A roots up approach to protecting and restoring our natural capital for the good of people and planet.

By Climate Champions | March 15, 2024

The world’s largest land conference took place in Zambia this week. Hosted by the Global EverGreening Alliance (a Race to Resilience Partner), the Government of Zambia, AFR100, African Natural Capital Alliance (ANCA), FSD Africa, and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the Accelerating Nature Based Solutions Conference brought together a range of voices from the climate community to collaborate on advancing Nature-based solutions as a critical part of global climate action.

We spoke to Irene Ojuok, Ambassador, Global EverGreening Alliance and specialist in FMNR (Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration) about our failure to recognise the true value of nature for both people and planet and how this needs to be overcome.

Why are ‘Nature-based solutions’ an important aspect of climate action ?

When we talk about solutions, it implies we have a problem which we need to fix. We currently face a number of challenges – developmental, societal and climate, all of which can be addressed by protecting and restoring our natural capital. It offers a more holistic, people-centred approach which is vital. An increasingly warming planet isn’t just compromising the health of our ecosystems, it’s compromising our health too.

When Covid hit, people relied on green spaces as a place to breathe clean air and feel free from the confines of wearing a mask. We therefore need to learn from this experience and acknowledge that meeting our sustainable development goals will be impossible unless nature is embedded within them.

Why are they underutilised and underfunded?

There is still very little awareness of how Nature-based solutions can provide a more holistic and sustainable approach to our development needs. Firstly, policy makers and development agencies still lack the necessary knowledge to prioritise Nature-based solutions.  

Secondly, the approach needs to be more grassroots-led. We need to allow communities to interpret what Nature-based solutions means for their local contexts as this is where implementation happens and impact is felt. The process is still dominated by a top down approach.

Thirdly, we lack substantive data on how Nature-based solutions have a positive impact on other areas of our lives such as health. For instance if we could provide governments with evidence that increasing green spaces in our cities and villages would reduce the cost of managing mental illness we would be able to address two fundamental challenges in a more sustainable and holistic way.

We also need to enable a better policy environment. For example, if a country addresses  food shortage by promoting an increase in chemical fertiliser use, thereby prohibiting good agricultural practices, you kill the prospect of sustainability and long term benefits.  

The approach needs to be holistic. We can’t achieve anything if we remain within our silos. Bringing women and youth into the conversation is incredibly important. They’re currently excluded from decision making despite being of critical importance to the process.

Women have a rich knowledge of the land, our plants and trees and they know which  traditional agriculture systems will work best in the face of climate change.  We need to leverage this expertise and pass it onto our youth. They are the farmers of the future. We need to educate them about the potential of Nature-based solutions so they can make informed decisions about taking care of their land and forests.

We also need to engage more smallholders in the conversation. We cannot continue talking amongst ourselves. The solutions that we need for our planet are going to come largely from the knowledge of those who have been living and working closely within these ecosystems.

What role do carbon markets have in  a bioeconomy?

It’s unfortunate that climate financing is now getting more dependent on carbon. Relying entirely on carbon credits could create more challenges as they don’t address the immediate needs of communities who have done the least to cause climate change.

Rural communities primarily need food, firewood,fodder and income. Currently,  the way carbon markets are constructed, the farmers won’t benefit meaningfully from the dividends for some time. They’re also very complicated for communities and practitioners to understand. There needs to be simplified context-appropriate carbon models that fit our African context and treat farmers as co-investors and not merely beneficiaries. 

They still lack proper regulation so are open for misuse and exploitation. To be effective and truly beneficial we need to make the value of the carbon credit high enough so that it brings genuine value to those who need it the most.

Can you give an example of where Nature-based solutions are being implemented impactfully?

Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) involves restoring degraded landscapes and puts farmers at the centre of decision making. Often there’s a push to restore degraded landscapes through conventional tree planting which has resulted in taking away our indigenous and native trees.  FMNR has allowed farmers to bring back the trees by activating the roots and stumps that already exist in their landscapes. So it’s cheap and effective.

More than 25 countries in Africa are taking up this approach, farmers are embracing it and we’re also seeing an improvement in tree densities and diversities on farms, higher crop yields, more pasture, fodder, firewood, livelihood diversification and climate resilience. Biodiversity has also improved.  For instance, regenerated native trees bring back birds and insects. I learnt that in Zambia the caterpillars are dependent on native trees. If we do away with them we lose this important delicacy. These are important cultural and traditional nuances that need to be recognised and mainstreamed.

Additionally, FMNR improves the level of moisture in soils and provides fodder for livestock even during a drought. The benefits of an approach like FMNR are tangible to a farmer –  it resonates with them both socially, culturally and technically and it’s cost effective.

How did your childhood growing up on the shores of Lake Victoria influence your decision to pursue this area of work?

I initially wanted to be a lawyer but as a child my parents exposed me to the Church. In the Pathfinders club, I would often be taken on nature trails and to camps where we’d have boat rides and go bird watching. This was primarily to teach us to see God in nature and to see nature as a demonstration of how God loves us. We were taught that nature is present to give us everything we need and it’s our job to be its greatest stewards.

It’s fundamental that children have this connection to nature as it will enhance our ability to promote the importance of nature in their  lives and develop that connection from an early age. The current generation is more likely to be on a laptop or tablet than be out in nature. Meaningful contact with nature is missing from their lives.

We need to let them touch soil, grow trees and see the beauty of birds in the air.  That sense of connection will drive their passion for working with nature, not against it and it will help us fix many of the challenges we have.

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