February 20, 2007

C.U. Profs Help Develop Zambia

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In recent months, there has been much discussion about making the University more ecologically sustainable. For the past 18 months, a team of graduate students and professors has been at work aiding the Community Markets for Conservation Program, which is devoted to helping achieve wildlife and agricultural sustainability abroad, in the African nation of Zambia.

Five years ago, Dale Lewis of the Wildlife Conservation Society started COMACO with the intention of improving biodiversity conservation in Zambia, a nation where 20 to 60 percent of households suffer from food insecurity.

According Prof. Alex Travis, veterinary medicine, Lewis realized that the project would require sophisticated research in a broad range of disciplines, from veterinary medicine to soil science, and reached out to Travis and Steve Osofsky D.V.M. ’89, who works with the WCS Field Vet Program.

For the past 18 months, Travis has lead Cornell’s involvement in the COMACO project alongside Alfonso Torres, associate dean for public policy in the College of Veterinary Medicine. With the help of a $1.2 million grant from the United Sates Agency for International Development, the project team seeks to test and optimize the COMACO model for conservation by alleviating hunger and poverty in Zambia.

The COMACO project now covers 25,000 square kilometers of Zambia, with 30,000 families participating.

Prof. Emeritus Duane Chapman, applied economics and management, supervises natural resource economic research on the project. Chapman explained that COMACO began with “the intent of developing organizations that would increase the degree of local participation in wildlife conservation.”

Such local participation, according to Travis, is one of the major reasons for COMACO’s success. Travis explained that other current projects attempt to improve the rural economy by subsidizing tobacco and cotton farming.

While these projects have positive intentions, they do not take into consideration the ultimate consequences of the extraordinarily high rates of deforestation that are caused by farming tobacco and cotton, Travis said.
“Unless you go there, you do not always appreciate the long-term impact of things that would not be immediately obvious to you,” Travis said.

Trips to Zambia helped Travis gain an understanding of the three major aims of the COMACO intervention. The first is social sustainability, which can be achieved by working directly with local governments and Zambian citizens.

The second goal is economic sustainability, which is maintained by ensuring that the farming of food crops is profitable by the creation of value-added products. The last goal is using markets to link social and economic aspects with practices that are environmentally sustainable. Travis claimed that merging scientific studies with social and economic principles is what makes COMACO a very attractive and successful conservation project.

Travis claimed that Cornell has a dual mission of knowledge discovery and education. This project fulfills both of these goals by uniting professors from multiple disciplines to perform research that can be translated into “on the ground impact.” In addition, the project helps to train several students from Cornell’s undergraduate colleges by getting them intimately involved with the project.

Prof. Alice Pell, animal science, director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development, is a contributor to the COMACO project. Pell agreed with Travis that the project’s ability to combine various fields of study “is important for long term change.”

Since its inception, the project has seen great success. As of 2004, the rate of food instability in Zambia decreased 20 to 40 percent. The prices of foods, such as rice, honey, groundnuts and chicken have increased from 25 to 100 percent.

In the long run, Pell sees continued success for the project. It has been proposed, according to Pell, to expand the project beyond Zambia, into neighboring countries such as Malawi.