AfroMont Editorial November 2016 - The World Mountain Forum: 17 – 21st October 2017, Mbale, Uganda

Report back on Sustainable Mountain Agriculture

AfroMont was part of the organising committee for the WMF Sustainable Mountain Agriculture session, along with Boniface Kiteme, Faustin Gashakamba, RosaLaura Romeo, Ramahavalisoa Valérie Brigitte Kanyamuge and Gábor Figeczky. Gábor of IFOAM - Organics International led the preparations and was the facilitator of the conference session. Our keynote speaker, Dr Gete Zeleke from the Water and Land Resources Centre, Ethiopia, dealt with ensuring sustainability of investments on land and water management in mountain regions in Africa and making sure that benefits do accrue from development projects on the land, and two other session speakers covered South America and Africa. Hannes Van den Eeckhout gave a presentation on market connections as a key driver to sustainable mountain food systems and discussed how small smallholder farmers in Peruvian mountains need to be connected with buyers, a very important element in making small agricultural enterprises profitable. Mr MacPherson Nthara from Malawi, presented a paper on sustainable agricultural intensification in mountain areas of Malawi, and showed how apple production became a viable new activity for farmers in northern Malawi. MacPherson Nthara, who is a rural water expert from Malawi, showed how small scale farmers can find new crops to grow and respond to local market demands, provided they get assistance.

Presentations and discussionThere was lively discussion afterwards, and despite the session only starting at 9.30 pm, the room was full. A key focus for the session was improving the lives of smallholder farmers through poverty reduction, assuring food security and promoting nutrition rather than a consideration of large scale commercial farming in mountainous regions. Globally, there is a need to find new markets for agricultural produce, keep old land races and wild relatives of crops, and sustain the land through better land management practises – but this does not necessarily mean that small farmers must be replaced by large scale farmers. This is true for all landscapes, not only mountains.

Our key questions for the discussion were:
1. What can be the key drivers in enabling mountain agriculture produce a sufficient amount of diverse and nutritious food in a changing climate while preserving natural resources and ecosystem services?
2. How can agriculture maintain its traditional function in mountainous areas being the engine of inclusive and sustainable development of rural communities?
3. How can sustainable market-based food systems be developed, scaled up and mainstreamed in mountain regions when food production is becoming more globalized and economically concentrated

Strategically, many African farmers and researcher would like to ‘keep Africa rural’ and indeed, most of the agricultural and climate change adaptation plans for African countries focus on small holder subsistence farming and making improvements to this sector. In some ways, the trend towards commercial farming is ignored in national agricultural agendas, as are large scale land acquisitions in African countries. Also somewhat ignored in agricultural discussions in Africa is the trend of urbanisation and how to achieve the sustainable provisioning of these growing cities with agricultural produce.

VegetationAlso, if there was active rural development, rural people would stay on the land, rather than settle in overcrowded, chaotically expanding towns and cities. Much work has to be done to make this extensive rural development throughout Africa a reality. The small farming/family farming theme can be workable, but with population projections for developing countries, we need to consider how viable this model will be in the medium term.

The spread of large scale agricultural investment in the mountain areas needs to be investigated. The the spread of these investments has become so rapid in the recent past, and while arguments are made about their positive socioeconomic benefits, these investments have manifested clear negative impacts on local people, the environment and natural resource base. Currently, they continue to exert pressure on resources such as river water (cheap available option for irrigation) and vegetation as more area is cleared to allow this type of agricultural expansion. Also, these investments are often funded by foreigners, and introduce new food systems that are totally different from what the local farming communities practice, and therefore the need to understand the dimensions/dynamics in play as these different food systems attempt to coexist. This type of agricultural project needs to be regulated so that projects do not affect the long term potential for achieving sustainable mountain agriculture.

There are some opinions that mountain agriculture in developing countries must move beyond subsistence farming to highly specialised small-scale farming. But is this form of farming sustainable? For example, the floriculture around Lake Victoria is creating wealth, but is having a huge impact on Lake Victoria (which isn’t a mountain, but the principal of sustainability is the same). How could sustainability be built into the commercial farming model?

It could be said that ‘mountain farming’ is not really viable as an economic activity if it has to compete with the lowlands in terms of ‘quantity’ of outputs. Mountain farmers would be better off if they focused more on ‘quality’ of their products and be supported to brand the products (through certification, etc.) better so that they can generate enough income to get a decent livelihood out of this low-quantity-high-quality specialist agriculture, e.g. organic mountain coffee.

In conclusion, many ideas were discussed in the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture session at WMF 2016, but we did not arrive at a statement on what we mean by ‘sustainable mountain agriculture.’ We need to better understand how the different modes of agriculture, including specialist ‘high value’ agriculture, be made sustainable? (i.e. that it creates human wellbeing but doesn’t damage the natural environment).