How farmers around the world are protecting nature’s delicate balance – and reaping the rewards

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How farmers around the world are protecting nature’s delicate balance – and reaping the rewards

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Biodiversity sustains life. Healthy ecosystems are diverse ecosystems, with countless animals, plants, fungi and bacteria working together to sustain a complex balance.

The health of an ecosystem starts from the ground up: from the worms and fungi that make soil fertile to the insects that pollinate plants and trees. Genetic diversity within plant species, too, makes crops resilient to threats like new diseases and changing weather patterns. And healthy ecosystems can shield human homes from floods, drought, and other effects of climate change.

In fact, the availability and quality of food all over the world depends on biodiversity. And at IFAD, we believe that small-scale farmers are amongst its greatest stewards and beneficiaries.

For Merling (left), planting the right combination of trees was the key to getting her coffee plants to thrive.

Stronger together in Nicaragua

In Nicaragua, climate change is threatening coffee and cocoa, two crops that many small-scale farmers depend on. Higher temperatures cause coffee berries to ripen early, affecting their quality. Meanwhile, variable rainfall leaves cocoa more vulnerable to pests.

But, through the IFAD-supported NICADAPTA project, farmers have found that when the right trees and crops are interspersed with coffee and cocoa plants, all of them flourish.

Fast-growing plantain, for example, doesn’t just shade the coffee and cocoa plants: it also bears nutritious fruit of its own, and its leaves are ideal for green manure. Avocado and citrus trees, too, bear fruit to eat and sell. Timber trees like mahogany offer permanent shade and cooler temperatures, and the potential of future income. Leguminous and nitrogen-fixing plants condition the soil without needing fertilizer.

No wonder small-scale farmers can now plant coffee and cocoa in areas where previously it wasn’t possible.

For indigenous and Afro-descendant communities in Laguna de las Perlas, coffee cultivation is now opening new routes to prosperity. Merling Joines, a single mother of seven, credits coffee with finally being able to make ends meet. As she puts it: “At my age, being able to learn new things that make life easier is a great chance.”

Mr Atoy holds up a bottle of EM mixture in his flourishing vegetable garden in Lava-Tai village, Salavanh province, Lao PDR.

Rich soil yields dividends in Lao

Many rural-dwellers in Lao People’s Democratic Republic grow their own vegetables as a way to access a diverse and nutritious diet.

However, the soil in their vegetable gardens can be poor quality, and the produce is plagued with diseases and pests, reducing yield. Often, there’s little choice but to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These are expenses many rural-dwellers can’t bear, especially as global prices skyrocket. And, year after year, the soil remains hard and dry.

Now, the IFAD-funded FNML project is helping Lao small-scale farmers enhance the natural biodiversity in the soil by using effective micro-organisms (EM).

Mr Atoy has seen the benefits of EM first-hand. Once, the soil of his vegetable garden was red and dry, but today a dazzling variety of plants spring out from rich, black, living soil: cabbage, lettuce, coriander, leek, chili, long bean, cucumber, lemon, basil, morning glory and more.

To transform his soil, Mr Atoy combines a starter EM mixture with sugar, molasses and vegetable waste. After some days, a microbial soup is ready to be added to his vegetable garden.

Immediately, the bacteria, yeasts and fungi get to work: creating humus (the rich organic matter that gives healthy soil its dark colour), releasing plant hormones, and making nutrients accessible to plants. They keep pathogens and parasites in check and improve the soil so it retains nutrients and water. Creatures like earthworms return and help to churn the soil.

These micro-organisms are helping Mr Atoy enhance his family’s diet, earn extra income from selling produce, and improve the soil, while saving on fertilizer expenses.

“My garden is healthier than ever, my soil has good drainage. It has changed colour and become more fertile,” he says.

Seeds of growth in Chad

It’s always been hard to grow enough to thrive in Chad’s semi-arid region, a hot, dry area bordering the Sahara Desert. Now, climate change is making it even harder. Rainfall is less predictable, while droughts and floods are more frequent. Incomes and food availability are less reliable.

Here, the IFAD-supported PARSAT project is helping rural households adapt and flourish through agroecology, a way of farming that uses ecological principles to cultivate sustainably.

Crucial to its success is diversity, one of the 10 elements of agroecology. By optimizing the diversity of species and genetic resources, agroecological systems ensure households get enough food while conserving natural resources.

Farmers now use techniques like intercropping – growing cereals and soil-improving plants side by side – to increase soil fertility. They treat their livestock and crops as integrated systems: using crop by-products as fodder, and animal manure as fertilizer. They also use quality seeds that are well-adapted to local conditions, which they access through a network of seed multipliers established through PARSAT.

Biodiversity protects development gains

When biodiversity is lost, small-scale farmers around the world are amongst the worst affected. They’re more likely to be hit by the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, and they’re the least able to do anything about it.

Preserving and enhancing biodiversity is crucial for protecting their livelihoods and improving their food security. At IFAD, we integrate the protection, sustainable use, and promotion of biodiversity into all our operations, using our new Biodiversity Strategy as our guide.


Learn more about the nature-based solutions used in Lao and Nicaragua.

Read about our work in Chad.

Find out why IFAD believes agrobiodiversity is the way forward for small-scale farmers.