From the field

People and the Land

Farmers in Ghana have a lot to teach us about adapting to change.

by Marney Isaac
Cocoa farmers

Local farmers gather dried cocoa beans to be weighed before selling them to merchants in a village outside Kumasi, a city in southern central Ghana. Photo by Jane Hahn/Bloomberg

Over the last decade, I have had the privilege of studying how humans interact with their environment in the West African country of Ghana.

Situated in a transition zone between semi-arid savannah and the humid tropics, Ghana is both ecologically and socio-economically fascinating. The natural precipitation gradient from north to south enables me to conduct research into agricultural performance under a variety of environmental conditions. Southern Ghana’s economy is highly dependent on the export of cocoa, and farmers there are confronted with a difficult decision matrix: Should they grow cash crops or food crops? Should they employ high-input or low-input systems? Should they focus on short-term or long-term gain when deciding how to use their land? All of these questions are crucial components to the questions we ask in my lab at UTSC.

Amidst strong global forces, rapidly shifting markets and environmental challenges such as climate change, farmer adaptation is an intriguing phenomenon and leads to further hypotheses on human-environment interactions. Understanding how farmers adapt to changing conditions is key to improving land-management practices in Ghana and around the world.

Being a field researcher has its own unique set of challenges. Let’s just say that getting stuck in the mud on a dirt bike in dense forest, for example, with a pack full of soil samples strapped to my back, is a regular occurrence. . The work requires that I spend extended periods of time in Ghana collecting samples, working in the field, and discussing with farmers the management and trajectory of their land.

Traulee—a migrant from the neighbouring country of Mali who has farmed most of his life in the rural region of western Ghana—often accompanies me to his fields. He is an innovative local leader whose advice is highly sought after, not only by neighbours but also by community members and others interested in sustainable agricultural practices.

For me, this research also means collaborating with colleagues at several research and academic institutions in Ghana and other countries. Recently, Dr. Luke Anglaaere, my colleague from the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana, spent two months at UTSC, engaged in our research program and supporting pedagogy through interactions with our undergraduate and graduate students.

Such connections with active field researchers like Dr. Anglaaere and myself are invaluable for students interested in situated environmental problems. Compared with traditional textbook learning, these experiences facilitate a much deeper understanding of the relevant context within specific environments. Hearing stories of our experiences in the field, we hope our students will be inspired to launch their own scientific adventures someday.

Marney Isaac is an assistant professor of environmental science at UTSC.