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Conservation International (CI) is a nonprofit organization operating with a mission to protect nature, and its biodiversity. It works in over 30 countries across the world including four in Africa. Working with the motto “Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature”, CI runs a program called Vital Signs set up to provide near real-time data and diagnostic tools to leaders around the world to help inform agricultural decisions and monitor their outcomes.
Capital’s Eskedar Kifle sat down with Sandy J. Andelman (Ph.D), Chief scientist for Conservation International, to talk about the expected outcome from the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) that was held in Addis Ababa this week, as well as Conservation International’s work in Africa.
Capital: Please introduce yourself and explain what you do.
Sandy J. Andelman: I am the Chief scientist for Conservation International which is an international NGO based in Washington DC. We work in about 30 countries and our mission is to sustain nature for people.
I also lead a program called Vital Signs which is funded by the Gates Foundation and that is why I am here at AGRF. The aim is really to measure the benefits of nature for people and for farming. For example, there is a lot of talk here at the Forum about better seeds, better technology and market access but the bottom line is that you can have the best seeds available but if you do not have healthy soil, if you do not have enough water and if you do not have pollination, then agriculture is not going to be productive and people are not going to thrive.
We are trying to include that in the equation by measuring all of these things together; human livelihoods, farm productivity, farm management and the health of eco systems.
Capital: So far how have you perceived the Forum; what has the participation been like?
Andelman: We had a pre-event that we co-convened with the government of Tanzania. This was the first country where we stared Vital Signs and the session was on Tanzania’s National Climate Resilience Plan and how Vital Signs is providing the data and indicators to support the implementation of that plan and the tracking of the investments.
One of the things we developed was a Resilience Index which is a quantitative measure of the resilience of livelihoods, crops and livestock productivity and eco systems and carbon stocks to climate variability and shocks. This is something we are now able to produce in an automated map at all of the scales that are relevant for agricultural decision making.
Capital: Do you have this Index for different African countries?
Andelman: In Tanzania and Ghana, we are starting in Uganda and we have a pilot project in Rwanda. We work through partnership with governments and local NGOs and make grants to local organizations and provide the capacity building to collect and use this information in decision making.
So for example in Tanzania, in the Kilombero Valley, which is the government’s key area for rice intensification, after the first two years starting the rice intensification, streams that were running year round, are now not running at all. So the government wants to know, is this because they have drawn too much water for the irrigation, is this because climate change, is it because of deforestation and the mountains are capturing the water or is it a combination of all of these things?
To answer those questions, you need this kind of integrated data where we understand what the trade offs are and the feedback between different types of agriculture, climate, water and soil health.
We were at the AGRF two years ago in Arusha, Tanzania and we were the only session then that dealt with the importance of the environment for agricultural production. We had to work very hard for them to include us on the agenda. But this year, there is a stream on climate change adaptation and there is a real change in the program for the Forum and in the level of interest in recognizing that the environment is essential to sustaining productivity.
Capital: What do you do exactly in African countries?
Andelman: The scientific framework is a single over arching framework and we have a statistical design that then we map to each country. The data are collected in a systematic way by teams of people on the ground and also using remote sensing to tie it all together.
The data collection and the methods are all consistent across different countries so we can understand what the general solutions are and what locally specific solutions are. But the operational model is really very context specific.
In Tanzania, our local partner is an NGO although we work hand in hand with the government. The implementing organization is an NGO which was actually the recommendation of the government to get things going really quickly.
In Ghana, we work through the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which is under the Ministry of Environment Science and Technology. We are in discussions right now in Ethiopia and we would be working through the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA).
Capital: There are perceptions in Ethiopia as well as other African countries that this Forum would open the gates to GMO seeds. What do you say about that?
Andelman: I think there is a lot that can be done with conventional breeding of seeds to improve them. I am not absolutely opposed to GMOs, I am open minded, but, what I think is we have to be very careful where GMOs are released.
Ethiopia is such an important center of crop wild relatives and the country is a place where you would want to be very careful about releasing GMOs because of concerns about what will happen of changing the genetic diversity of these varieties.
Capital: You have seen the data regarding the environment of different countries, what is the status there?
Andelman: It is a very big challenge. When we start working in these countries we hold consultative meetings with stakeholders and one of the things we have heard from governments, universities and NGOs is that often, they don’t have access to the data from their own countries because they are sitting in flash drives, in desk drawers or on paper reports on one person’s computer. And so, partly we are collecting new data, but partly we are trying to mobilize data that already exists.
We are partnering with a Kenyan NGO called Ushahidi which is an IT NGO that is really about using technology to change the flow of information and for social benefit. They have done a lot of work on disaster relief and we got together with them and realized that we could leverage a lot of tools they developed for disaster relief, for mobilizing information about the environment. That is really an exciting partnership.
Vital Signs started in Africa because 2/3 of the world’s arable land that is not currently used for agriculture is in Africa and so the continent is the key to not just for feeding itself but the whole world is now looking at Africa. The question I think is will Africa repeat the mistakes of the first green revolution which really had a lot of negative environmental unintended consequences or will African countries really approach agricultural intensification and food security in a way that is going to be sustainable.
Capital: What kind of outcome are you looking for from this year’s AGREF?
Andelman: For us, I think, the outcome is in partnership with African countries where we are working to present this model, which is essentially knowledge and decision to use evidence based approaches to decision making and to present that to the range of stakeholders here from other African governments, to the private sector to civil society organizations to say that, is this a model that has value to other countries? So that can help us decide how to move forward. So far, it has been an extremely positive response in part driven by concerns about climate change.
One last thing I would like to say is that, you know when Astronauts are sent to space, they have a whole life support system that depends on data about if they have enough food, if they have enough clean air to breath, if they have enough water to drink and when you think about it, it is really kind of crazy that we don’t have a system like that for managing the earth and the resources that humanity needs. So that is really what we are trying to create.