Surveys have shown that when households in the Lwanga Valley are food insecure, more than half of farmers turn to poaching, setting wire snares for wildlife. A small percentage of residents are “professional poachers,” using locally made guns to hunt a variety of species. Although currently less common, elephants and rhinos have often been targeted as a commercial activity by organized groups from outside the valley.
Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO) invites farmers through forming producer groups to adopt a package of eco-agriculture and organic farming techniques that both reduce the environmental impact of farming and drastically improve agricultural yields. In return, COMACO purchases farmers' commodities through a network of depots (57 in total) and collection centres, alleviating transport costs and guaranteeing a premium for organic produce. Farm surpluses purchased by COMACO are manufactured and sold as value-added processed products, or sold to high-paying commodity markets. COMACO generates ecofriendly products (under the brand name “It’s Wild!”) ranging from rice to peanut butter, cultivated without pesticides or fertilizers. These products are catered to ecotourism visitors to South Luangwa National Park, creating a direct link between the “one-acre” farmer and the best possible local market to reward good farming and land use practices.
Incentives for farmers' compliance have been incorporated within this structure, initially in the form of a price premium for COMACO-certified farmers who sell to the organisation. This system has been changed, however, to a dividend that is paid to all producer groups that are certified as compliant, whether they sell to COMACO or another buyer.
COMACO operates as a legally registered limited-by-guarantee company and functions both as an agro-food processing company and as a commodity trader. By providing this dual role, COMACO has been able to scale up its market reach to a large enough number of farmers living in Luangwa Valley to have a landscape-scale impact on both conservation and livelihoods. The current number of registered farmer members in the COMACO program is 32,454. The current trend suggests an annual member growth rate of about 20 %.
COMACO relies heavily on its relations with communities and traditional rulers in the various chiefdoms of the Luangwa Valley. When entering an area, extension officers seek assistance from the village headman to identify those households in greatest need, as well as those most responsible for resource degradation, such as professional poachers or charcoal makers. These assessments are verified via survey, and then selected households are encouraged to participate in COMACO through forming or joining a producer group. The COMACO model’s goal is that, within a maximum of four years, participants will be able to support household food needs independently through increased yields from conservation farming and improved income through market access.
In extreme cases, COMACO's responses to non-compliance can result in trade sanctions on communities who renege on their commitment to abandon poaching or snaring. Trade sanctions include denying dividend payments or not bringing markets and extension services to their area.
COMACO has also provided training for poachers in alternative careers (e.g. carpentry, bee keeping and village scouts), referred to as the poacher transformation project, which began as a pilot project in 2001 before the wider COMACO model was introduced. This flagship programme for the organisation has continued in the Luangwa Valley with more than 760 individuals having completed the program to date. The program also involves snare removal.
The Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) routinely meets with COMACO staff to discuss their joint conservation initiatives. One area of collaboration is to reduce human-wildlife conflict by, for example, teaching methods such as blasting elephants with chilli smoke to protect crops. ZAWA has also attached officers to COMACO to help facilitate the poacher transformation program.