Resource 3: Copperbelt conservation

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As its name suggests, Zambia’s Copperbelt Province was once the copper belt that girded the fortunes of this southern African nation’s prosperity. But over-dependence on this raw material has turned those fortunes into economic and environmental hardship.

The vast copper mines in Zambia once attracted waves of African migrants – from far and wide – in search of employment. But the oil shocks of the 1970s, coupled with the eventual crash in global copper prices, soon exposed the country’s fragile economic growth base, casting the economy into a downward spiral that ended with a near total collapse of its mining industry by the end of the 1990s.

The economic and social impact of the copper belt’s changed fortunes was dire as scores of mine workers were suddenly unemployed with no immediate options of alternative livelihoods. Many turned to the exploitation of natural resources for survival.

Copper belt to crop belt

Conversion of forests for small-scale agriculture soon became a prominent feature of the copper belt, but even more troubling, people resorted to charcoal production to meet a growing urban demand for cheap energy. Burning charcoal, compounded by years of copper ore smelting, has heavily polluted the air and water, and felling trees for its production has been responsible for growing rates of deforestation.

It is estimated that 70–80% of the region’s inhabitants depend on subsistence agriculture.

‘The conversion of forests for both agriculture and charcoal production has emerged as a very significant threat to the integrity of the copper belt’s landscape,’ said Dr Muyeye Chambwera, a policy specialist with WWF’s Southern Africa Regional Programme.

‘Today, the copper belt is faced with complex economic and environmental challenges. We are concerned about the depletion and degradation of natural resources.’

Despite abject poverty, this region of Zambia is also one of the most biologically diverse, especially as it is positioned at the headwaters of the Kafue, one of the largest river basins in Zambia.

‘People in the copper belt need to benefit more from the flow of environmental goods and services provided by the resources of the region, such as water for domestic and industrial use, irrigation, electricity generation and fisheries,’ added Dr Chambwera.

‘These values can translate into a significant contribution to the country’s GDP, export earnings and most importantly, peoples’ livelihoods.’

Combating poverty

The copper belt lies within WWF’s Miombo woodlands ecoregion, a science-based global ranking of the Earth's most biologically outstanding terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats. Experts agree that the area is an important area of conservation focus.

Covering an area of 3.6 million km2 and ten eastern and southern African countries, the Miombo is an amazingly diverse tropical woodland and wetland environment. It is home to 65 million people and many large mammals, including giraffes, elands, rhinos and elephants.

Under the Miombo Ecoregion Conservation Programme (MECP), WWF is striving to come up with a lasting solution to combat poverty in the area; a programme that shows local people how to benefit from the use of local resources on a sustainable basis, and, ultimately, lift them out of poverty.

‘We are trying to promote the use of natural resources in a more sustainable way, such as through less destructive agriculture and charcoal production, as well as through the reduction of water pollution from existing mines and industries,’ explained Dr Davison Gumbo, WWF’s Miombo Ecoregion Leader.

‘The vision of the MECP is that in 50 years’ time the people and the nations of the region will have a biologically diverse and ecologically functional ecoregion that meets and sustains human needs and developments through the sustainable use of natural resources, landscapes, species and environmental processes.’

He added that alternative livelihoods such as bee keeping, fish breeding and game ranching were being developed – all aimed at maintaining the biological diversity and capacity of the region.

Conservation agriculture

WWF is working with the government to promote appropriate land-use planning and setting up forest management schemes with communities living adjacent to protected forests so as to prevent further opening up of protected forests for cultivation.

‘Working with the government will help with efforts to lobby against future de-gazetting of protected forest areas in the future,’ stressed Gumbo.

At the same time, WWF is partnering with the French agriculture research agency, CIRAD, to promote conservation agriculture methods among local farmers in the copper belt, with a view to increasing their yields while conserving the environment.

While conventional agriculture is mainly characterised by intensive tillage, which has contributed to significant soil degradation through the loss of organic matter, conservation agriculture offers a range of soil management practices that minimise effects of erosion and degradation. This includes minimal soil disturbance (no tillage), permanent soil cover and crop rotations.

‘The main objective of this system of agriculture is to increase productivity in order to secure food in households throughout the year and to enable farmers to trade sufficient surplus to meet other financial needs,’ said Frederic Baudron, a CIRAD agronomist who has been working with WWF on integrating conservation agriculture into Miombo’s conservation programme.

Among those WWF hopes to convince to switch to conservation agriculture are charcoal producers, who also practise conventional subsistence farming. Many of these farmers have turned to charcoal production to bridge the gap in their incomes so that they can pay such basic needs as healthcare, school fees, clothing and food.

‘Poverty and food insecurity resulting from poor agricultural practices lead farmers to increase their dependence on natural resources,’ added Baudron. ‘That is why farmers will look for income-generating activities based on surrounding natural resources, such as charcoal burning.’

Subsistence farmer inspects a maize crop about to be harvested. Copperbelt Province, Zambia © Frederic Baudron

According to WWF, promoting conservation farming will not only improve farm productivity, but will contribute to the reduction of habitat loss. The permanent soil covers will also reduce erosion and protect the Kafue River from silting, an objective which is very much a focus of the Miombo Ecoregion programme.

Another part of the Miombo project is to help set up a local council, consisting of key stakeholders in the region, that will agree on land and water uses. WWF views the establishment of such a river catchment council as an important step to negotiate with downstream beneficiaries of environmental goods and services from the copper belt. ‘People who live here must see the value in becoming stakeholders and guardians of their own resources,’ stressed Dr Chambwera. ‘By sustainably utilising the natural resources that are available to them, rural livelihoods in the copper belt can be improved.’

Adapted from: Panda Organization, Website

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