Jim Gockowski: Sustainable intensification of agriculture

Jim Gockowski
Jim Gockowski

Jim Gockowski is an agricultural economist with the Sustainable Tree Crops Program (STCP) based in IITA-Ghana.

About 15 years ago, the Rockefeller Science Foundation offered Jim the opportunity to work in any five of CGIAR centers. His wife’s passion for Africa and Cameroon in particular made the family to choose IITA. In this interview with Atser Godwin, Gockowski shares his experience as he works in Africa for Africa.

Tell us about your work.
When I first started with IITA in 1995, I was involved in the Alternative to Slash and Burn Program. This was a system-wide program looking at issues of deforestation along the forest margins and trying to come up with alternatives to extensive agriculture that uses the forest as an input in the production system. Also, beginning in 2000, we got involved with STCP, which is a public-private partnership between the global chocolate industry and USAID that is focused on the cocoa belt of West Africa and is working on sustainable improvement of livelihoods of cocoa- producing households.

What has been its impact?
We do lots of evaluation, and we try and do some policy work with our studies and findings.

The impact of the social sciences in the STCP and the Alternative to Slash and Burn Program has been on two levels: One is on policy levels that is providing information and evidence, and the impact of policies or in some cases the lack of policies on livelihoods, outcomes, and the environment.

The other impact is in helping to transfer developed products—basically knowledge on natural resources management—to farmers. We have done this through development of curriculums for farmers’ field schools. We are also involved with some of the climate negotiations around the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) initiative.

What have been the impacts of STCP?
We have trained over 120,000 farmers in five countries of West Africa. We have also worked with farmer organizations to strengthen their efforts through collective marketing with probably over 40,000 households being affected. These are probably two major impacts with the STCP. Farmers from the field school training have seen returns increased by between 40 and 43%.

What is REDD all about?
REDD is a means of reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. It was a coalition of rainforest countries that got together in 2007 at the conference of the parties of the Kyoto protocol. They put their REDD agenda on the negotiating table in terms of the climate negotiation. The basic concept is that as developing countries, they need to provide jobs for their people and one way that is historical is to convert the rainforest into production agriculture or other forms of earning livelihoods.

The REDD idea is the concept of economic compensation to countries with tropical rainforests for their foregone opportunities of not deforesting the rainforest.

IITA-STCP works with partners to improve the livelihoods of households in cocoa-based production systems in West Africa. Photo by S. David, IITA.
IITA-STCP works with partners to improve the livelihoods of households in cocoa-based production systems in West Africa. Photo by S. David, IITA.

What is the IITA project called Fertilizers-for-Forest (F4F)?
What we know in West and Central Africa is that agriculture is the principal driving force for deforestation and in particular the practice of slash and burn. When this happens, you get wood ash that is loaded with potassium and some trace amounts of nitrogen. The wood ash improves the soil but it is not a sustainable practice.

The idea of Fertilizers-for-Forest is really about sustainable intensification led by policy changes that would offer farmers an alternative to cutting down the forest and burning to get wood ash. The alternative is that instead of cutting the forest to get the biomass, let’s use fertilizers.

We believe that this type of intensification is necessary for preserving what is being left of the West African forest which is 18% of what it used to be. It is also one way that we can conserve the Congo basin rainforest.

How do you see IITA playing a role in mitigating the effects of climate change?
There are two ways that we can play a role. One is to support policy-led intensification projects by working with NARES partners and better soil fertility management options. This will take away pressure on the rainforest and help in reducing global warming. This is on the mitigation side. Again, we know that climate is getting warmer, with predictions that in the next 70 years, temperatures could rise by more than three degrees. We also know that agricultural productivity doesn’t respond positively to warmer temperatures hence there will be a reduction in yields. So we need to be focused on the climate response of our major production systems as it proceeds. It will be a gradual thing but we need to be strategic about it. We need to strategize.

On the adaptation side, we need to be working on drought-tolerant crops. We need to do adaptive research that would allow the African smallholder farmers to deal with a change in climate.

Another area is that of institutions. We have problems with our credit markets, crop insurance, and input markets. We need to strengthen these institutions and a government policy that favors the private sector approach that doesn’t distort markets.

What are some of the positive changes that you are seeing in Africa?
From a rural perspective, I have seen a lot of self-empowerment. I think this is happening because democracy is playing its role by giving the rural majority a voice and that voice is starting to be heard. Again, I don’t think it will be business as usual because the population is growing quite fast and we need to feed these teeming millions. We need to modernize agriculture and African farmers are beginning to demand those from their public servants.

What makes your work successful?
If I have made any success, it is due to diligence. If you work hard, I guess good things result. We have a wonderful institute with a lot of good scientists and all that I can say is that I have been fortunate to work with very good scientists.