Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Other "Green Revolution"

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Oxfam America recently co-hosted “The Other Green Revolution: Farmer-Led Change in the Sahel, 1980-2010.” The Sahel, a semi-arid region just south of the Sahara desert in Africa and comprising parts of Senegal, Mauretania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea, experienced a terrible drought and ensuing desertification in the late ’60s and into the ’70s. Because the land became too dry to farm, millions of people left their villages.

A farmer in Burkina Faso named Yacouba Sawadogo became famous because he stayed behind and revived several techniques allowing reclamation of the land for farming. He spent three years in the bush experimenting. One of these techniques is “zaï”– pits dug in the fields to catch water; Yacouba also added manure and other organic materials to fertilize the fields and attract termites, aerating the soil. Another, “cordons pierroux”, are lines of stones laid across the fields to slow the movement of water and allow it to soak into the soil, collecting silt. The silt nurtures local plants, providing another barrier against water runoff and breaking up the soil. This system of farming actually changes the soil structure. Interestingly, these techniques were used by the Nabateans and other tribes who farmed parts of the Negev, Sinai, and Arabian deserts in the pre-Islamic period.

Yacouba noticed that trees naturally grew in the pits. He allowed them to mature and saw that they anchored the soil against wind and driving rain, improved soil quality by breaking it up, and fertilized the fields with leaf litter. He planted additional trees and became an innovator in agro-forestry, growing sorghum, millet, and other cereals. These techniques have been adopted all over the Sahel and other desert regions. Now, Yacouba travels around the area teaching farmers and organizing market days to exchange seeds.

Yacouba was joined by Sakina Mati, from neighboring Niger, the poorest country in the world. With other women in her village, she has formed an agro-forestry co-op that now encompasses six villages. These women learned how to raise trees from international organizations and use them to increase the productivity of their farms. Now, she says, there are so many trees that she’s had to learn how to prune them. Besides protecting their crops, the trees also provide forage for goats and extra income from firewood and timber.

Many organizations have become interested in the efforts of people like Yacouba and Sakina. Dr. Edwige Botoni, of the Comité permanent Inter-Etats de Lutte contre la Sécheresse dans la Sahel (CILSS), roughly, “the permanent Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel,” spoke about some of the organizations involved with their work, including USAID, which has supported many of her projects. These organizations have found that battling climate change and food insecurity requires a flexible, regional approach. As a result of their work, food crises are now more localized and less frequent.

Some groups, including the USDA, believe that the increase in greening is due to an increase in rainfall. However, rainfall did not start to increase until the ‘90s, while satellite images show rising tree density earlier than that. The US Geological Survey (USGS) also compared the intensively managed areas in the Sahel to northern Nigeria, which receives about 50% more rainfall, and found that tree density was much higher on the managed lands. USAID was heavily involved in re-greening projects in Niger in the ’80s and early ’90s and seems to have been fairly successful. While USAID has been less active in the last fifteen years, this will likely change soon, as the State Department’s new food security initiative places much more responsibility on them.

Dr. Chris Reij, a human geographer and natural resource specialist from VU University Amsterdam, addressed another aspect of this “Green Revolution.” Working with Dr. Mahamane Larwanou, an agroforestry expert at the African Forest Forum, and Dr. Mathieu Ouedraogo, of the Africa Re-Greening Initiative, Dr. Reij has spent the last thirty years working for official policy changes that benefit farmers like Yacouba. They work with the media and other communications channels to teach these farming techniques locally and bring international attention to their work. The majority of families in Niger and Burkina Faso have at least one mobile, which farmers can use to communicate about market days, and internet access is becoming more common. Rural radio is quite prevalent and has been a very successful communications tool. Dr. Reij and his colleagues have met with great successes mobilizing the western media– they even featured in a lengthy National Geographic article on soils, along with Yacouba.

So what’s next? Economists have found huge increases in returns to families using these techniques, but more improvements can be made. Many countries in the Sahel have nothing resembling property rights, as we know them, but obtaining them would go a long way towards incentivizing responsible land management. Farmers who own their trees (and the land itself) are much more likely to practice long-term stewardship. Niger is moving in this direction, and the change in governance has seen huge results. Fertilizer and other benefits of Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution have also largely failed to reach these communities, and yet modern farming technology could produce huge yield increases.

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