Helping farmers raise yields and incomes, adapt to climate change while saving forests

Helping farmers raise yields and incomes, adapt to climate change while saving forests


Low agricultural productivity and small land-holdings means farmers in western Uganda barely produce enough food for their families and generate little, if any, income for basic necessities like health care and education. With no capital to buy agricultural inputs to increase yields, farmers are driven to clear adjacent forest as they try to make ends meet. To reduce the incentives for deforestation, WCS is helping farmers to increase agricultural productivity, crop yields, and household income. Today over 1,000 small-holder farmers have been trained and have adopted conservation-farming practices, and are financing farming and marketing improvements through small loans from community mutual savings banks. Their yields have increased 300% and their incomes 1500%, while at the same time protecting 1325 ha of climatically resilient forest that was at risk of being cleared. This forest is not only important habitat for wildlife but also serves as an important ecological structure for climate change adaptation. These early adopter families have become nutritionally and financially more secure. Many, particularly women, have become successful entrepreneurs. All have demonstrated to neighbors and policy makers that rural development and forest conservation are not necessarily conflicting objectives.


Uganda is a poor, land-locked country in central-east Africa. Called the Pearl of Africa, it is endowed with a rich diversity of natural ecosystems ranging from tropical forest, savannah, wetlands and great lakes to montane forest, alpine meadows and peat bogs, topped by snowcapped peaks. Lots of sun, ample rains and rich volcanic soils in the western and eastern highlands historically permitted two growing seasons per year.

Abundant food and increasing access to modern medicine has enabled Uganda's human population to grow from 1.7 million in 1900, to 15 million, in 1986, to 39 million, in 2017. Demographers project that Uganda’s population will reach 62 million by 2030, only 13 years from now. Outside of national parks that cover 16% of Uganda, almost all land has been converted to grow crops and raise livestock. Human population growth has resulted in an increasingly rapid decline of the land-bank available for food production, which is compounded by the repeated sub-division of household farm-lands as children inherit their parent’s property.

This land shortage is encouraging the conversion of the last natural ecosystems outside of protected areas, and agricultural encroachment is increasingly nibbling away at the edges of parks and reserves. As climate change and deforestation alter rainfall timing and quantity in unpredictable ways, Ugandan families are facing food shortages and declines in agricultural income. If nothing is done Uganda risks a downward spiral of declining agricultural production, reduced food and income security, and the very real possibility of violent civil unrest as the country’s different ethnic groups vie with one another for access to dwindling farmlands.

In Uganda, WCS is keen to avoid the irrevocable conversion of the last remaining corridors that ecologically link the nation’s parks and reserves, and the de facto de-gazetting of the protected areas themselves, as farmers search for lands to feed their families. The solution is not just better park management; rather, it is helping farmers increase sustainable farm yields and income and reduce the incentive to encroach on protected lands and cut down forests.

With support from WCS, villages in the Murchison-Semliki region, in western Uganda, are showing a way to avoid this downward spiral. This region contains the last remaining natural forest in the country found outside of protected areas. These forests form corridors connecting the national parks, and are vital habitat for some 300 resident chimpanzees and endemic bird species. Between 2006 and 2010, WCS science showed that farmers were clearing nearly 8,000 ha of forest each year in the Murchison-Semliki Landscape. Yet forest clearing was not leading to improved livelihoods for local people, and there was a risk that the forest could disappear with people being no better off as a result. Farmers continued to clear forests because they lacked knowledge and capital to increase yields and farm income on their current holdings, and most did not make the connection that clearing forest exacerbates the problem of unpredictable harvests caused by climate change.

Higher yield climate-smart farming involves zero tillage and mulching organic material such as crop residue, and requires about US $116 in annual investment above the $150/acre needed for conventional farming. To promote adoption, WCS provides farmers who sign conservation agreements committing to not clear their forests with training and with access to capital through loans from community mutual savings banks. Farmers receive training on both climate-smart farming practices and on how to establish and manage member-supported community mutual savings banks. These banks are membership organizations where farmer-members contribute what limited funds they have to the community bank, which then loans money to its members at below market interest rates.

Farmers who have completed the training and have adopted climate-smart farming have seen their maize yields increase from 700kg to 2000kg while preserving soil fertility and rainfall use efficiency. That yields increased 3-fold while the costs of these new farming practices only double compared to conventional farming provides a powerful incentive for other farmers to participate in WCS’ program. In addition to providing start-up costs to help farmers convert to climate-smart practices, the community mutual savings banks provide cash-strapped communities with a source of capital to invest in their operations, set up businesses and diversify income sources. This has been especially beneficial to women, who are more likely than men to invest in crop processing and marketing, improving rural-urban terms of trade and adding value to farm products.

In a nutshell, analysis of forest cover change using the Global Forest Watch interactive mapper shows that WCS’ approach works: deforestation has measurably declined in areas under conservation farming thereby protecting key wildlife corridors and demonstrating that participating farmers are complying with their conservation agreements.


Effective Governance IconGOVERNANCE: Increased wealth of participating farmers and compliance with no forest clearing agreements has elevated their status in the eyes of government officials and increased their ability to pressure government to enforce its land use regulations on government held forest lands.

Rights IconRIGHTS: The tangible economic benefits from participation in the WCS climate-smart farming program, and better understanding of the role that forests play in stabilizing temperatures and rainfall patterns, have encouraged farmers to defend actively their customary forest rights from land grabbers. They also worry that, if others clear their forests for crop production, they will have not met their obligation to protect the forest and thus risk being excluded from the program which includes being removed from valuable production contracts with buyers such as the World Food Programme.

Gender IconGENDER: The community mutual savings banks have been especially beneficial to women who now have access to micro loans. Women outperform men in setting up their enterprises and generating extra income. Improved economic status leads to a larger role for women in village decision-making.

Wellbeing IconWELL-BEING: Increased crop yields and farm revenue has reduced both food and income insecurity of participating farmer families, and participation in mutual savings banks has provided asset-poor families with access to loans not available from formal banks or affordable through high interest rate money lenders. Improvement in agricultural yields and greater resilience to changes in rainfall have seen the value of participating farmers’ lands increase from US $12 to $192 per acre, a significant rise in the asset value of their property.

Constituencies IconCONSTITUENCY: Farmers are beginning to understand that the improved productivity that comes with climate-smart farming practices is in part an outcome of maintaining healthy forests. WCS hopes that, in time, this will translate into farmers becoming a strong local constituency for conservation of forest ecosystems.


Chimps and people/Daniel Abowe ©WCS

Conservation farming maize/Miguel Leal ©WCS

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