the programme upholds collaborating with national governments, local smallholder farmers and communities to safeguard school feeding.

Start, if there isn’t; Continue, if there is

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis followed by the pandemic definitely, providing school meals is a critical task especially, in the most fragile countries. Nevertheless, considering the numerous benefits that can be reached through school meals, I believe countries should consider continuing school feeding. In the countries where there were no school feeding programmes, it would be best to lay a stepping stone to start at least now. Specifically, in the countries where children are suffering from stunting, wasting, anemia and many other health issues due to malnutrition, initiating school feeding will be an extremely positive investment for the future.

When implementing the programmes, strategies may differ from country to country. However, as the experts in the event stressed out, school feeding programmes can be reached through national and global collaborations. I also firmly believe in the benefits of prioritising local smallholder farming and incorporate it into the school meal programme. Moreover, well-coordinated collaborations between intranational institutions are also essential to initiate such a scheme.

This way, we still can prepare to embrace the post-pandemic world with a healthy and educated generation. Nonetheless, it is up to us to decide how we are going to embrace the future. Are we going to give the future of the world to a weaker generation or to a stronger generation? I’m sure you’ll find it as food for thought.

Navigation towards food security and nutrition through a rice-based agri-food system

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This blog post is written by Anudini Wijayarathna, intern at SLU Global & Master’s student in Rural Development & Natural Resource Management at SLU. The content is based on her experience in participating a GOBESHONA (7th) Global Conference Session.

Image by Nandalal Sarkar from Pixabay 

I would not argue with the fact that life is not the same amidst this global pandemic affecting almost all the global citizens. Yet, I believe that acquiring knowledge should not be hindered by that. For me, it has been a great experience having the chance to participate in GOBESHONA Global Conference session on ‘Innovations in the Rice-based Agri-food Systems to improve Food Security and Nutrition’.

GOBESHONA (7th) Global Conference on ‘Locally Led Adaptation’ was hosted by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) online from 18 to 24January 2021. This particular conference session listed under the category of Food Security & Agriculture lead by Mahjabeen Rahman, programme coordinator, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) consisted of three presentations, out of which two drew my interest the most.

Ensuring food security while combating nutrition deficiency

The presentation; ‘Healthier rice for healthier future’ was presented by the affiliated personalities at the IRRI and Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI); Ibrahim Saiyed, Bangladesh Country Manager of Healthier Rice Program, Ahamed Salahuddin, Consultant and Syada Munia Hoque, Senior Specialist of Nutrition. They brought up the discussion on introducing ‘Golden Rice’ and ‘High Iron & Zinc Rice’ by IRRI to Bangladesh not only as a stimulating factor of food security, sustainable rural livelihoods, and economic development, but also as a solution to country’s prevailing micronutrient deficiency.

Golden Rice is developed by adding Beta carotene gene from yellow maize into ‘BRRI dhan29’, which is a high yielding rice variety already cultivating in Bangladesh. The Beta carotene gene in Golden Rice which converts into vitamin A in human body specifically addresses the substantial issue of vitamin A deficiency. The High Iron & Zinc Rice is formed through adding Ferritin-1 genes from apple, kidney bean and soybean into rice variety ‘BRRI dhan28’. The composition of High Iron & Zinc Rice results in high concentration of iron and zinc, which helps to tackle the iron and zinc deficiency amongst people in the country.

As a result of existing significant level of poverty or extreme poverty in Bangladesh where vulnerable people cannot afford a proper nutritious diet, subsequently the general public suffers from malnourishment. Since rice is a staple food in Bangladesh, the presentation upheld promoting Golden Rice and High Iron & Zinc Rice as it would be an ideal solution to combat so-called issues. Even though, a deployment strategy for these varieties of rice is arranged, dissemination of them among the agricultural sector is still under process of receiving regulatory approval.

The content was appreciated, as it is a constructive solution to fulfil the dire need of the country. Nevertheless, the question raised from the audience was, why this administration procedure in Bangladesh is still lagging behind in a context where, international actors like Australia and New Zealand (2017), USA and Canada (2018) and Philippine (2019) have already approved Golden Rice? It was even suggested that the IRRI should communicate and collaborate with the authorities to expedite the approval process. Besides, it was proposed to have more advocacy through scientific, research and policy education in promoting these varieties. Moreover, the requirement for an awareness discussion on the nutrition level of these rice varieties even after processing (polishing) and cooking was also depicted.

Acquiring food security through machine-sown Direct Seeded Rice

The next presentation; ‘Directly-sown rice to address labour and energy constraints to precision rice establishment’ was delivered by M. Murshedul Alam, Scientist, Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA)-III project, IRRI. He highlighted the ‘machine-sown Direct Seeded Rice (DSR) in Aus technique’ in rice cultivation as a possible solution to address the issues such as labour shortage, water scarcity etc, in Bangladesh. ‘Machine-sown DSR in Aus technique’ is a method of planting rice directly in the field by spreading seeds using machinery instead of transplanting. Transplanting is the traditional method, where the seeds are sown in a different place first and once the seedlings are ready, they will be planted in the puddled field manually or mechanically.

Several comparative evaluations were presented between different rice planting methods such as ‘machine sown DSR’, ‘hand broadcasted DSR’ and ‘manual transplantation’ in relation to the quantity of yields, landscape positions, labour use for land preparation etc. Accordingly, except in the lower landscape, ‘machine sown DSR in Aus technique’ was projected as the most probable alternative in both higher and medium landscapes in Bangladesh. This technique optimises the profit with a higher yield together with a lower requirement of water and labour.

Apart from that, CSISA-III is also involved in awareness raising programmes among the community regarding ‘DSR in Aus technique’ such as providing subsidy and conducting training on machinery usage etc. Thus, the usage of this technique was mostly acknowledged by the audience while highlighting the necessity of development in technology to cater sustainable agriculture and food security.

Manual transplanting on puddled soil. Image by Nandalal Sarkar from Pixabay 

Seeing a better future or not?

As a final remark, I view these attempts presented in these presentations as very much constructive propositions in dealing with food security and nutrition amongst all the challenges Bangladesh is currently undergoing. Especially, I also consider that, promoting Golden Rice and High Iron & Zinc Rice together with machine sown DSR in Aus technique within the agricultural sector are frugal and credible initiatives in expansion of a rice-based agri-food system in Bangladesh.

On the other hand, as I am having roots in Sri Lanka, I believe introducing Golden Rice and High Iron & Zinc Rice even to the rice cultivation and national diet in Sri Lanka, will be a healthier option to strengthen the country’s food security and nutrition more. Particularly because, Sri Lanka being located in the South Asian region same as Bangladesh, having similar tropical climate conditions, having almost the same monsoon rain-based rice cultivation seasons and with rice being a staple food in both countries I see the possibility of paving the way towards this alternative in Sri Lanka.

At the same time, I believe, these tasks will not be simple, especially because, adopting and adapting to these innovations among the general public seems time consuming. Thus, in order to realise them and to make them sustainable, a lot of stable groundwork have to be laid. Apart from that, health and food can be considered as interdependent entities. In order to be healthy one needs to have nutritious food whereas one who is not in good health has difficulties in accessing and utilising nutritious food. Therefore, accomplishment of all these initiatives will also depend on the success of the country in controlling Covid-19 pandemic as currently, it managed to destabilise the ordinary livelihoods of people, not only in Bangladesh but also in the whole world.

Can charcoal business be sustainable? Examples, challenges and opportunities in Africa.

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Written by Alin Kadfak, SIANI-SLU Global Communicator and Researcher at the Department of Urban and Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU. This article was first published by SIANI.

A trailer loaded with bags of charcoal coming from Nigeria and heading to Niamey
Photo: Anders Roos.

On 13 October 2020, The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), in partnership with the African Forest Forum (AFF) organised a webinar to discuss the opportunities for creating more sustainable charcoal value chains in Africa.

Growing population and urbanization increased charcoal consumption in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. Charcoal is an affordable energy source and generates rural jobs and incomes. However, the use of charcoal causes significant downfall of health due to indoor air pollution and slashing deforestation and forest degradation.

Eight scholars were invited to discuss the core question ‘What is required to promote charcoal value chains that provide affordable energy and rural income, without degrading the forest resources?’ and to provide their recent experiences of working in different countries in Sub Sahara Africa. Based on the discussion at the webinar, this article gathers four key considerations for developing sustainable charcoal production and consumption.

Unpacking the value chain

The life cycle of the charcoal business is full of uncertainties. Who is involved in different processes of charcoal production and marketing?  How many hectares of forest are being cut? What is the difference between the selling price and the costs of production, including the raw material components? These questions can be addressed by following the charcoal value chain, from harvesting and production, to transportation, wholesale retail and to consumption.

This approach doesn’t only allow us to unpack the values of each step, but also makes the hidden actors visible. Such hidden actors include, for instance, illegal woodcutters, who are often migrant workers from neighboring countries, or international companies investing in charcoal production in the region, or women who work as charcoal traders or even a local cartel. According to Anders Roos, ‘most of the charcoal producers we met during the fieldwork were relatively poor. They have tried to earn their incomes to pay for food, clothes and school fees. While they were hoping to establish a sustainable charcoal production, where they for instance planted trees to replace what were cut.  However, the charcoal ban 2018 in Kenya has blocked the development of legal and mores sustainable charcoal value chains. Moreover, by unpacking the value chain, we can see that consumers are not only concentrated in cities, but also in rural areas. Rural value chain actors deal in smaller volumes but make up a large part of charcoal production and consumption.

Charcoal retailler in Dosso, Niger. Photo: Anders Roos

Improved technology

Better technology can improve the sustainability of charcoal value chains, including raw material production, transportation and marketing. For instance, a study in Kenya showed that mobile technology and network coverage are the key physical resources for producers, traders and transporters throughout charcoal value chains.

Moreover, developing a new technology like biochar could provide alternative energy product for rural households. A long-running participatory project with 150 Kenyan farmers tested the effects of biochar on the quality of the soil. Farmers who have a biochar stove can collect agricultural waste, like crop-residue, and small branches from forests and turn them into energy and biochar. Biochar stoves are energy efficient and save time on waste collection, which is often done by women. The triple wins of this method are 1) less smoke during cooking 2) less biomass input and 3) rich soil nutrient biochar! This technology may foster out-of-the-box thinking and farmers can start using crop residues, parts of the tree or farm waste as alternative cooking fuel. While biochar can be reused for soil improvement and carbon sequestration.

Trader selling regular cooking stoves (Jikos) in Voi, Kenya. Photo: Anders Roos

Gender perspective in charcoal production

Women have a marginal position within charcoal value chains. A study from Kenya showed that women are the most vulnerable when it comes to uncertainties. For instance, when Kenya imposed a logging ban in 2018, it affected women who were mainly working in production and retail sectors the most. Women experienced more challenges from the ban due to the lack of access to and control over productive resources and social capital. Moreover, women who were working in charcoal business often came from poor households and didn’t have an alternative livelihood option to resort to in time of change. With limited financial independence, women can only be involved in localized, and less regulated markets. Moreover, the logging ban has affected the income of their husbands who were working in the logging industry. And with fewer remittances, the women’s businesses had lower cash flow.

Women’s vulnerability was also exposed by the current pandemic. COVID-19 has affected the whole value chain of charcoal industry. Border restriction has fueled production challenges, both in terms of transportation and migration of labour. With transportation bans and limited labour, but the same demand, charcoal prices grew and small-scale female retailers have been outcompeted by larger business owners due to their lack of capital and inability to obtain long-term loans.

A community group of charcoal producers and vendors at their tree nursery in Mwatate, Kenya. Photo: Anders Roos

Livelihood or forest: trade off or both?

Overall, the charcoal business dilemma boils down to the trade-off between livelihood and forest sustainability. However, it is possible to meet both needs if the raw material for charcoal production comes from sustainable sources. While we are working towards creating sustainable charcoal businesses, a value chain approach may help achieve a more holistic understanding of the topic. Lastly, it’s important to remember about the importance of innovative thinking in biochar production, employing a gender-sensitive lense and developing sustainable sourcing.

The webinar was organized as part of the ongoing SLU research project, ‘Sustainable Business Models for Tree-based Value Chains in Sub Saharan Africa’, led by Prof. Anders Roos. The goal of the project is to generate knowledge about the charcoal value chain, more specifically, on its processes, actors, and their interactions. The research is conducted in Kenya and Niger in a participatory manner that involves various stakeholders.  The project aims to analyse resources, competences and business models among supply chain members to foster sustainable natural resource used and improved livelihoods.

How can Artificial Intelligence improve African agriculture?

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By: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff, Professor of Bioinformatics at the Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics, SLU

As climates change and populations increase, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be a key player in Africa in the creation of technological innovations that will improve and protect crop yield and livestock. 

Participants at “Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development in sub-Saharan Africa” in Nairobi, Kenya, April 2019. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

The work creating technologies that allows computers and machines to function in an intelligent manner is known as Artificial Intelligence or AI. The advantages of using AI based devices or systems are their low error rate and huge analysis capacity. If properly coded the AI systems have incredible precision, accuracy, and speed. They can also work independently in many, for humans, hard conditions and environments. One of the most interesting areas where AI is breaking into is agriculture. 

One area using AI and attracting a lot of attention is the area more known as “Precision Farming”. Precision Farming generates accurate and controlled technologies for water and nutrient management. It also gives optimal harvesting, planting times and produce solutions in many other aspects of modern agriculture.

In April 2019 a workshop was held at Strathmore University, Nairobi in with the aim to set up a “Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development in sub-Saharan Africa”. There where 60 international participants by invitation. The meeting was supported by Swedish SIDA and organised by the International Development Research Centre and Knowledge 4 Foundation (K4A).

Plenary discussions. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

The main goal of the workshop was to discuss the AI field with a bottom-up approach. The objectives of the workshop were to define the African Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (ML/AI) landscape, to create an African research roadmap and to find ways to incorporate cross continental development. Around these objectives, four thematic areas of discussion were developed: governance, skills/capacity building, applications and others. 

Discussions during a break. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

On the last day of the workshop we visited the IBM Research – Africa in Nairobi. The staff at IBM-Africa presented several AI projects and one example related to the future of AI in agriculture was presented by Juliet Mutahi, a software Engineer working at the IBM Nairobi THINKLab. She presented “Hello Tractor” a system comparable to Uber for taxi but in this case a system that allows farmers to share tractor resources by using an app on their smartphones. This is the kind of initiatives that are created in Africa as a bottom-up approach. Juliet told the audience that she got the idea to create this system inspired by the work and needs of her parents that are coffee farmers in Kenya.

Juliet Mutahi software Engineer, IBM Nairobi THINKLab. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

While identifying the different AI actors in the African continent, another initiative stood out among many: the “Deep Learning Indaba” initiative. This is an annual meeting of the African machine learning community. In 2018 the meeting took place in Stellenbosch, South Africa and gathered 600 participants from many African countries. The next annual meeting will take place in Nairobi, Kenya in August 2019 and the aim for this year is to gather over 700 participants. This shows the strength and vitality for this area of research in the Africa continent.

Many issues connected to agriculture will in the future be better handled using machine learning and artificial intelligence because AI can automate tasks that require human-level intelligence or beyond. This makes solutions that integrate AI better than today’s technologies. Most researchers involved in development research will in the near future learn how to use and how to incorporate AI in their work. Our young colleagues in the “Deep Learning Indaba” community are showing the way. The work in creating the “Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development in sub-Saharan Africa” is just one of the building blocks in this process and SLU will be part of it.

Final panel discussion. Photo: Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

Watch an interview with Erik Bongcam-Rudloff talking about African bioinformatics and AI filmed at the Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development in Nairobi, Kenya.