Rain in the sahel
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Hecq, Jacques. 1987. Rain in the sahel. Spore 8. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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It has finally rained!For two years now, rain in the Sahel has brought vegetation back almost everywhere. African fatalism, as opposed to European pessimism. has thus carried the day. Any African would have told you that the drought would not last...
It has finally rained! For two years now, rain in the Sahel has brought vegetation back almost everywhere. African fatalism, as opposed to European pessimism. has thus carried the day. Any African would have told you that the drought would not last forever, that the years of famine and misery would pass, and that all would soon be forgotten. Once and for all, for many. Has everything gone back to the way that it was, or the way that it was supposed to be ? In fact, traditional farming methods have rebounded in a remarkable manner, growing anywhere and anyhow, because it works. The impressive plots of irrigated crops which had been developed at great expense with foreign aid in the big valleys have, for the most part, been abandoned. Yet they were the only way to introduce modern, intensive agriculture to the Sahel. But why should people make an effort to operate or maintain them when their granaries are overflowing and thousands of tonnes of unsold grain are rotting in other storage facilities ? After all, prices have fallen and the drought is now over ! It is true that the drought is over, for now. But just as soon as the hills greened up, they started being grazed, and overgrazed. That luxury known as cattle, the scourge of the sahel because of its unproductive and herding nature, has resumed its destructive role. The trees, however, have not at all come back. They were cut down to cook food, build houses, or feed goats. Wooded areas were also cleared, often much more than necessary, for farming purposes including new pastures. So now that it is raining again, where are we going in the Sahel ? The Africans think that everything is going to be like it was in the past. The experts, however, are predicting unavoidable catastrophes because the environment, particularly the soils and vegetation, is increasingly degrading. The current overexploitation enabled by the rains only accentuates this process and thus promises to make the next drought even worse. European producers are already contemplating another famine media campaign that will garantee that their surpluses will be bought to 'feed the starving'. Someone should have enough responsibility and initiative to prevent the repetition of past mistakes. And that someone is the African farmer himself. He must take his future in hand and realize that he holds the key to his own development and thus his own future He is after all, the one who actually produces and should therefore be able to discuss as an equal with the powers that be and demand both a pricing policy that is fair for consumers and an efficient and competent agricultural extension service. But above all, he must know how to plan ahead. He needs to know how to use his resources efficiently and concentrate on his most productive activities. Who will teach him this ? Institutions, agencies, bureaucracies ? Or men perhaps ? Men who have the country in their blood, who combine enthusiasm with competence, who are both idealistic because that implies a strong commitment, and pragmatic because the rural world lives by concrete results. Such men exist among national authorities, in local governments, in NGOs and among development workers and consultants. But these men must be able to work in the field with informed and responsible farmers, those who not only think about tomorrow but the day after tomorrow. If there are not yet many such farmers, the first job is to train them. One aspect of rural society outranks all others in its importance for the future development of African agriculture: management. Management of the national heritage: soils, vegetation, wildlife. Management of the collective heritage: roads, wells, irrigation. Management of the individual heritage: family farms. The preparation for such management must involve making farmers aware of the evolution of such resources based on better knowledge of how to conserve them, protect them, and maintain them. If we want to reduce the impact of future droughts, which are inevitable, farmers must prepare to deal with them now. Modern, intensive agriculture in the major river valleys, particularly in the Sahel and subSaharan Africa, is certainly one of the solutions to the development of this part of the world. One should first begin by developing the necessary infrastructure and then ensure that it is exploited bv local farmers. One can only hope that the fundamental role of farmers in their own development process is accepted by the administrative agencies on which it depends. One also hopes that governments will not regard such involvement as a threat to their own authority. No country in the world with a sound administrative system, has any economic or social interest in accepting the existence of a poor, dissatisfied rural class alongside an affluent urban class. (The main part of this article was published in the Carte Blanche column of the Belgian newspaper,~ Le Soir~. January 12. 1987) Jacques HECQ Tropical agronomist Former Head of the Farmer's Group at INEAC Station, Mulungu Former Head of the Technical Division of the EEC GD 'Development The authors bear entire responsibility for the views expressed in this column.
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