By P.K. Read
A food company based in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley is proving that rural development and wildlife conservation can not only co-exist, but they can work hand-in-hand to reduce poverty, improve food security, and fight poaching. Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) is the brainchild field conservationist Dr. Dale Lewis, who spent years working against wildlife poaching. In a 2011 research study published in the Proceedings of the National Sciences Academy, Lewis outlined the connection between poverty, food insecurity, unsustainable development, and wildlife poaching.
Zambia is relatively small in size but fifth in the world in terms of absolute loss of forest area. The Luangwa River is the most intact river system in Africa, home to a wide variety of wildlife. In the remote Luangwa Valley, traditional agricultural practices include clearing and burning, and recently, large-scale investment schemes have encouraged farmers to turn away from household food production to non-food crops such as tobacco and cotton. Chemical fertilizers are expensive, and farmers typically clear and burn new plots of land every two to three years. Not only are the farmers at the mercy of commodity prices and fluctuating crop yields, they no longer have as much land dedicated to food production for themselves.
Lewis and others realized that one of the key factors that made people turn to poaching was that they couldn’t live from farming. Faced with low crop yields and no markets for their crops, many farmers turned to poaching to make ends meet.
To get at the underlying cause of habitat and wildlife loss, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Lewis began training poachers in alternative livelihood skills (bee-keeping, carpentry) as well as training families in sustainable farming methods (‘conservation farming,' CF). Crops were chosen that could be grown organically in the Valley, and which had market value. In return for training, participants turned in their wire snares and/or guns.
COMACO began on a small scale in 2003 and has been steadily growing ever since, strengthened by partnerships with General Mills and the U.C. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business to help with food processing and business planning, as well as investments of USD 12 million.
COMACO, which is a non-profit company, sells products from the business under the brand It’s Wild!. In 2013, sales generated USD one million in new income for over 11,000 farmers in Zambia, with a product range including honey, peanut butter, and rice.
Households participating in CF training bring crops exceeding their own food needs to community trading depots. These crops are bought by COMACO, and taken in COMACO trucks to a regional trading center, known as a Conservation Trading Center. The crops are either bulked together for trade on commodity markets, or processed in value-added products. This system provides market access to farmers who would otherwise have no access to high-quality markets for their goods.
The COMACO strategy works in an area large enough to affect an entire watershed ecosystem. The model differs strategically from standard business practice in that its focus is not on areas with low transportation costs or high productivity, but on areas in need of market access and conservation assistance.
According to COMACO, regular monitoring of social and conservation changes have shown that, although there are occasional setbacks due to years of flooding and bad rain, the model is working both to improve household food security and decrease wildlife poaching. COMACO-trained farmers have also been passing along their methods to non-participant farmers, improving overall food security as well as soil quality.
The COMACO model is expected to reach hundreds of thousands of farmers in Zambia alone, and plans are underway to test the strategy in similar settings where the needs of remote farming regions and conservation goals seem to collide.