Saving Species, Saving Lives: Balancing Biodiversity and Human Needs in Sub-Saharan Africa

Dr. Mohamed Bakarr, assistant director general of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Nairobi, Kenya

people standing with their arms around each other
Dr. Mohamed Bakarr (fourth from left) with Center Associate Director
Marci McPhee (far left) and student ambassador hosts (left to right)
Jamie Pottern, Elyssa Kanet, Liz Robinson, and Rachel Bethany.

Distinguished Visiting Practitioner Residency
February 12-15, 2007

Dr. Bakarr was the inaugural Distinguished Practitioner. Prior to joining ICRAF, Dr. Bakarr served in various positions at Conservation International between 1997 and 2003. He was also member and Deputy Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, a volunteer global network of conservation professionals linked to the IUCN Program on Protected Areas based in Gland, Switzerland. Dr. Bakarr has expertise in a broad range of issues related to the tropics, but focuses mainly on linkages among biodiversity conservation, agriculture and human livelihoods in the African rainforest region. He has amassed a wealth of knowledge on the ecology and conservation challenges of Africa's forest ecosystems, particularly those of West Africa, which includes his native Sierra Leone.

Climate Change: Implications for Humanity and the Natural World

On February 13, Dr. Bakarr spoke on environmental degradation and possible solutions. He described Kenya as a case study in the way climate change can take its toll on human life and the natural ecosystem. In the last 60 years, erosion has resulted in deep gullies after a heavy rainfall, making large parts of the land unusable for farming and creating a 50-mile-long sediment plume in Lake Victoria.

"We can create protected areas for species today as if the earth is static," he said. "But the species may have to migrate out of the protected area to adapt to changing climate conditions. Climate change may mean that the species is doomed."

Describing his work at ICRAF, Bakarr defined agroforestry as the practice of planting fast-growing trees after the maize crop is harvested. This not only holds the soil but also adds another useable tree crop for the farmers, to be used for medicine, food, or as a live fence. Unfortunately, many farmers in sub-Saharan Africa don't own their land, so there is little long-term incentive for them to modify their centuries-old farming methods and learn new agroforestry techniques.

Impressed by the size and energy of the audience for his talk, Bakarr said, "It's inspiring to me to see students rising up and grappling with these issues that the whole world is concerned about." He left them with a challenge: "I hope you will find ways, regardless of your career path, to connect to this important issue and try to make an impact."

Keynote: Food Security and Agricultural Development in Sub-Saharan Africa

On February 14, despite a snowstorm that brought much of the University to a halt, a substantial audience turned out to hear the residency's keynote address. Food security, Dr. Bakarr explained, relates directly to United Nations Millennium Development Goal #1: eradicating extreme poverty. "Think of this as a human right," he said.

He described the difficulty of convincing farmers to plant fast-growing trees along with or after the main crop -- a practice which prevents erosion, provides a second crop, and increases the yield of the primary crop without expensive fertilizer. "We're not good at outreach to the farmers, involving them in processes and participation," said Dr. Bakarr.

One effort has been to teach these technology options to youth in the schools, with programs such as Farmers of the Future. However, Dr. Bakarr noted, "The theory is that if you get to go to school, you've been given the chance to escape. So we're training the next generation, but most of them won't become farmers." In fact, many farmers unable to provide for their families on small subsistence farms have switched to logging and mining, with further environmental consequences for the region.

When asked whether he thought the global society would reach the Millennium Development Goals, Dr. Bakarr said simply, "No way." He explained, "The Millennium Development Goals are lofty. Whether we reach them or not, it gives us something to work towards."

Dr. Bakarr's residency was hosted by the Center, by International and Global Studies, and by Environmental Studies. Cosponsors include the African and African-American Studies Department, the Biology Department, the Politics Department, and the Martin Weiner Public Lecture Fund.