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Europe and Central Asia

This action plan can benefit birds, farmers, women and birders

By Kate Hand, 10 Mar 2016

What links Africa’s small scale farmers, gender equality and European birders? Migratory birds that form a tangible link between Europe, Central Asia and Africa. Unfortunately, the sight of some of them is becoming increasingly rare; for example, the Turtle Dove is the UK’s fastest declining bird species.

These declines led to a surge of interest in their conservation across the African-Eurasian flyway (the path these birds take to fly cross continent twice a year) from Russia to South Africa, and to the adoption (in November 2014) of a new UN instrument, the CMS African-Eurasian Migratory Landbirds Action Plan (AEMLAP). Although AEMLAP is not legally binding, it has already led to the establishment of a vibrant research network, and it has received a Darwin Initiative Fellowship award to support its implementation.

However, the beauty of AEMLAP lies not in its ability to bring the scientific community together, but to connect the concerns of migratory birds with wider debates about economic and social development along the flyway, particularly in Africa. Research suggests that habitat loss to land use change (for example, when parkland trees are cut down to make way for farms) may be a significant threat to African-Eurasian migratory landbirds like Turtle Doves.

We know that African land use will continue to change as countries develop – for example, agriculture has expanded by 57% in sub-Saharan Africa from 1975-2000, partly due to a growing human population with growing food needs. Meeting peoples’ needs for food, better and smarter food security, housing, infrastructure, and jobs without degrading the health of the ecosystem and the environmental resources that people rely on (for example, for clean drinking water) will require creative thinking from social, economic and environmental perspectives.

This is an ambition at the heart of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a global framework for development. But there are no easy solutions. What kind of cross-sector action might the SDGs support in agriculture, the biggest employer in most African countries, but one associated with 96% of all global deforestation cases?

One way to increase food production while reducing conversion of new land to agriculture is to increase productivity. Advisory services for farmers can help increase productivity (SDG target 2a), and many BirdLife Partners are already supporting local communities to farm more effectively, for example by raising funds that contribute to agricultural improvement in Rwandan wetlands, or planting indigenous trees that can support soil fertility in Burkina Faso.

There are added benefits to the local community where these initiatives include women (hence gender equality!), since women contribute almost 50% of the agricultural labour in Africa but are less likely to benefit from farm advice (SDG target 5.5).The reasons for include cultural norms around women meeting men they are not related to and the fact that because women tend to have lower levels of education than men, they are less likely to benefit from information and/ or training that is predominantly delivered through written materials.

Expanding the virtuous circle still further, development experts and environmentalists are working together to tackle climate change, which will hit the poorest first and hardest. BirdLife has been promoting ‘Ecosystem-based Adaptation’ (SDG 13.1), which supports adaptation to climate change impacts through greater ecosystem resilience.

For example, people may currently rely on a single crop for their livelihood, which is vulnerable to climatic changes like increased drought. An Ecosystem-based Adaption solution might encourage them to introduce a greater variety of more resilient crops that also support soil fertility, or food for wild birds that help with pollination. Introducing this approach into African small scale farms could support their productivity, increase their long-term resilience to climate change and empower women.

European birders have a stake in this too. Sixty-three percent of African bird species – including those that migrate to Europe – are expected to be negatively impacted by climate change. So AEMLAP and Ecosystem-based Adaptation might help not just Turtle Doves, but hundreds of other species. And since birds are excellent sentinels of ecosystem health, they may also be able to support our monitoring of healthy ecosystems.

In the coming months, we’ll be trying to put some of these virtuous circles in front of development and land use experts. We’re hoping that we can bring them together with BirdLife Partners and others in West Africa later this year, to pinpoint our biggest shared concerns around land use and to explore which solutions really work, to begin the process of collaboration. The objective will be to bring together disparate policy priorities and frameworks, develop solutions to address the drivers of unsustainable land use and implement equitable solutions that recognise and manage the needs of people, wildlife and ecosystems.