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Learning from students August 21st, 2016 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

I like to teach adults, because I learn as much from them as they learn from me.

Last week I taught a writing course to a group of Bolivians (mostly agronomists) in Anzaldo, a small town in Cochabamba department. During the five days, students write a fact sheet on a topic for farmers, and then take a draft to the villages, to gather the farmers’ comments. We call this a “farmer peer review”. Eric, Paul and I have used this simple method in many countries to get direct feedback from farmers to make the prose clearer and simplify the technology described in the fact sheet.

My eight students wrote five fact sheets. Juan Vallejos and Maura Lazarte co-authored one on how to prepare the seed of tarwi (the Andean lupine with the edible seeds) with practical tips for getting a bigger harvest from farmer-saved seed.

And on the second of August, Juan, Maura and the other adult students showed up in a village called Phinkina, holding a fact sheet in Spanish, written for Quechua-speaking farmers. We could have written the fact sheets in Quechua. Like any human language, Quechua can be written, but few people know how to read this native language. Quechua people who can read, are literate in Spanish.

As always, I had given the students three options.

First, invite the farmers to read the fact sheet.

Second option, if reviewers can’t read, read the fact sheet out loud to them exactly as it is written.

Third, if the farmer can’t understand the national language (in this case, Spanish), translate the fact sheet for her, word for word, into the local language (Quechua).

leyendo sobre quinua con Juan y EliseoBut sometimes adult students politely ignore your suggestions. In Phinkina, Juan and Maura went to visit a farmer and her two young daughters. Juan speaks fluent Quechua, and he started by asking the farmer if she would read the fact sheet. She said that she didn’t read much, but that she understood some Spanish. But instead of translating the fact sheet, Juan read it to her, one sentence at a time, in Spanish, and then asked her in Quechua what the sentence was about. The farmer began to essentially translate each short sentence into Quechua. It was a systematic way to see which parts of the paper she understood and which phrases needed to be improved.

For example, the farmer explained that she did not understand the difference between “insecticide” and “fungicide.”

And she balked at the description of the dessicated grains. Farmers here say that the dried up grains are “sucked” (chupados) or “empty” (ch’usus).

Later that afternoon, in the neighboring village of Tijrasqa, I watched Maura use the same method to review the fact sheet with another farmer.

For example, when Maura read that the disease attacks in the “early stages” of the plant’s life, the farmer didn’t understand, so Maura explained it.

“Why not say ‘just when the plant comes up?’” the farmer asked. Simple words are often the most powerful.

During the reading, this second farmer cradled a green, plastic bucket in her arm. Tarwi is one of the main crops here, so the fact sheet on tarwi seed held her attention.

A few steps away, children were dancing in the village school, to honor the memory of 2 August 1953, when the Agrarian Reform was signed, in nearby Ucureña, in the Valle Alto.

Maura y Eliseo validandoThe farmer’s bucket was full of chuchusmut’i, which is what tarwi grains are called when they are prepared as a snack food. The farmer had brought them to sell to the parents and teachers at the school. When the farmer finished reviewing the fact sheet she scooped out a generous bag full of chuchusmut’i and proudly handed it to us, as a gift, as though the fact sheet was valuable enough that she wanted to give us something in return.

But we had already been rewarded with the farmers’ suggestions. Later, all the students edited their fact sheets, taking their readers’ ideas on board. The students had learned a valuable lesson about writing for their audience. And I learned a new way to review fact sheets.

Acknowledgements

Our course was sponsored by the Collaborative Crop Research Program, McKnight Foundation www.ccrp.org, with logistical support from the Proinpa Foundation www.proinpa.org.

Further reading

You can download fact sheets and videos at www.accessagriculture.org.

If you need help finding a fact sheet, write to me at jeff@agroinsight.com.

 

APRENDER DE LOS ESTUDIANTES

21 de agosto del 2016, por Jeff Bentley

Me gusta enseñar a los adultos, porque aprendemos los unos de los otros.

La semana pasada di un curso de redacción a un grupo de agrónomos y otros profesionales en Anzaldo, un pueblo pequeño en el departamento de Cochabamba, Bolivia. Durante los cinco días del curso, los estudiantes escriben hojas volantes para campesinos, y luego se las llevan a las comunidades, para recibir los comentarios de los comuneros. Es lo que llamamos una “revisión por árbitros agricultores”. Con Eric y Paul hemos usado este sencillo método en muchos países para obtener la retroalimentación directa de los agricultores, la cual nos ayuda a escribir con una prosa más clara y simplificar la tecnología que se describe en la hoja volante.

Esa semana, mis ocho estudiantes escribieron cinco hojas volantes. Juan Vallejos y Maura Lazarte eran los co-autores de una sobre cómo preparar la semilla de tarwi (la lupina andina con las semillas comestibles). Incluyeron sugerencias prácticas sobre cómo cosechar más, con la semilla guardada por los agricultores.

Así que el dos de agosto, Juan, Maura y los otros estudiantes adultos llegaron a la comunidad de Phinkina, llevando sus hojas volantes en castellano, escritas para campesinos que hablan quechua. Podríamos haber escrito las hojas volantes en quechua. Igual que todo idioma humano, el quechua se puede escribir, pero pocas personas saben leer este idioma nativo. Si alguien que habla quechua puede leer, lee en español.  Como siempre, a mis estudiantes adultos les di tres opciones.

Primero, invitar a los campesinos a leer la hoja volante.

Segunda opción, si los árbitros no saben leer, lean la hoja volante para ellos en voz alta, tal como está escrita.

Tercero, si la agricultora no entiende el idioma nacional (en este caso, español), traduzca la hoja volante para ella, palabra por palabra, en el idioma local (quechua).

flor de tarwiFelizmente, mis estudiantes adultos no siembre me hacen caso. En Phinkina, Juan y Maura visitaron a una campesina con sus dos hijitas. Juan habla fluidamente el quechua, y comenzó preguntando a la agricultora si estaría dispuesta a leer la hoja volante. Ella respondió que no sabía leer mucho, pero que sí entendía algo del castellano. Pero en vez de traducir la hoja volante, Juan se la leyó, una oración a la vez, en español, y luego le preguntó en quechua de qué se trataba la oración. La agricultora empezó a más o menos traducir las cortas oraciones al quechua. Era una manera sistemática de ver qué partes de la hoja volante ella entendía y cuáles frases había que mejorarse.

Por ejemplo, la agricultora explicó que no entendía la diferencia entre “insecticida” y “fungicida.”

Rechazó la descripción de los granos desecados. Aquí los campesinos los llaman “chupados” o “ch’usus” (vacíos) a esos granos.

Más tarde, en la comunidad vecina de Tijrasqa, estuve presente cuando Maura usó el mismo método para revisar su hoja volante con otro agricultor.

Por ejemplo, cuando Maura leyó que la enfermedad ataca en las “primeras etapas” del cultivo, la agricultora no entendió, así que Maura se le explicó.

“¿Por qué no decir ‘apenas que salga la planta?’” preguntó la agricultora. Las palabras más sencillas frecuentemente son las más poderosas.

Durante la lectura, esta segunda agricultora tenía en las manos un balde de plástico verde. Tarwi es uno de los cultivos principales aquí, por lo tanto la hoja volante le captó la atención.

A unos pasos, los niños bailaban en su colegio, en honor a la memoria del 2 de agosto del 1953, cuando se firmó la Ley de la Reforma Agraria, no muy lejos de aquí, en Ucureña, en el Valle Alto.

tarwi chuchusmutiEl balde estaba lleno de chuchusmut’i, que son los granos de tarwi preparados para comer como un bocadillo. La agricultora los había traído para vender a los pares y profesores del colegio. Cuando la agricultora terminó de revisar la hoja volante, llenó su tutuma de chuchusmut’i y orgullosamente nos regaló una porción generosa, como si la hoja volante fuera tan valiosa que ella quería agradecernos con algo.

Pero nosotros ya habíamos sido premiados, con las sugerencias de la gente local. Más tarde, los estudiantes adultos editaron sus hojas volantes, tomando en cuenta las ideas de sus lectores. Los estudiantes aprendieron una lección valiosa sobre cómo escribir para su audiencia. Y yo aprendí una nueva manera de revisar las hojas volantes.

Agradecimientos

Nuestro curso fue auspiciado por el Collaborative Crop Research Program de la Fundación McKnight www.ccrp.org, con el apoyo logístico de la Fundación Proinpa www.proinpa.org.

Lectura adicional

Se puede bajar hojas volantes y videos en la página www.accessagriculture.org.

Si le puedo ayudar a encontrar una hoja volante, escríbame al jeff@agroinsight.com.

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Development with passion August 14th, 2016 by

Project evaluations are often regarded as a necessary evil. Sponsors demand them. The project staff fear them. And hardly anyone outside the actual project wants to read them. Evaluations rarely capture people’s experiences or allow them to freely express what they enjoyed, what they struggled with and what ideas they dream to implement in the future. But stories about personal experiences let the reader understand what was meaningful about a project. So last week, my colleagues published a book called A Passion for Video, with 25 stories about the ups and downs of filming and using videos for farmers.

A project evaluation is often seen as an objective assessment to determine how closely a project met its objectives. This narrow (yet common interpretation of evaluation stems from the preconceived idea that development can be planned: when a project proposal is written, it is anticipated that all activities can be planned beforehand and that all outcomes are so predictable they can be neatly checked off a list.

But planning and evaluating are tricky with an initiative that pursues intangible goals, such as fostering learning and innovation with rural communities across developing countries, through many kinds of extension service providers, ranging from university students, to international researchers, to radio broadcasters and grassroots extensionists.

DSCN1680When the international NGO Access Agriculture ran a global survey on the relevance of training videos to development organisations and agricultural universities, the results were revealing. Many of the nearly 1000 respondents were not actual partners of the NGO, yet, they were using the training videos hosted by Access Agriculture in a big way.

The 1000 respondents (along with their organisations and partners) had shown the Access Agriculture videos to over 800,000 farmers. At least 42 million people had watched programmes on TV, or listened to radio broadcasts using the audio tracks from the videos (which are available separately to download). All this happened without Access Agriculture paying any money for anyone to screen or broadcast the videos. To download the summary report of the survey, click here.

Front_cover_FINAL_A_passion_for_videoIn November 2015, Jeff Bentley and Eric Boa worked with facilitators from ICRA and CTA in a two-day writeshop with some 40 people from Africa and Asia, helping to turn their experiences with video into short, written stories. The stories are captured in A Passion for Video, which celebrates the creativity of the many organisations involved in making, translating, distributing, and screening videos.

In these stories we learn how to reach far-flung villages in Ghana on a motorized trycicle, how to inspire farmers while picking one’s way through the Egyptian bureaucracy, and how to make a video with colleagues we love and need (even if we have to cut them out of the final video). We also meet many other engaging personalities, including a villager in Benin who has to deal with neighbors who want to borrow his precious DVD of videos.

Development organisations and donors do have a lot to gain by learning from people’s personal struggles to overcome hurdles along the way; a project is not just about achievements, it is also about finding one’s way around obstacles.

Development projects will benefit a lot from more flexibity in project planning and in listening to what people on the ground really experienced. Too much planning stiffles creativity and rigid, number-crunching evaluation kills passion. And in the end, the readers want more stories about how things really went.

Suggested reading

Bentley, J., Boa, E. and Salm, M. 2016. A Passion for Video. 25 stories about making, translating, sharing and using videos on farmer innovation. Access Agriculture, Nairobi and CTA, Wageningen, 56 pp. Download the story book here.

Suggested viewing

You can watch or even download all of the videos mentioned in the story book here (and it’s free) at www.accessagriculture.org

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We share August 7th, 2016 by

Farmers love to experiment, especially in trying out new crop varieties, even if it takes patience to get results. With cassava, for example, one has to wait months or even a couple of years to see what a new variety is like. In 2015, the Nigerian Saint Paul Catholic Mission gave a handful of vitamin A-rich cassava stems to Mary Ntia and her husband Emmanuel. This variety produces a yellow root which, like other yellow vegetables, has a lot of vitamin A. The couple took the new cassava home to their village of Ikot Akpan Ntia, in Nigeria’s South-South State of Akwa Ibom. The community is so remote that extension agents have not been there in years.

I was visiting the village in May of this year, asking farmers about cassava varieties they grew, and what people wanted to see in new cassava varieties.

Mary and Emmanuel planted their vitamin A cassava and at the end of the rainy season harvested a few plants. The couple liked the large roots, so they replanted the stems in a full-sized garden, intercropped with maize. This garden experiment will allow them to see how the cassava performs under normal field conditions.

Mary and Emmanuel will also test the cassava’s suitability for processing, once they get enough roots to ferment and toast as gari (see previous story on making gari). They also want to see if the cassava stores well underground. The best varieties can be kept in the field and harvested a year or more after maturity. This is crucial in the humid tropics, where there are few long term techniques for food storage.

sharing vitamin A cassavaEmmanuel dug up one of the older plants. After showing off the large, yellow roots to his visiting social scientists, Emmanuel hospitably invited us to take the stems home. When we demurred, an elderly couple stepped forward. They had been quietly watching and they were keen to start experimenting with vitamin A cassava, so Emmanuel handed them the stalks of the harvested plant. The old couple would cut the stems into pieces and plant them. “This is what we do,” Emmanuel said as he handed over the stems, “we share the stems with our neighbors.”

When a new cassava variety enters a community, farmers grow the variety, share the planting material with others and evaluate the cassava for at least two years, until they feel that they know it. Then farmers will keep sharing and multiplying the new variety. If the new variety meets farmers’ standards, they will keep growing it and sharing it.

So far, most improved cassava varieties find a place in farmer’s fields and gardens. Participatory varietal selection (PVS) is one way of structuring collaboration between smallholder farmers and breeders, to select crop varieties that farmers want to grow. Formal efforts like PVS capitalize on tropical farmers’ inherent creativity and curiosity, but smallholders will still spontaneously share planting material, and experiment on their own.

Further viewing

You can watch videos about participatory varietal selection here: Selecting new rice varieties and Succeed with seed.

Acknowledgements

On this visit, I had the good fortune to be accompanied by Nigerian researchers Adetunji Olarewaju, Tessy Mady and Olamide Olaosebikan.

The field work mentioned in this blog was part of the IITA lead Cassava Monitoring Survey project funded by institutions including RTB (CGIAR research program on Roots, Tuber and Bananas) and IITA.

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Donating food with style July 31st, 2016 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Producing food aid locally may take some work to organize, but the quality is better than shipping surplus grain from a big producer, such as the US or EU.

Last week I visited Yo Prefiero (I Prefer), a farmers’ association in Ibarra, Ecuador that has been contracted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fisheries to provide food baskets every month to 200 impoverished mothers of small children. 300 other baskets go to other government programs. Giving food away is like anything else. You get better at it the longer you do it.

Food aid used to come in the form of surplus commodities. In Guatemala, years ago, I saw poor villagers receiving dried maize and beans, cooking oil and an unappetizing mix of ground soybeans and corn that looked like livestock feed.

The Yo Prefiero farmers are spread out over several municipalities and different agroecological zones. This means they produce a wide variety of food, such as round, moon-like, white cheeses, freshly harvested beans, cracked corn, fluffy quinoa bread, papaya, sweet potatoes, bananas and tree tomatoes. There are over 20 products and all are top class. Even the fussiest consumer would be delighted to get a large food basket from the Yo Prefiero farmers.

choclo llega tardeAnd they are large. The “basket” (which is really a heavy, cloth sack) weighs over 20 kilos when full.

Yo Prefiero has 23 farmers: nine women and 14 men. Each farmer delivers a specific commodity to the warehouse on the morning the baskets are packed. The association members are obviously well experienced at this task. They organize the goods into neat stacks on two parallel rows tables, so that all of the products are within reach, and the packing goes quickly.

contents of one canastaOn basket day, the ladies from the association take a list, moving from pile to pile, snatching up an item and gathering into a blue cloth bag. The men lift the heavy bags of produce onto a rented truck, which takes the baskets to a local school or parish association, where representatives of the Provincial government give the moms short courses on child care and feeding. Sometimes other specialists come and teach courses on gender, gardening and there is even a cooking class taught by a chef. The mothers receive a food basket every month, when they attend one of these courses with their baby. During the month the moms also attend a local clinic, where doctors and nurses weigh the babies, to see that they are well nourished.

No one is paid to pack the baskets. The 23 members of the association do this work for free because they are able to earn more than if they sold their harvest on the open, wholesale market.

One of the farmers told how he was happy to sell his papayas through the association for a dollar each, around four times as much as he was paid before joining.

The farmers’ association provides its food baskets as part of a program with several ministries and UN agencies;  the farmers are paid for their goods with funds from the WFP (United Nations World Food Program), via the Provincial government. The baskets are so good that several hundred other people pay to receive one. These private subscribers fill in an order form once a month. A few days later they get a phone call telling them to pick up their produce. The subscriber goes to the Yo Prefiero warehouse, pays for her produce, and picks up her order.

I learned this when I spent a day visiting Yo Prefiero with colleagues from the Andes who all had a long experience of agricultural development. It was a sophisticated group, not one easily taken in by appearances. My colleagues asked how prices were set. The people from the Ministry said that they took into account all of the farmers’ costs, including store-bought supplies and unpaid contributions by the farm household, such as water and labor. (There are various philosophies regarding whether household labor and other unpaid costs should be accounted in the same way as cash expenses, but that is a topic for another story). The staff from the Ministry of Agriculture compares the farmers’ costs with the prices offered at the wholesale market, and decides on a fair price to pay the farmers.

This answer seemed a little fuzzy to my colleagues. It was not clear how much more the farmers made by selling for food aid than they could make on the open market. The contents of baskets vary, but one estimate was that farmers got $40 for produce worth $36 on the open market. But whatever the exact numbers, farmers were earning more by selling through the association.

Rosmery Menachu and lettuce seedLater in the day we visited one of the farmers, Rosmeri Menachu, who grows her own lettuce and broccoli seed which she uses to grow her own vegetables. She farms vegetables on a little over half a hectare, a small farm by any definition. Rosmeri is the carrot grower for Yo Prefiero. She plants carrots once a week so she always has fresh ones to sell.

It takes a certain amount of administration and training to keep this effort going. The communities have help from five extension agents from the Ministry, which is a lot. The scheme survives thanks to funding from the World Food Program and other donors.

It takes a lot of effort to create an alternative market. It might fail without outside help. But this model is an improvement on what went before. In Honduras in the 1980s, the US donated shiploads of wheat, which depressed grain markets, and discouraged local farmers. Food aid organizations are getting wiser. The World Food Program, for instance, now buys much of its food aid within the receiving country, which helps those who need the food, while stimulating local farmers to produce more.

Donaciones de comida, con estilo

El producir las donaciones de comida localmente puede costar algo de trabajo para organizarse, pero la calidad es mejor que enviar granos excedentarios de un productor grande, como los Estados Unidos o Europa.

La pasada semana visite a “Yo Prefiero,” una asociación de agricultores en Ibarra, Ecuador que se ha contratado por el Ministerio de Agricultura, Ganadería, Acuacultura y Pesca para proveer canastas de comida cada mes a 200 madres pobres, con hijos pequeños. 300 canastas más se destinan a otros programas gubernamentales. El donar comida es como cualquier otra cosa. Uno se mejora con la práctica.

Antes, la ayuda alimentaria venía en forma de alimentos excedentarios. En Guatemala, hace unos años, vi a campesinos pobres que recibían a maíz y frijol seco, aceite vegetal, y una mezcla desagradable de soya y maíz molido que parecía alimento de ganado.

Los agricultores de Yo Prefiero están dispersos por varios municipios en diferentes zonas agroecológicas. Por lo tanto producen una amplia variedad de comida: quesos blancos y redondos como la luna, frijoles recién cosechados, maíz quebrado, pan fresco de quinua, papaya, camotes, bananas y tomate de árbol. Hay más de 20 productos y todos son de primera. Hasta el consumidor más exigente estaría encantado de recibir una canasta grande de comida de los agricultores de Yo Prefiero.

choclo llega tardeY son grandes. La “canasta” (que en realidad es una bolsa de tela gruesa) pesa más de 20 kilos cuando está llena.

Yo Prefiero tiene 23 agricultores: nueve mujeres y 14 hombres. Cada agricultor entrega un producto específico al almacén el día que empacan las canastas. Los miembros de la asociación obviamente son bien experimentados con esta tarea. Organizan los productos en grupos ordenados sobre dos filas paralelas de mesas, para que todos los productos sean fácilmente alcanzados, y el empacar progresa rápidamente.

contents of one canastaEl día de las canastas, las socias de la asociación toman un listado impreso, y pasan de alimento en alimento, agarrando una cosa a la vez, y juntándolas en una bolsa de tela azul. Los hombres alzan las pesadas bolsas de productos, cargando un camión alquilado, el cual lleva las canastas a una escuela o junta parroquial, donde representantes del Patronato Provincial (que es parte del Gobierno Provincial)  dan cursos cortos sobre el cuidado y la alimentación de los niños. A veces llegan otros especialistas y les dan cursos de género, jardinería y hasta hay un curso de cocina impartida por un chef. Las madres reciben una canasta de comida cada mes, al asistir a uno de estos cursos con su bebé. Durante el mes, las madres también asisten a un centro de salud local, donde los doctores y enfermeras pesan los niños (para ver si los bebés están bien nutridos).

Nadie gana un salario por empacar las canastas. Los 23 miembros de la asociación contribuyen este trabajo gratis porque les permite ganar más que si vendieron su cosecha en el mercado mayorista.

Uno de los agricultores dijo que él está feliz vendiendo sus papayas a través de la asociación por un dólar cada una, más o menos cuatro veces más de lo que ganaba antes de ser socio.

La asociación de agricultores vende sus bienes a un programa que incluye varios ministerios y agencias de la ONU. Los agricultores son pagados por sus bienes con fondos del PMA (Programa Mundial de Alimentos de las Naciones Unidas) a través del Gobierno Provincial.  Las canastas son tan buenas que cientos de otras personas pagan por recibir una. Estos abonados particulares llenan formulario una vez al mes. Unos días después reciben una llamada informándoles que ya pueden recoger su producto. La abonada va al almacén de Yo Prefiero, paga por sus alimentos, y recoge su orden.

Aprendí todo eso cuando pasé un día visitando a Yo Prefiero con algunos colegas de los Andes, todos con una amplia experiencia en el desarrollo agrícola. Era un grupo sofisticado, no uno que se deja engañar por las apariencias. Mis colegas preguntaron cómo se fijaban los precios. Los del Ministerio dijeron que tomaban en cuenta todos los costos de los agricultores, incluso los suministros que se compran en la tienda y los insumos no monetarios de la familia campesina, como el agua y su mano de obra. (Hay varias filosofías, si la mano de obra familiar y otros gastos no pagados deben ser contabilizados en la misma forma que los gastos en efectivo, pero eso es tema para otra historia). La gente del Ministerio de Agricultura compara los costos del productor con los precios ofrecidos en el mercado mayorista, y decide en un precio justo para pagar a los agricultores.

Tal respuesta pareció un poco vaga a mis colegas. No era claro cuánto más ganaban los agricultores al vender para las donaciones versus cuánto ganarían en el mercado libre. Los contenidos de las canastas varían, pero un estimado era que se pagaba a los productores $40 por productos que valdrían $36 en el mercado libre. Pero sean lo que sean los números exactos, los agricultores ganaban más al vender a través de la asociación.

Rosmery Menachu and lettuce seedMás tarde en el día, visitamos a una de las agricultoras, Rosmeri Menachu, quien produce su propia semilla de lechuga y brócoli que ella usa para producir sus propias hortalizas. Ella cultiva verduras en poco más de media hectárea, una finca pequeña según cualquier definición. Rosmeri produce las zanahorias para Yo Prefiero. Ella siembra zanahorias una vez a la semana para siempre tener hortalizas frescas para vender.

Cuesta algo de administración y capacitación el sacar adelante este esfuerzo. Las comunidades reciben ayuda de unos cinco extensionistas del Ministerio, lo cual es bastante. El programa sobrevive gracias a financiamiento del Programa Mundial de Alimentos y otros donantes.

Se requiere de mucho esfuerzo crear un mercado alternativo. Podría colapsar sin ayuda externa. Pero este modelo es mejor que los anteriores. En Honduras en los 1980, Los Estados Unidos donaba embarcaciones de trigo, las cuales deprimían los precios de los granos, y desanimaban a los agricultores locales. Las organizaciones de ayuda alimentaria se están volviendo más sabios. Actualmente, el Programa Mundial de Alimentos, por ejemplo, compra muchos de sus alimentos para donar dentro del país que los recibe, lo cual ayuda a los que necesitan la comida, mientras estimula a los agricultores locales a producir más.

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The desert recedes July 24th, 2016 by

In the 1980s desertification was a cause for alarm. The basic idea was that smallholders in the Sahel were grazing too many animals and cutting down too many trees. As a result, the Sahara was creeping into the Sahel, turning fields and pastures into desert. The reality turned out to be more complex than that.

By the 1990s, academics had debunked the idea that peasants caused desertification. In Gourma, Mali for example, there was no relationship between deforestation and domestic firewood consumption, because smallholders gathered deadwood as fuel, and did not down cut live trees (Benjaminsen 1993). In fact, the boundary line between the desert and the Sahel had not changed in the 16 years between 1986 and 1998. Rather, the boundary ebbed and flowed with changes in annual rainfall (Nicholson et al. 1998). The number of individual trees in West Africa did decline in the second half of the twentieth century, but this was largely because of the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s.

Remarkably, smallholder farmers in the Sahel were actually encouraging the natural regeneration of trees. In a hiking survey of 135 villages in Senegal, Patrick Gonzalez noted that when a tree sprouted, people would protect it, and when it was large enough prune it (Gonzalez 2001). This may strike some readers as wishful thinking, but William Critchley and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam have also documented farmers in the Sahel protecting small trees. Critchley et al. have made several videos on how farmers in the Sahel use various simple techniques to encourage trees. Farmers dig small pits that collect rain runoff. By applying manure in these pits the soil is improved and when a tree seedling germinates, farmers keep livestock from nibbling it away.

1975 copiaAs an added bonus, many of the trees that seemed to have died in the 1970s and 1980s still had life left in the roots. As the branches began to grow back from these “underground forests” farmers protected them as well.

In his video Managed regeneration, Critchley uses aerial photos of the village of Galma, Niger to show that dramatic recovery of vegetation between 1975 and 2002.

2002 copia It is worth noticing that the Sahel is recovering from the droughts of the twentieth century, and that smallholders do value trees, and take some steps to encourage reforestation.

neem treeDuring the drought decades, international projects funded nurseries of eucalyptus and other exotic trees in the Sahel, but most of these died (Gonzalez 2001). One might be forgiven for assuming that foreign trees are simply inferior to native species, but it’s not quite that simple. Eric Boa points out that in the Sahel the single most important tree across the transition zone from arid to semi-arid is not actually a native species, but the leafy neem, a native of South Asia which was introduced to Africa about 100 years ago.

Neem now grows from Mali to Sudan. Neem trees are fairly drought-tolerant, but even they declined in the early 1990s, probably because of the long dry spell. Some activists prefer indigenous species, such as Balanites aegyptiaca, but neem grows much faster, which is why people like it (E. Boa, email). In the past few years I have been impressed by the sight of great neem trees around farmsteads in Mali.

Rural people know as well as anyone that trees provide fuel, timber, shade for livestock, fruit and other services. No doubt future generations in the Sahel will encourage native trees, and continue to plant naturalized foreigners like neem, adapting to the slow rhythms of moister and dryer decades.

 

Further viewing

You can watch the videos here. Managed regeneration, and Parkland agroforestry.

Further reading

Benjaminsen, Tor A. 1993 Fuelwood and Desertification: Sahel Orthodoxies’ Discussed on the Basis of Field Data from the Gourma Region in Mali. Geoforum 24(4): 397-409.

Gonzalez, Patrick 2001 Desertification and a Shift of Forest Species in the West African Sahel. Climate Research 17:217–228.

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