Biodiversity Conservation and Food Security in the Kalarhari in Botswana

The development of conservative strategies for the preservation of dryland species, and for the responsible use and management of arid lands is probably the world's most pressing problem in landscape management. (Mollison, 1990: 308)


Dryland ecosystems cover almost half of the earth's land area, and they are growing rapidly. Due to population growth, inappropriate agricultural practices and overexploitation of natural resoures, a high amount of dryland land is already degraded and therefore declared as being useless by the United Nations. As a consequence, biodiversity is decreasing drastically, and local and global food security is threatened. The Kalahari in Botswana is a dryland region which has been characterised by dramatic changes of the natural environment and therefore of land-use patterns and economic conditions for local communities. These negative developments have led to conflicts about natural resources as well as to increasing poverty. To solve the problems of the Kalahari and of other dryland ecosystems, sustainable ways of agriculture need to be found urgently. One promising solution is permaculture (permanent agriculture), a human and nature-centered design method which is based on cooperation among all elements of an ecosystem and which observes and adapts natural processes and effective traditional agricultural practices.
This study examines the role permaculture can play in sustaining agriculture in dryland ecosystems such as the Kalahari in Botswana. First of all, characteristics and problems of dryland ecosystems will be analysed by refering to academic literature - for example articles published in the Journal of Arid Environments - and information provided by the United Nations. Afterwards, specific features of biodiversity and food security in the Kalahari in Botswana will be investigated, and conditions necessary for sustainable agriculture in the region will be discussed. As a solution, permaculture will be analysed. This part mainly refers to articles by Bill Mollison, ecologist and founder of permaculture, as well as on articles published by the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia. The last part of this study will analyse the potential as well as problems of permaculture and present lessons learnt.

Characteristics and Problems of Dryland Ecosystems

Dryland ecosystems, such as the Kalahari in Botswana, cover more than 40 percent of the world's land area. They are defined as lands with limited and inconsistent rainfalls, with most of the rain concentrated during a short and hot rainy season as flash floods or sudden downpours (United Nations, 2000: 2-3; Mollison, 1979: 56). Other characteristics of drylands are heat stress, salinity, deforestation, soil erosion, as well as often occuring diseases and pests (Mollison, 1990: 308; Solh, 2003: 5). The United Nations estimate that some 79 percent of drylands used for agriculture are already degraded, which means they are unproductive due to soil and water erosion and soil salinisation, among other factors (Adeel/Suzuki, n/A: 1).

Drylands are home to a high number of unique species, and many important crop and animal species originate from deserts. Dryland species and ecosystems have developed strategies to cope with very dry climatic conditions. These adaptive traits are highly significant for local and global food security, especially in the context of climate change (Bonkoungou, n/A: 3). Therefore, drylands are a significant source of genes and important for the global environment (Darkoh, 2003: 263). "However, the fragility of the dryland ecosystems, the rapid population growth, the increasing pressure on natural resources, the use of inappropriate farming practices and the lack of enabling policies have led to serious degradation of agricultural biodiversity, which contributes to desertification and global climatic changes." (Solh et al., 2003 : 7)

In general - although dependent on conditions in different regions -, most threatening disturbances are commercial farming and monocultures, poor management of water resources, deforestation, environmental pollution, introduction of non-native species and overexploitation of natural resources (Bonkoungou, n/A: 3-4, 12; Adeel/Suzuki, n/A: 1; Geist/Lambin, 2004: 817). Thus, factors can be economic, agricltural, demographic, technological, climatic, political, or cultural. Usually, multiple proximate causes and underlying driving forces interact (Geist/Lambin, 2004: 819, 827).

Biodiversity and Food Security in the Kalahari in Botswana

Botswana in the centre of Southern Africa is characterised by predominantly flat terrain with occasionally rocky tablelands. The climate is semi-arid, with the Western parts receiving less than 250mm rain per year. Most of the population lives in the Eastern parts of the country. The Kalahari desert, which constitutes 77 percent of the total area of Botswana, is located in central and western districts. It is characterised by shrub savannah, and the few grasslands are used for pastoral farming (UN in Botswana, 2001; UNDP Botswana, n/A).

Source: United Nations in Botswana The Kalahari is characterised by rapid and dramatic changes of the natural environment and therefore of land-use patterns and economic conditions for people living in the region. Fast changes often make it impossible for local institutions to adapt land-use practices to the new conditions (Darkoh, 2003: 271). As a consequence of an increase in human activities - for example human settlements and the introduction of heavy livestock grazing - , the Kalahari ecosystem is threatened by food insecurity, natural resources conflicts and land-use pressure (Moleele/Mainah, 2003: 405-406).

The desert is home to a high number of plant and animal species - many of them do not occur anywhere else. In recent years, numbers of plants and animals have decreased due to declines in rainfall and soil moisture (Ringrose et al., 2003: 297, 310-311), because most of the indigenous species are not adapted to extremely dry climatic conditions (Mollison, 1990: 308). In addition, population growth and agricultural practices - such as the expansion of arable cultivation on marginal lands, the removal of trees as well as baring of landscapes - have led to habitat changes and a loss of biodiversity. As in other African countries, mismanagement and wasting of resources and finance that had been supposed to be spent for biodiversity conservation have increased the problems (Darkoh, 2003: 263-264, 271-273). As a consequence, more than 150 species are threatened with extinction (UNDP Botswana, n/A). However, Darkoh makes clear: "If properly managed, agriculture should not be the 'bugbear' of biodiversity in African drylands. Unfortunately, however, because of the way it is perceived and practised, it has become the 'enemy' rather than the facilitator of biodiversity." (Darkoh, 2003: 273)

Sustainable Agriculture in the Kalahari

Ways towards sustainable agriculture in the Kalahari need to be found urgently. According to Mainguet/da Silva, agriculture in drylands and therefore in the Kalahari can only be sustainable under the following conditions:

1. No deep ploughing because the soils are shallow and light.
2. Reduced dependance on external energy and better of natural clean renewable energy (…).
3. Reduced use of fertilizers and agricutural chemicals (…).
4. Appropriate scale of irrigation in tune with the amount of evapotranspiration, and risks of salinization, sodication ad copaction: for example, surface and sprinkler irrigation are not suitable for dry lands. (Mainguet/d Silva, 1998 : 380)

They make clear that priority should be given to rehabilitation in small projects and that the relationship between human societies and the natural ecosystem should be more harmonious (Mainguet/da Silva, 1998 : 380-381). Darkoh argues that agricultural intensification in terms of input-output maximisation can only be counterproductive (Darkoh, 2003: 273) and recommends to sustain agriculure through the following modifications:

1. More rational use of nutrients, space and energy in all land-use systems.
2. Greater recycling of nutrients.
3. Better use of biological resources to raise and maintain yields of crops and livestock.
4. Greater appreciation for use of indigenous knowledge, especially of neglected crops that could help improve livelihoods and the environment.
5. More effective measures for soil and water conservation.
6. The development of 'environmental corridors' in landscapes that have been transformed by agriculture and livestock raising.
7. More emphasis on agrodiversity, agroforestry and organic farming systems. (Darkoh, 2003: 274)
To be successful, biodiversity conservation and food production should incorporate African values, knowledge systems and priorities. Furthermore they should take into consideration the fact that in dryland systems - as in other systems - all elements influence each other (Darkoh, 2003: 275).

Permaculture as a Solution for the Kalahari

Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. (…) Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms. (Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, 2005b)

Principles of Permaculture

Permaculture is a promising solution for sustainable agriculture in the Kalahari, because it incorporates all principles and reforms mentioned above. The concept was developed in Australia in the late 1970s by Bill Mollison, and since then over a hundred permaculture institutes have been established in developing countries. John Madeley argues that "food output can be increased sustantially by the use of permaculture methods" (Madeley, 2000: 145). One of the main advatages of permaculture is that it does not need trade and that it relies on and strengthens traditional knowledge (Madeley, 2000: 146-147).

The concept bases on the assumption that all species are native to earth. The principle of permaculture is cooperation instead of competition among elements of natural systems, for example dryland ecosystems. Thus, it means working with rather than against nature through thoughtful observation, and it includes looking at systems and their elements in all their functions and allowing ecosystems to demonstrate their own evolutions (Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, 2005b).

In permaculture projects, all needs of a system for energy are provided by the system itself, not by external energies as in modern crop agriculture. Permacultural ecosystems are not human-centered, which means that almost all species are cultivated for the use of humans or their livestock, but their basis is a coexistence and cooperation of all species (Mollison, 1990: 2-3). Thus, it also aims at wilderness conservation (Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, 2005b). Ethical principles of permaculture are 1) "Care of the Earth", which means to ensure for all life systems to continue and multiply, 2) "Care of people", which involves providing access to resources necessary to their existence for all people, and 3) "Setting limits to population and consumption" (Mollison, 1990: 2). The concept includes the following:

1. Care for surviving natural assemblies, to leave the wilderness to heal itself.
2. Rehabilitate degraded or eroded land using complex pioneer species and long-term plant assemblies (trees, shrubs, ground covers).
3. Create our own complex living environment with as many species as we can save, or have need for, from wherever on earth they come. (Mollison, 1990: 7)
The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia concludes: "Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of a stable social order." (Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, 2005b)

Permaculture in Practice

Permaculture is used in more than 400,000 projects - in home gardens, large farms and whole geographic regions - in 120 countries around the world (Ayesh, 2005). It focuses on rehabilitating agricultural land which has already been settled and on re-thinking agricultural practices (Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, 2005b). People have lived successfully in drylands, such as the Kalahari, for thousands of years through effective agricultural techniques, also in areas with low precipitation and high salinities (Fargher, 1985a: 1). According to Mollison, most deserts have a lot of vegetation, and desert vegetation has the potential to grow very quickly, because soils are unexploited and therefore full of minerals. Permaculture studies and adopts natural processes: "Observe what happens in nature and then imitate it, adapt strategies that have already evolved accidentally." (Mollison, 1981: 6) According to Mollison, there are two integrated approaches to drylands. The first approach uses species and techniques of known effect, the second one devises new techniques in the modern idiom (Mollison, 1979: 56). Both are promising approaches for the Kalahari.

Water Management

However, plants and animals cannot grow and survive without water, and most of the time water is not sufficient in the Kalahari. Thus, water - not food - is the limiting factor in the desert. "With their abundant insolation and often fertile soils, water is the only element missing for a modest agricultural system to be developed in arid areas, using appropriate species" (Fargher, 1985a: 1). Especially in regions that are characterised by salinity, the collection and storage of fresh rain water is vital for the success of agricultural systems. The key is to concentrate precipitation onto cultivated areas (Fargher, 1985a: 1).
A high number of water harvesting techniques can be used in the Kalahari, for example the creation of catchments, runoffs, dams, swales, underground water storages, tanks, and rockholes (Fargher, 1985a: 1-8). One of the most effective solutions for collecting a high amount of water is to create permanent lagoons through silt traps and dams. Another method for conserving water in drylands is drip irrigation, which can be very primitive (Mollison, 1981: 2-4).

Erosion Management

Erosion means a process in which land surfaces are worn away by wind, water and other erosive forces. In arid and semi-arid lands like in the Kalahari, wind and water erosion often compliment each other. Erosion can occur naturally, but agricultural practices that lead to a removal or depletion of the cover of vegetation increase its devastating impacts. Wind erosion takes place in dry windy climates, when light soils are lacking particle cohesion, and when there is no adequate vegetative or mulch covering. Only if all three conditions are present, wind erosion occurs. It can be prevented by changing one or more of the three necessary conditions through maintenance of adequate vegetation cover, climate management and soil management. Methods are revegetation, shelter belt and wind break design and mulching - for example through tillage -, amongst others (Fargher, 1985b: 1-7, 9).

Water erosion is the most destrucive erosive environmental force. The consequences are a removal of soil material and plant nutrients as well as a loss of water available for the soil. Water erosion can be caused by precipitation and water runoff. It can be best prevented by reducing water velocity, for example by increasing vegetative cover and infiltration through contour banks, pasture swales, waterways, gully filling and planting (Fargher, 1985b: 1-3, 7-8).

Other Reforms

In additon to water harvesting and erosion management, in dryland ecosystems such as the Kalahari, it is important to achieve termite resistance, because one of the main problems of deserts are termites. Other important factors for sustaining agriculture in drylands are to plant trees that provide their environment with high shade and to put moisture barriers in the ground (Mollison, 1981: 4-5). Besides from that, in a desert like the Kalahari, it is essential to mulch and rock mulch and to plant high mulch production species, for example tamarisks (Mollison, 1981: 2-4). Mollison concludes: "It is necessary to take advantage of all the natural features of the desert" (Mollison, 1981: 3).


Farmers in drylands who practise permaculture usually achieve much higher crop yields than with commercial farming whithout using any outside inputs such as fertilisers. Through permaculture, farmers are able to use large parts of their land for rainfall harvesting, because they need much less land to get the same yields as before (Madeley, 2000: 146-147).

One example for an effective permaculture design is the Dead Sea Valley Permaculture Project in Jordan which has been established in 2000 on a flat ten acre, very dry, highly salted, very alkaline piece of land by a Janapnese and a Jordanian aid organisation. The land - with 400 metres below sea level the lowest piece of land in the world (Lawton/Lawton, 2005) - had been declared as useless by the local agricultural department due to its very high soil salt level and a pH of 9.5 to 10.

In the beginning of the project, a 72 hour Permaculture Design Certificate course was taught to men and women in the Moslem region, and during the maintenance of the project, local farmers were taught regularly. The project involved the construction of water harvesting swales and a deep dam, which is essential in an area of extreme evaporation. Furthermore, drip irrigation was installed under layers of thick organic mulch, and fences were built to protect the area from free ranging goats and sheep. A diversity of fruit trees as well as fast growing pioneers and nitrogen fixing trees were planted - 1,510 trees altogether - to imitate the natural ecosystem.

Four months after the planting, the fruit trees were already growing very well. This indicated a decrease of salt levels and the pH as well as an improvement in the soil fertility, although farmers had been forced to use salted irrigation water (they only needed 1/5th of the amount of water which was used on other farms of similar size). One year after the planting, some places of the area were salt-free with a pH of 7.5. A small forest was being resembled along the contour lines of the water harvesting systems, and an education center was being built. The project attracted much attention from official bodies, environmental organisations, schools and local farmers (Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, 2005a).

Other projects conducted in drylands also have proven permaculture to reduce soil salinity and improve soil fertility. Furthermore, they have shown that permaculture can play a crucial role in improving water use efficiency, in conserving and reintroducing animal and plant species, and in combatting pests and diseases - without any need of fertilisers. In addition, permaculture helped to strengthen traditional knowledge and to enhance the stability of local communities (Ayesh, 2005).

Perspectives for the Kalahari

The analysis of characteristics and outcomes of permaculture have shown great potential of the design method to sustain agriculture in the Kalahari and therefore to conserve biodiversity and improve food security in the region. The principles of permaculture incorporate all agricultural conditions and reforms needed for sustainable agriculture in the Kalahari.

However, the analysis of reasons for the loss of biodiversity and for food insecurity in the Kalahari showed that problems do not only lie in agricultural practices, but also in missing enabling policies, in economic conditions, and poor environmental management, amongst others. Thus, permaculture is indeed a promising concept for small farms in the desert, but to be effective on large scale, other reforms on political, social and economic levels are needed. Permaculture cannot solve the problems of the Kalahari on its own, but it must go hand in hand with other solutions.

Reforms needed are:

1) establishing local research groups involving farmers, researchers, and extension agents (Øygard et al., 1999: 62-64),
2) increasing market incentives for producing biologically friendly products (Øygard et al., 1999: 64; Solh et al., 2003: 10-11; UN, 2000: 4),
3) designing policies that involve local communities in decision-making processes, consider traditional organisational structures, and recognise diverse cultural and social factors (Solh et al., 2003: 10-11),
4) restocking species through in-situ conservation and introducing soil conservation projects (Solh et al., 2003: 8-10; UN, 2000: 9), and
5) enacting education programs, for example through media reports and school curricula design (Solh et al., 2003: 12).

Lessons Learnt and Perspectives

The loss of biodiversity of dryland ecosystems is one of the world's most pressing problems and it is threatening food securiy - not only on a local, but als on a global level. This is what the analysis of problems of and challenges for the Kalahari desert has shown. Several factors are responsible for recent negative developments - with modern agricultural practices playing the largest role. Therefore, new sustainable forms of agriculture are needed urgently to combat the degradation of more and more pieces of land in the Kalahari. Experts recommend to refer to effective traditional agricultural techniques and to enhance the role of biologically friendly production methods. In this sense, permaculture can play a major role in replanting land, and in combination with regular workshops and large-scale education programs it also has the potential to help reforming agriculture in the region. However, permaculture will probably not be able to save biodiversity on its own, not in the Kalahari and not in other dryland ecosystems. Nevertheless, permaculture projects should be conducted in as many arid and -semi-arid parts of the world as possible, because - the other way round - wihout permacultue saving the drylans will not be possible, too.


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