Lessons learnt from the Atebubu-Wiase forest landscape restoration project

This interview is part of NGPTA’s reflective approach to knowledge sharing and communication on the success stories, challenges and lessons in implementing Forest Landscape Restoration (FLR). As this year begins, we spotlight the Atebubu and Wiase FLR project being implemented in Ghana. The interview features Rui Barreira and Abraham Yelley, whose roles and experiences in the project complement each other; the general coordination and on-ground community work aspects respectively. We hope you will enjoy the piece and we are keen on receiving any feedback if any.
Interview by Rose Kobusinge, Communications Officer NGPTA

Rui Barreira
Rui Barreira is NGPTA’s African Projects Coordinator managing the implementation of ongoing projects and supporting the development of new ones. He worked for the 12 past years in WWF Mediterranean and ANP|WWF Portugal where he held several technical and managerial positions. In recent years he dedicated his work to the development and implementation of FLR projects in Portugal. In his free time, Rui enjoy farming, reading history books and playing the guitar.
Abraham Yelley
Abraham Yelley is a Senior Community Liaison Officer in Atebubu and Wiase for the Atebubu and Wiase Forest Landscape Restoration Project. He is responsible for farmers’ engagement and technical assistance to the Agroforestry component of the project. He has over 10 years of experience in Ghana and internationally in environmental and sustainable issues including climate-smart Agriculture. Prior to joining NGPTA, He worked as an Agroforestry Project Supervisor at PUR Project; Ghana-led cocoa Agroforestry projects. Abraham holds B.A in Integrated Community Development Studies, Diploma in Education, MSC, Project Management and MPhil, Social Forestry and Environmental Governance from University for Development.

Rui: Briefly tell us about the project

The Atebubu and Wiase forest landscape restoration project, “A ‘Living Lab’ for Community and Ecological Resilience”, is a 10-year community-led project located in the Bono East region of Central Ghana. The project is part of a global network of Living Labs for Nature, People and Planet established by the Circular Bioeconomy Alliance (CBA). The CBA was established in 2020 by His Majesty King Charles III (formerly His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales) and aims to accelerate the transition to a circular bioeconomy that is climate neutral, inclusive and prospers in harmony with nature. The Atebubu and Wiase project is the first Living Lab to be established and is funded by AstraZeneca.

The project seeks to address issues of land degradation, declining soil fertility, low agricultural productivity, deforestation, nature loss, unemployment and climate change. Our primary goal is to build community and ecological resilience through forest landscape restoration:

  • Natural forest restoration: 3,000 hectares of restoration in degraded areas
  • Agroforestry: 3,280 hectares of agroforestry and regenerative agriculture to reduce pressure on natural forests, improve land productivity and boost incomes for smallholder farmers.

The project will plant at least 3.9 million trees by the end of 2025. Beyond simply planting trees, our purpose is to grow trees for ecosystem and community benefits, supported by regular monitoring and learning. This will continue beyond the first five years of project implementation until at least 2030. We also foresee a possibility of scaling to a higher tree-planting and restoration ambition at some point.

As NGPTA, we are honoured to be involved in this project together with local communities and our implementing partners, Nature & Development Foundation (NDF) and APSD. We are also thankful to other collaborators such as Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA), CSIR‐Forestry Research Institute of Ghana (FORIG) and Ghana National Fire Service.

Rui: From your experience, is community-based agroforestry possible?

Forest restoration creates green jobs; seedling nursery bed operators at work
Forest restoration creates green jobs; seedling nursery bed operators at work

Yes – it’s possible and essential! We can attest to this through the progress we’ve made. But it has to start with placing local communities at the centre of decision-making processes. This means treating communities as partners, listening to their demands, adapting to their needs and creating conditions for the communities to become more resilient, rather than imposing our ideas or a standard planting framework. This might include training people in different areas related to land management and marketing their produce. But knowledge exchange runs both ways – communities are the experts on their lived experiences and realities.

It’s also important to be flexible and adapt to community needs and priorities. For example, our initial design changed significantly after the first year. At the request of local farmers, we’re revising the selection of fruit and nut species to plant, adjusting timber and shade trees targets, and reviewing the overall project targets to suit the needs and aspirations of the 13 communities already involved.

In the end, agroforestry is not just about trees, but also about people. Community-led agroforestry takes more time, resources and effort, but it’s absolutely worth it at all levels.

Abraham: How are you engaging local communities in agroforestry?

during a radio talkshow on agroforestry involving NDF, a farmer representative and NGPTA
During a radio talkshow on agroforestry involving NDF, a farmer representative and NGPTA

Success depends on local communities owning the project. Our community engagement is part of a larger stakeholder engagement strategy that began right at the outset of the idea. We codesigned the project together with farmers, local NGOs, the private sector and community chiefs, putting community needs at the heart. We carried out stakeholder mapping and a baseline needs assessment to cocreate the project.

In the needs assessment, farmers asked for training in agroforestry, land-use management and fire management. The initial project idea was to include some woodlots of commercial timber species, but farmers showed a clear preference for agroforestry trees like cashew nuts and mangoes to boost income levels. The implementation plan was adjusted to meet these community priorities.

Once the project was developed, community mobilization and relationship building were our initial steps in engaging 450 farmers in 13 communities. A lead farmer was recruited as a representative for each of the 13 communities. In addition, a community multistakeholder platform was established to oversee the running and governance of the project.

Indeed, we’ve witnessed the immense merits of relationship-building and open communication in mitigating conflicts and building trust. Every month, our three full-time community liaison officers meet with the 13 community groups to socialize, provide technical support, mobilize interested farmers, and discuss issues arising from the project. We’ve also built relationships with community chiefs and elders.

We’ve trained 450 farmers in agroforestry, land-use management, climate change adaptation, pegging, proper handling of tree seedlings, planting, protecting and maintenance. We provided seedlings to our partner farmers and over 222,000 tree seedlings mainly mangoes and cashews were planted, restoring 820 hectares. This year we’d like to integrate financial literacy and agricultural marketing as part of our capacity building. Our on-ground experts support farmers to monitor their trees after planting – this is important as it helps in assessing where technical assistance is needed and ensuring tree survival.

We’re also working closely with other stakeholders, like the Ghana fire service department, Forest Research Institute, Crops Research Institute and the Forestry Commission. We source quality tree seedings from the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA) and private commercial nursery operators, which gives a boost to the local economy.

In addition to training and farm demonstrations, we carry out at least four radio talk shows a year which always include implementing farmers as speakers. We handle crucial topics such as climate change awareness, curbing deforestation, and fire management to protect trees and forests, especially during the dry season. We also use the community/public address system for community announcements on these topics.

Abraham: How does the project involve women and young people?

Some of the women receiving their seedlings for 2022 planting season after agroforestry training

Sustainable agroforestry demands conscious efforts to include women and youth in the project design, implementation and benefit-sharing. Unfortunately, existing inequalities make this challenging – including inequalities in tenure systems, difficulties in accessing land and cultural issues. Recognizing this, we’ve changed our strategies to improve inclusion – for example by scheduling community engagement that is more friendly to women in terms of time and venue and engaging existing women’s and youth groups. It is really humbling when we receive positive feedback from farmers, for example, I remember feedback from ~Monica Nkrumah, a farmer in Mframa-In the past, organizations made empty promises. I couldn’t believe it when I received my mango seedlings. The opportunity for women’s participation, access to training and tree seedlings is a great achievement of the project. In a few years, I will be selling my mangoes to pay my children’s school fees”.

We know we need to do more to make the agroforestry programme and its governance structures more inclusive. We’re proactively working with project implementors to mainstream women and youth in all activities. We’re also developing the capacity of youth and women on their rights and how access to land.

Rui: Tell us how the natural forest restoration aspect is going.

Deforestation rates are high in Ghana for various reasons, including land conversion due to development, charcoal and timber demand, and encroachment on forests for agriculture. This threatens both local and global biodiversity, climate, nature and landscapes.

Our implementing partner APSD, which owns concession land, is leading the natural forest restoration side of the project. This focuses on planting seedlings in open degraded areas (formerly forested) and enrichment of riparian areas, with direct seeding mixed with management interventions to promote natural restoration. The trees are a mix of native species – dawa dawa, ceiba, senya and papao. We’ve already had two planting seasons. 2021 was more focussed on testing and piloting. 2022 was a year of extensive planting based on the knowledge from the pilot activities.

Talking in numbers, APSD planted 150,000 pilot trees in 2021 and 891,995 trees in 2022. This represents an overall area of 595 hectares of degraded land (formerly forested) planted, towards the target of 3,000 hectares.

With natural forest restoration, we’re already witnessing great success and we believe a few years from now, nature and wildlife will find safe refuge in the restored and regenerated areas. There are also hopes of integrating a carbon project to strengthen long-term financial sustainability.

Rui: Reflecting on the project journey, what would you say is the difference between theory and practice during implementation?

This project was designed as a Living Lab, which means it uses iterative feedback from partners and communities throughout its life cycle to create sustainable impact. That depends on creating ways for the community and all partners to provide feedback to steer the project. The multistakeholder platform has pivotal importance in this process, but all relationships the team builds with communities on the ground can help gather real-time feedback.

Having all stakeholders on board and feeling the confidence to share their views and express their concerns is critical to give life to Living Labs. Creating awareness of the project and how everyone from the communities can participate is critical.

In our case, this led to a significant change in the agroforestry model, with communities preferring recognized cash crops like mango and cashew to timber trees. We’ve also revised our targets and redesigned the approach to focus more on training and enabling conditions for long-term resilience.

What are your top challenges or lessons from the project, and your call to action?

Rui: No project is without challenges. What is important is continuous reflective learning to do things better.

  • One of the key lessons learnt is that a lack of secure tenure for groups such as women and migrant farmers can discourage and limit their engagement in agroforestry. Secure tenure encourages investment, assures farmers of tree ownership rights and helps deliver equitable benefits.

To address this, we need more engagement with traditional councils. Around 80% of the land in the area is customary land, which is controlled by traditional community governance structures. There’s a need for awareness raising about the benefits of conserving forests, adopting agroforestry and improving land access and tenure. Customary landowners need to understand the implications of their actions, or inaction, on the landscape and future generations.

  • Another challenge is the limited awareness of the potential of growing timber to support livelihoods and reduce pressure on natural forests. The lack of interest in planting timber species was evident from the early stages of the project and confirmed during post-planting monitoring.

We need more education and engagement to make communities and farmers more aware of how growing timber trees within their plots can create a more resilient mosaic of sustainable income sources.

Abraham: I have learnt that partnering with communities and engaging with all stakeholders remains crucial at all levels and the time. Increased participation helps guide the project and mobilize a wider range of knowledge and expertise to support it. One good example is the recent wildfire management training sessions held after the planting season to better prepare the communities to protect their lands during the dry season. This was managed by NDF with the support of NGPTA, the local fire service and MOFA. Through this partnership, a joint wildfire management plan is being created for the landscape, which will enable everyone to play an active role in preventing and fighting fires and mitigating their impacts.

Rui: So, what are the plans for 2023?

This year is another opportunity for us and our partners to showcase the potential of forest landscape restoration in building community and ecological resilience. We will continue supporting the 400+ agroforestry farmers to manage their trees and expand to recruit new farmers within the 13 communities where we’re currently working and in new communities. Our projections include:

  • Restore circa 767 hectares of degraded natural forest within APSD’s concession using native tree species.
  • Restore circa 820 hectares of degraded land through smallholder-led agroforestry.
  • Continue providing technical, practical and peer-to-peer capacity building for farmers in climate change adaptation, agroforestry, land use and fire management.
  • Monitoring, evaluation and learning to ensure better survival rates for planted trees and long-term community impact.

Feedback from other implementing partners when asked to reflect on the project:

“This Living Lab project is part of AstraZeneca’s AZ Forest initiative to plant and maintain 50 million trees globally by the end of 2025, in partnership with local governments and non-profit organizations. AZ Forest aims to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change and contribute positively to communities, local economies, nature and the planet by building ecological and community resilience.”

“I think the first takeaway would be how important it is that a company like AstraZeneca has been willing to fund landscape restoration and the planting of indigenous trees in order to increase overall resilience. I strongly believe that without the engagement of the larger private sector, we will not succeed in stopping deforestation, as government capital will not find its way to projects like this”
Finn Jacobsen APSD-Ghana.

“The second takeaway would be that, despite the challenges of natural forest restoration, it’s possible to succeed. Key aspects of this are using the high standards and experience from our plantation development and having a facilitator on the ground who knows the local conditions”
Finn Jacobsen APSD-Ghana.

“The Atebubu-Wiase Landscape Restoration has the potential to reduce the poverty of the local people in the landscape. It is positively changing the behaviour of community members towards landscape restoration and the growing of tree crops which, according to farmers, serve as insurance against climate change. I have no doubt that in addition to the poverty reduction and landscape restoration benefits, this project will drastically reduce the annual bush burning since many of the local people now have a reason not to set bushfires in order to protect their cashew or mango orchards.”
Mustapha Seidu , NDF

“The multistakeholder platform brings us different stakeholders together, including farmers, traditional chiefs, public servants and interest groups that would otherwise have no space to get together. Our role is to guide and oversee implementation to ensure that community needs and nature are at the heart of the project. I am honoured to be the chair of such a platform.”
Anthony Owusu, Chair, multistakeholder platform

To know more about his project or share feedback, check our website: https://atebubu.inovaland.earth/
Or visit us at our office: House number AWD1, Bono East, Atebubu Ghana
Or contact us on atebubu@newgenerationplantations.com

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