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Bringing the genebank back to the field: researcher argues for on-farm conservation

Researchers promote community based biodiversity management to protect biological diversity.
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Tree conservation needs to move out of the lab and into the farm. International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

HYDERABAD, India (29 October, 2012)_Field gene banks —  monotonous orchards packed with tropical trees spanning as far as the eye can see — are being developed by researchers to prevent the loss of tree species as the world grapples with break-neck speed deforestation and loss of diversity on farms.

The seeds and saplings from these expensive, hard-to-maintain plantations are used, too, to select and breed superior fruit cultivars – but only a few of which have found their way back to farms.

Which has Hugo Lamers, a Bioversity International researcher, asking: how is this helping farmers?

Instead of bringing the trees to the gene bank, he told an audience at the conference on the Convention of Biological Diversity in Hyderabad, India, “let’s bring the gene bank to the farm”.

It’s something Lamers refers to as functional biodiversity — helping farming communities to manage and conserve fruit tree species and varieties on tropical farms by actively growing a combination of those that are domestic and wild for their own benefit.

In this way, farmers continue to have access to the nutritious fruits and can develop several unexplored but lucrative income generating activities.

Instead of bringing the trees to the gene bank, let’s bring the gene bank to the farm.

“We hold on to existing knowledge about the uses and unique characteristics of trees. And, those trees continue to provide eco-system services like pollination. The diversity of tree species and varieties found on-farm evolved by cross-pollination and natural and human selection,” he said at Tree Diversity Day.

“Up until now, government conservation efforts have focused merely on ex-situ conservation — taking species out the environment and putting them in a gene bank or arboretum.”

“This needs to be combined by in-situ or on-farm conservation, which is keeping genetic material in its original area in the forest or as cultivars used by farmers.”

Recent research has shown that diversity is declining at the farm-level as is rural communities’ use of wild and semi-wild species. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 75 percent of agricultural crop trees and plants have been lost since the beginning of the century.

Lamers says his idea is not new. All three forms of conservation, ex-situ, on-farm and in-situ, are actually mentioned in the original text of the Convention on Biological Diversity, a global agreement that addresses all aspects of biological biodiversity, genetic resources, species and ecosystems.

Given the ongoing decline on farms and in forest, the need for interventions is apparent. However, only a few field studies have looked intensively at how to intervene and strengthen in-situ or on-farm conservation practices of farmers and forest communities.

Working in the mountainous Western Ghats region of South India, Lamers and his fellow researcher Bhuwon Sthapit came up with a host of in-situ and on-farm conservation methods and tools that they collectively referred to as the Community Biodiversity Management Approach. A key factor of this approach is that farming communities themselves are the driving force for conservation and take up ownership of the natural resources they still have and many others already lost.

Through participatory diversity assessments, researchers have been assisting farmers and communities to identify the availability and abundance of local tree species and varieties. They worked with local entrepreneurial farmers and grafting experts to introduce wild species of white kokum (Garcinia indica) and pickle mango (Mangifera indica) into home gardens.

The white kokum fruit. Subray Hegde/Wikicommons

They also facilitated the creation of a network of those grafting experts to identify the most important source trees and marked them to avoid logging and save them for future use.

A community awareness program was simultaneously established to let villagers know which trees should not be cut down and during last diversity fair women and men showed high interest for the newly grafted saplings of white kokum and pickle mango.

“There is knowledge within the community—about drought and pest resistant varieties. With in-situ or on-farm conservation, knowledge is not lost from the community and biodiversity stays functional. And this daily use is the best kind of incentive for communities to preserve diversity,” Lamers said.

He added that community involvement in maintaining biodiversity shouldn’t just end at the trees in their front yards.

For the long-term preservation of biodiversity, Lamers advocates for harvesting rights and regulations in forests created and monitored with local institutions such as farmers’ associations or village committees.

“The big problem in forestry and natural areas is the free rider attitude, which is caused by high human population pressure combined with little recognition and ownership rights for smallholder farmers and eroded village institutions. So farmers are not given the responsibility of maintaining biodiversity,” he said.

Governments auction the harvest rights of buffer zone forest in the Western Ghats to only few traders, providing huge profits to government and those traders, as some fruits (Garcinia gummigatta) receive a huge price in the international pharmaceutical market as ingredient for weight loss products.

“Thus the incentives and responsibilities connected to biodiversity, doesn’t reach those men and women that collect the fruits from the forest. As a result, there are unsustainable harvesting practices, trees are damaged or cut down and we lose diversity.”

Some key participatory methods of the CBM approach that were tried out include the organisation of diversity fairs, developing a fruit catalogue together with the community, and safeguarding local species and varieties in diversity blocks. They can be in a school garden or the land of a few farmers. Or they can be planted in the locally respected sacred groves or community forests.

They also piloted self-help groups among the local ladies to process and market non-timber forest products like jam, pickles, candles, soap and dehydrated juice mixes from most promising species and varieties.

Through these many strategies, Lamers said biodiversity could be conserved in and around rural farms the world over.

“With on-farm conservation systems, the benefits can be from nutrition or income generation, depending on the specific location and context,” he said. “The important thing is to involve communities in protection of biological diversity rather than creating exclusive government protected areas.”

This work forms part of the CGIAR research program, on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in partnership with Bioversity International, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and the World Agroforestry Centre

See Hugo’s presentation from Tree Diversity Day here.

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