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FEATURE: Kenyans put soil carbon to the test

Our guest blogger is Steve Zwick, Managing Editor at Ecosystem Marketplace.  This article has been adapted from Ecosystem Marketplace.  Click here to view the original.

David Ongoro has been working his three-hectare farm in Kenya’s fertile Nyanza Province for over a decade, and for the past two years he’s been enjoying bumper crops.  He attributes that to a local forester named Danish Juma, who told him he could earn carbon credits for shifting to something called “climate safe” agriculture.

Ongoro jumped at the chance – but not for the carbon credits.

“I’m a farmer,” he says, “and the most important thing for me is what I get from my farm – the outputs.”

It turns out those outputs respond to the same activities that reduce carbon emissions – a happy correlation that sparked a 20-year experiment called the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project (KACP), which aims to test the role carbon finance can play in persuading small-scale farmers to adopt more sustainable practices.

The KACP was developed by the VI Agroforestry Programme, a Swedish NGO that has been planting trees in Eastern Africa since 1983, and is being funded by the World Bank. Juma signed on as a field officer two years ago, and his mission ever since has been to recruit and train farmers like Ongoro.  His pitch is simple: sustainable agriculture can raise your yields, and it also locks carbon in the ground – which means you might earn carbon credits down the road.

The Happy Convergence

Healthy topsoil teems with life, and that means carbon.  As we churn through topsoil, we not only extract the nutrients that support agriculture, but we release carbon into the air – lots of it: roughly 80 billion tons since the advent of mechanized tilling 200 years ago.

Ongoro and 15,000 other farmers joined the project and have ratcheted up their outputs – perhaps as much as 30% – using a combination of old and new technologies called sustainable agricultural land management (SALM) that reverses soil loss in two ways: first, by increasing yields, which captures carbon in plants; and second, by avoiding soil disruption, which keeps carbon locked in the soil.

Efforts are underway to bring 50,000 more farmers into KACP, which aims to generate carbon credits for another 20 years.  Money will be used to train farmers in SALM while helping them adapt to climate change and commercialize their crops.

Manure, Mulch, and No-Till Farming

Ongoro says the practices are fairly simple, but also labor-intensive.

“I’ve learned to do crop rotation now, which I wasn’t doing before, and I use manure along with industrial fertilizers,” he says.  “I also don’t remove residues – that’s the left over stuff after a harvest – but rather compost it.”

And, instead of digging up long rows of dirt to plant his seeds, he employs “no-till farming”, which is practiced on 40% of US farms.  It’s credited with halting the depletion of topsoil there and locking an estimated 60 million metric tons of carbon in the ground annually.

Such practices could go a long away in Africa, and the KACP has yielded intriguing insights into the supporting role that carbon finance can play in helping to alleviate those emissions.

“A farmer who joins this program will benefit through improved production, improved nutrition, and increased income from agricultural activities,” says Juma. “That’s the benefit; carbon should be viewed as a bonus.”

And there’s the rub: carbon is likely to deliver a small bonus at best, because SALM locks up just one or two tons of carbon per hectare per year.  Ongoro’s three hectares might earn just $15 per year in carbon credits at today’s prices, with much of that going to cover the KACP’s administrative costs.  What’s left will be distributed to the farmers.

Carbon income, therefore, may best be used to support education, outreach, and organization – activities that promote the transition to a more sustainable economy – with farmers reaping the benefit of higher yields.

We occasionally invite bloggers from around the world to provide their experiences and views. The views expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of CDKN.

Image courtesy of Vi Agroforestry: Maurice Kwadha, Kisumu, one of the participating farmers in the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project

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