Green Business Grows in Zambia

August 22, 2011

WCS’s COMACO program in Zambia transforms poachers into organic farmers, benefitting local communities and wildlife alike. A new study documents the program’s growing success.

From the sky above, things in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley are starting to look different. Populations of zebra, wildebeest, and antelope dot the savannah. Fields of peanuts and peppers are growing taller. And a new green workforce has taken root.

A recent aerial survey over this remote corner of East Africa showed that wildlife decimated by poaching in the 1980s and 1990s have stabilized or are increasing. The survey was part of a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) documenting the success of WCS’s COMACO (Community Markets for Conservation) program. COMACO uses an innovative business model to improve rural livelihoods while simultaneously restoring local wildlife populations. (Visit the COMACO website here.)

Begun in 2003, COMACO has been teaching rural villagers—including former poachers—sustainable agriculture methods that improve crop yields and reduce deforestation. The program then helps them earn more by adding value to crops, such as selling peanut butter instead of peanuts. Importantly, participants receive access to national and international commodity and retail markets. COMACO links membership in the cooperative business with wildlife conservation by having new participants turn in their guns and snares. The program’s leaders also monitor the sustainable practices.

“COMACO represents a pragmatic solution to several related problems that plague rural Africa: poverty, deforestation, and loss of wildlife,” said WCS’s Dale Lewis, founder of COMACO and the study’s lead author. “This study documents COMACO’s initial successes and outlines some of the challenges that lie ahead to ensure the program’s long-term success.”

Since its founding, the program has trained more than 40,000 farmers, who have voluntarily turned in 61,000 wire snares and 1,467 guns. The program has expanded from two locations in the Luangwa Valley to a growing network of sites surrounding national parks, providing the parks’ wildlife residents with a buffer from poaching and snares.

In addition to environmental benefits, the study showed that COMACO farmers, particularly women, had higher crop yields than their peers who didn’t participate in the program. In response, many conventional farmers are now adopting sustainable farming methods, learning from their COMACO-trained neighbors. Consequently, soil quality has improved, too.

As a business, COMACO is diversifying its products and markets. For example, the participants now produce high-energy protein supplements that are sold to Catholic Relief Services and the World Food Program for feeding orphans, HIV patients, and refugees.

These efforts have allowed COMACO to move consistently toward an economic break-even point.

“They are trying to do something that very few wildlife and social interventions have ever dreamed of, which is to become self-sufficient,” said co-author Alexander Travis of Cornell University’s Baker Institute for Animal Health.

Funding for COMACO has been provided by the Royal Norwegian Embassy, Howard Buffett Foundation, Mulago Foundation, Lundin Foundation, CARE International, General Mills, William Lloyd, and Harvey and Heidi Bookman. USAID, Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and the Cornell Center for Wildlife Conservation provided research funding.

To read more about the study, see the press release.

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