Zimbabwean communities set the Diversity Wheel in motion

by Rima Alcadi and Shantanu Mathur

picture: R.Alcadi/IFAD. FFS in Goromonzi, Zimbabwe
We are all increasingly dependent on agro-biodiversity, as we struggle to adapt to the impending impacts of climate change. This is because there are varieties that have adapted to and thrived in harsh and marginal conditions and these are becoming more and more relevant as conditions become even harsher. For many poor rural communities, the conservation and sustainable use of their local landraces determines whether or not they are food secure: maintaining biodiversity is a way to enhance their resilience. In development projects implemented in various countries, including in Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, farmers have clearly demonstrated that they care about their agro-biodiversity. For example, farmers in Zimbabwe maintain over a dozen varieties of the same crop. They do not do so in order to increase yields, necessarily. One reason they grow different varieties is to create farming system stability - to manage risks, such as pest and disease infestations, droughts and other environmental shocks. A second reason is to manage their factors of production and their cash flow, which basically means that smallholder farmers prefer to stagger the amount of labour, irrigation and other inputs required, so that it is easier for them to manage without having to revert to hiring or purchasing additional resources. Farmers are mindful of the amount of wood required for cooking or processing their crops, and they value regularity and predictability in  their cash flow, so varieties with different maturity dates are used as mixtures – making them productive even in lean periods (the so called hungry season) and creating vibrant food systems making them a perpetual and reliable source of health and nutrition. And of course, many smallholder farmers value diversity of use as well – some varieties are best for sweets, others for savoury foods, snacks, fodder, brewing - and thus the colour, texture, cooking time and even cooling time can be important traits that are considered in selecting which crops to grow.

The fact that, globally, an estimated 75% of our plant genetic diversity has been lost since the 1900s is a matter of great concern. Moreover, the consequences of biodiversity loss are not being shared equitably across the world. The areas of richest biodiversity are in developing countries where they are relied upon by approximately 2 billion people to meet their basic needs. When farmers abandon their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform and high-yielding varieties, in the long-term they are jeopardising their resilience to climate change, food security and traditional knowledge associated with their local varieties. After even only a few seasons of neglect or drought, it can become an enormous challenge for smallholder farmers residing in marginalised areas to access good quality seeds, on time.

Community seed fairs were conceived and promoted by a partnership among IFAD, FAO, Bioversity International and civil society organisations in Zimbabwe and Mali. In community seed fairs, several farmers meet to display their seeds,  provide farmers with the opportunity to exchange seeds as well as knowledge and experiences on the crops they grow. It is also a valuable tool for researchers to take stock of available biodiversity in a given community, and even collect varieties to conserve in the national gene banks – thereby ensuring that if the communities lose a variety, it can be recovered. Seed fairs also celebrate, recognise and reward farmers for their valuable contribution as custodians of agro-biodiversity. Often prizes, such as agricultural implements, are awarded to farmers who display the widest range of varieties, or bring rare varieties. Moreover, community seed fairs are an ideal platform on which to append other activities that can further enhance communities’ ability to improve food security and their adaptation to climate change. One of these activities is the Diversity Wheel.

The idea of the Diversity Wheel came from the  “4 cell analysis,” a conceptual framework developed initially by the Nepalese NGO Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LI-BIRD), and Bioversity International. The method was conceived to assess, in a participatory way, the amount of crop diversity available in a community  and identify varieties that might be at risk of being lost. In a way, this is similar to the IUCN Red Lists, but specifically looking at cultivated species and at maintaining local agro-biodiversity on-farm. In this regard, the 4 cell analysis was conceived as a 2 by 2 matrix, where one axis refers to the number of farmers planting a specified variety (i.e., few farmers versus many farmers) and the other axis refers to the area in which the crop is grown (large area versus small area). This conceptual framework was further developed into a “5 cell analysis” as a 5th cell, referring to varieties that a community lost, was added to the existing tool in 2011, during an international conference organized by Bioversity in Germany and dedicated to neglected and underutilized species[1]. Because most traditional crops are scarcely represented in ex situ gene banks, this framework is very useful to monitor their level of genetic erosion and prevent their possible loss. Moreover, although seeds of certain varieties may be available at a global scale, this does not necessarily mean that these seeds are accessible to smallholder farmers in remote and marginalised communities. So communities need a preventive approach to conserving their agro-biodiversity.

How does this work in practice? The Zimbabwean civil society organization Community Technology Development Trust (CTDT) collaborates with LI-BIRD and the two organizations exchange ideas on promoting sustainable use and conservation of local agro-biodiversity for rural development. Thanks to this collaboration, in Zimbabwe, CTDT is implementing the 5 cell analysis in the form of a “Diversity Wheels” - as an activity embedded into Community Seed Fairs in the poverty stricken districts of Tsholotsho, Uzumba Maramba Pfungwe (UMP), Goromonzi and Chiredzi. This is a great strategy because several proud farmers participate in the seed fairs and they have a strong incentive to bring along their entire portfolio of seeds, in order to win the seed fair competition.  The seed varieties are selected from those displayed at the community seed fair. A facilitator then picks up one seed variety and asks the farmers: “How many of you are growing this variety?” and “Is this variety grown in a large area of land?”  The community would then decide in which segment of the Diversity Wheel the selected variety should be placed. In this exercise, farmers also discuss why certain varieties are not being grown any longer, or why they value a specific variety. They discuss whether the variety is important to them and, if it is important and it is at risk, then they reflect on how to proactively  ensure its conservation. Very valuable information on how farmers are coping with climate change also emerge from these discussions. For example, farmers in UMP highlighted that they are growing less of the traditional rice varieties and Bambara ground nut because the growing seasons are becoming shorter. In fact, they expect their traditional rice variety to disappear if current rainfall patterns persist. With regard to the white groundnut variety, 7 out of the 10 farmers who were growing this crop lost it as a result of drought.  In addition to climate change considerations, market demand and resistance to pests and diseases also play an important role in farmers’ decisions on whether to grow a crop or not: farmers grow groundnuts because there is high demand; pearl millet is attacked by birds and they prefer the low yielding but “bearded” variety, which fends birds off by pricking them. A major issue that also emerged during the Diversity Wheel exercise is naming of the varieties:  modern varieties are not given local names whereas young people are not aware of certain traditional varieties that are gradually eroding and do not feature in formal taxonomy and characterisation exercises either.

Once the Diversity Wheel is fully populated, farmers can easily visualise how their food security and diet composition is evolving – are they growing only carbohydrates? Do the varieties they are growing have different maturity dates? Are there opportunities to learn agronomic practices from farmers who have been able to grow certain crops that have failed in other farmers’ fields?  Of course, the Diversity Wheel is very useful tool for communities to proactively manage their biodiversity for greater food security, adaptation to climate change and to promote learning – kudos to LI-BIRD, Bioversity International that have conceptualised it, to CTDT, Agritex and Zimbabwean farmers who have so ably put it into practice, and to Oxfam Novib and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) for the support and funding. However, the story is a broader one – it is one of partnerships for a clear common goal, where good ideas build onto each other and are viral and travel across continents, and it is an example of a tool designed in such a way that the farmers are clearly on the driver’s seat.

[1]Proceedings of the conference can be found at http://bit.ly/H7w7Zo