Once extending throughout West Africa, the Upper Guinean rainforest has suffered significant deforestation over the last few years, largely as a result of land-use changes to commercial and subsistence agriculture. This rainforest ecosystem still supports a rich diversity of species, however, including chimpanzees, forest elephants and the elusive pygmy hippo.

Liberia’s Wonegizi Proposed Protected Area is a particularly important part of the rainforest because it forms a continuous stretch into Guinea, creating a transboundary corridor that is vital for the movement of forest elephants and other threatened species. Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is working with a local partner, the Skills and Agricultural Development Service, to promote conservation agriculture in and around Wonegizi to deliver benefits for biodiversity and livelihoods.

Shifting agriculture is threatening the forest

In Wonegizi, local communities prepare their farmland by cutting an area of vegetation and burning the residues in a labour-saving approach to clearing large areas of land quickly, the most common form of non-mechanised farming worldwide. The process of burning reduces the germination rate of some weed seeds and the top layer of ash lowers soil acidity, enabling increased nutrient uptake by crop plants. After one or two seasons, however, the soil quality deteriorates again. This nutrient depletion, as well as a build-up of weeds, bacteria, fungus and pests in the soil, encourages the farmers to shift their agriculture to a new piece of land.

Land burning is a widely used method of clearing land for agriculture. Credit: Alice Bücker/FFI
Land burning is a widely used method of clearing land for agriculture. Credit: Alice Bücker/FFI

A growing local population is putting pressure on land availability in the Wonegizi area. Rotation patterns are shortening, so agriculture is creeping further into the forest, building a mosaic of deforested land. One potential approach to enable farmers to grow more food per hectare and simultaneously protect the remaining rainforest is conservation agriculture.

What is conservation agriculture?

This agricultural technique, offering an opportunity for farmers to maximise their yield while minimising their need to regularly expand into previously forested land, is based around three principles:

  1. Minimum soil disturbance, allowing the soil structure to be preserved, thereby reducing soil erosion.
  2. Maintenance of a permanent organic soil cover by layering organic plant material over the soil, helping to prevent soil erosion and maintain soil moisture. Additionally, this organic matter can reduce the need for chemical fertilisers and weedkillers by providing a nutrient supply and suppressing the growth of weeds.
  3. Crop diversification by rotating crops on different patches, thereby helping to prevent a build-up of pests and diseases in the soil.

We are encouraging farmers in Wonegizi to apply these techniques to improve the production of staple crops such as groundnuts (peanuts), chilli peppers, okra and bitterball – a local variety of aubergine.

Helping farmers to grow more food

Adopting these methods has enabled farmers to produce mulch to cover the soil, which in turn holds in moisture and prevents the germination of new weeds. Additionally, crops are now planted in rows – a practice that saves seed and gives plants extra room to grow. Farmers are now seeing and reporting the benefits, with 94% of those who have harvested crops under conservation agriculture reporting higher yields than when using traditional methods.

Chili pepper grown using traditional methods (left) versus chili pepper grown using conservation agriculture methods (right). Credit: Alice Bücker/FFI
Chili pepper grown using traditional methods (left) versus chili pepper grown using conservation agriculture methods (right). Credit: Alice Bücker/FFI

Conservation agriculture is a potential win-win solution for farming and conservation. We can work with farmers to increase the amount of food they produce, while preventing – or at least significantly reducing – further clearance of forest. It is still early days for this work in the Wonegizi area, and understanding any trade-offs associated with adopting new techniques is crucial.

Lessons we learn with our farmers in Liberia will be shared and inform how we promote principles of conservation agriculture with other communities around the world. We hope that this will form part of the solution to the challenge of achieving global food security while protecting important ecological areas.