International Ministries

Carbon dioxide, increasing food security and improving family livelihoods

September 7, 2011 Journal
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What in the world does carbon dioxide have to do with improving livelihoods and increasing food security? And what does any of this have to do with the Kingdom of God? If you live in an American suburb, get your food prepackaged in a supermarket, and make your living working in an office, the relationships may not be so obvious. But those of us living close to the world of slash and burn shifting cultivation see what happens when farmers are pushed by population pressure or by the drive to increase their income. Hard use eliminates the forest and impoverishes the soil. Constant burning and decomposition of vegetation release enormous quantities of greenhouse gases that are not reabsorbed in the normal cycle of production.(1) The Lord God put human beings in the creation to “cultivate” and to “guard”. In my part of the world many farmers have failed in this fundamental charge. Persistent and profound poverty is often the result.

Imagination is a gift of God. Knowing the will of God, I can imagine a different world where God’s will is more perfectly realized. If my heart is changed and my mind renewed, I can imagine an approach to farming that restores the land and sustains the people who depend on it. The best imagination informs life-giving changes on the ground. Restoring the land leads to more productive crops and healthier, more prosperous lives.

For three weeks in late July and early August, a group of us got together to imagine how we might change the world in a small, but significant way. The group included extension agents, university instructors, development workers and one jack-of-all-trades agricultural missionary. Our goal was to come up with a practical plan for 125 farmers to abandon slash and burn agriculture and adopt a sustainable mix of woodlots and cropping on fire-degraded savanna lands. The plan would reduce destruction and degradation of gallery forests and increase household income by 50 to 100%. And it would increase the farming system’s ability to absorb and hold on to an additional 135,000 tons of CO2 by reshaping the long-term use of 3700 acres of land.

A commitment to caring for the earth is one of the keys. If I plant leguminous trees with my field crops on annually burned savanna I can set into motion a whole raft of beneficial effects. By moving from gallery forest to fire degraded savanna, I give my forest land a chance to recover. When I protect my field crops (and trees) I stop fire from burning up all that organic matter every year. Humus increases in the soil and litter accumulates on the surface. My trees grow, absorbing carbon dioxide and using it to construct trunks, branches and leaves. Dead branches and leaves add to the litter layer and increase soil organic matter. A hectare of mature artificial forest has more than 90 tons of biomass, the equivalent of over 183 tons of CO2. If I wait patiently for seven years my land will begin to give me rich crops, firewood, charcoal, honey and thousands of dollars a year rather than the hundreds my family makes do with by slashing and burning the forest.

Moving from imagination to life-giving and God-honoring change usually requires figuring out ways to remove inconvenient obstacles. Our biggest obstacle is paying the costs of investing and waiting patiently. The transition from slash and burn to sustainable agroforestry will take seven years before the new system can begin to deliver its full promise. How does a struggling farm family make investments in the land and live during that time? Farm credit would be the logical answer – if it existed here.

The Lusekele study group has set it sights on another kind of financing – carbon credits. In effect we trade on our ability to provide long-term storage of carbon in our permanent succession of woodlots. The service fee helps to pay for tree nurseries, planting labor and more efficient tools for the transition to sustainable agroforestry. But clients will queue up to buy the service only if we can show precisely how much carbon our system has absorbed and demonstrate our ability to ensure that the carbon will be locked up for the duration of the agreement.

Clearly we have a lot to learn. I continue to imagine. In that vision, the science instructors at the local teacher’s college become expert technicians in measuring biomass and carbon content. Students hone all kinds of skills as they collect data, analyze samples, and map results. Farmers themselves learn ways to manage soil fertility better, preserve valuable forest reserves for future generations and still improve their standard of living. I imagine a world in which the way we farm, the way we think about the land and our place on it, and the priorities we pursue all recognize the Lord God who put us here. -------------------------
(1) Land use changes, such as clearing forest to plant food crops, account for 15 to 20% of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.