The Northern, Upper East and Upper West Regions have the highest incidence of poverty, food insecurity and the least climate resilient. As smallholder farmers, decreasing annual rainfall, erratic rainfall patterns due to climate change are affecting rural livelihoods adversely.
For instance, the Upper East Region, which falls within the Sudan Savanna zone, is known for a uni-modal rainfall regime lasting five to six months and a long dry period of six to seven months. Average annual rainfall of 885mm can be very patchily distributed and farmers sow seeds two or three times before the rains set in reliably somewhere in July or August.
Predominantly, farmers’ household food security becomes a major problem despite the fact that they tediously and labouriously till the land for cropping each year.
It is significant to note that crops such as the late and early millets which used to yield a lot of produce for the farmers to enable them feed their families and to secure some in their food barns for the lean seasons no longer turn out with good yields and this has adversely affected food security in the region- a trend that clearly reflects in higher incidence of poverty. The highest proportion of food-insecure households in the country is found in the Upper East Region where 28 percent of the people are either severely or moderately food insecure.
The phenomenon has necessitated a feeding calendar to be instituted by many deprived households in the region particularly in the rural areas. Between September and January some households are able to feed three times a day. March to June, twice daily and from July to August once in a day and in some cases not at all because food is simply not available. It is very significant to point out that the scenario in the Upper East Region is not only confined to that region alone, but cuts across the Northern and Upper West Regions also.
Effects of weak ecosystem services
The question one may pause to ask is: what might have accounted for the plight of these regions? The answer is not far from fetched. It is scientifically proven beyond reasonable doubts that what has accounted for this is the mismanagement of the ecosystem which plays a very important role in the survival of human life on this earth.
The valuable environmental services provided by natural ecosystems are too often lost as a result of mismanagement and lack of incentives to preserve them. Natural ecosystems provide a variety of environmental services. A typical example is that forests, in addition to all their other functions including the conservation of biodiversity, retain rainfall and snowmelt, filter water and release it gradually for other hydrological services. Yet these hydrological services may not be appreciated until deforestation results in floods and degradation of water quality, increasing the vulnerability of downstream populations and threatening their health and livelihoods as often experienced in the Northern Region periodically.
Perhaps land users typically receive no compensation for the services their land generates for others and, therefore, have no economic reasons to take these services into account in making decisions about land use.
Payments for Environmental Services (PES) intervention
However, with the introduction of the Payments for Environmental Services (PES) by the Sustainable Land and Water Management Project (SLWMP) in the three regions, all is not lost. The PES is a major tool for the restoration of the ecosystems and the effective management and conservation of natural resources. There is hope and a brighter future for farmers and landowners in these regions.
The Payments for Environmental Services, also known as payments for ecosystem services, are payments to farmers or landowners who have agreed to take certain actions to manage their land or watersheds to provide an ecological service as a means of ensuring the conservation of natural resources. This would in no doubt motivate and encourage farmers and landowners to adopt sound Sustainable Land and Water Management practices.
The PES Scheme has already begun in earnest in the Northern, Upper East and Upper West Regions. Under the project, four hundred and fifty (450) farmers in the three regions who are undertaking specific Sustainable Land and Water Management interventions are being paid under the PES concept on a pilot basis. This is to enable such beneficiaries manage their land sustainably, protect the riparian vegetation of rivers, improve the vegetative cover to provide ecological services.
The PES under the Sustainable Land and Water Management Project is being sponsored by the World Bank and being implemented by the Ministry of Science, Environment, Technology and Innovation (MESTI) through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in collaboration with other stakeholders including the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA).
Speaking to the Ghana News Agency (GNA) in Bolgatanga on Wednesday, the Upper East Regional Director of the EPA, Mr. Asher Nkegbe, explained that the scheme would not only contribute to land degradation neutrality but would also help address climate change issues.
During a visit by this writer to the Asasong Community in the Kassena-Nankana West District in the Upper East Region, which is one of the beneficiary communities of the PES scheme, farmers and landowners were seen busy working to protect the ecosystem including forest reserves, sacred groves and biodiversity, watersheds among others.
Mr. Nkegbe, who is also the United Nations’ Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) National Focal Point for Ghana, stated that the instances where most community members engage in negative practices such as the indiscriminate and illegal logging, cutting down of trees for charcoal production, rampant bush burning would be a thing of the past now that the communities have alternative source of livelihoods.
“With the introduction of the PES scheme, which is a market-based mechanism and offers incentives in the form of supplementary incomes to the farmers and landowners for protecting, preserving and conserving the ecological zones in the areas, the communities are now managing the natural resources,” he said.
He added: “Typically with the PES, forest owners or farmers are paid to manage their resources to protect watersheds, conserve biodiversity, capture carbon dioxide through tree planting [and] natural regeneration to ensure sound Sustainable Land and Water Management. Negative practices such as the indiscriminate and illegal logging, cutting down of trees for charcoal production, rampant bush burning such negative practices will be stopped.”
Mr. Nkegbe, who stated that the concept had garnered substantial international interest as a cost-effective means to improving environmental management and livelihoods, cited Chile, France, Costa Rica, Brazil, Vietnam and Uganda as some of the countries that had reaped a lot of benefits from the concept.
He stressed that the approach which recognises the important role the environment plays towards the general wellbeing of people would be replicated in other communities depending on the success story of the pilot phase.
Mr. Nkegbe urged the beneficiary farmers and landowners to put up their best to ensure that other communities also benefit from the project and indicated that the PES scheme, aside from conserving the natural resources for posterity, also empowers the lower-income communities to earn money to help improve upon their livelihoods.
He assured the beneficiary farmers and landowners that once the project had signed a contract with them, their payments would be lodged at rural and community banks and would surely be paid based on their performance contract.
According to him, work done by the beneficiary farmers would be assessed after the first six months and one-third of their contract sum would be paid if they were able to achieve 70% of the earmarked results. Then, the rest of the money would be paid after the next six months on condition that work done is satisfactory. He said farmers could also forfeit the contract sum if they bridged the contract.
“This is a critical rallying point because many rural people depend largely on the natural resources to make a living. The scheme is a powerful tool for providing additional employment and supplementary income for the rural community members,” Mr. Nkegbe affirmed.
The Regional Director stated that the new scheme also had a great potential to increase agricultural productivity by improving soil fertility and rainfall patterns to boost up harvests and ensure food security for the rural poor.
USAID-funded Feed the Future Ghana Agriculture and Natural Resources Management Project
To help make greater impact in restoring the ecosystem in the three northern regions, there is the need to scale up PES Scheme to reach more communities in the three regions.
Much as environmental protection plays an integral function in food security, the introduction of Feed the Future Ghana Agriculture and Natural Resources Management Project, a 5-year initiative funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), abbreviated as USAID-AgNRM, is a welcoming development.
The project, which is yet to be implemented by Winrock International and its partners in the three northern regions, seeks to provide a scalable, integrated landscape approach to support sustainable economic development and rural livelihoods. It is also aimed at, increasing nutrition, providing climate change adaptation and strengthening natural resources in northern Ghana. For such a laudable project, the PES should be integrated into its implementation process. This would in no doubt help in the conservation of watersheds and biodiversity corridors as well as the promotion of trans-boundary solutions and ecosystem services.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that the PES Module is among the best Sustainable Land and Water Management interventions that can be used to effectively manage and conserve natural resources in northern Ghana as well as help mitigate climate change and reverse land degradation in the three regions which would eventually lead into the increase of household food security.
Mr Asher Nkegbe, the United Nations' Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) National Focal Point for Ghana