foodFIRST for Thought

FoodFirst in Practice

© 2012-09-27 | Wim Peeters

It is both an honour and a pleasure for me to be allowed to give an example of a concrete realisation of 'foodfirst' in practice.
The academic approach to 'foodfirst' has analysed and clarified many problems. The implementation of it requires, among other things, an adequate instruction of the peasants in question, who produce the food. It requires a knowledge of language and customs that define present-day life of peasants, male and female. Their wish for change proves able to reform tradition, which is becoming more and more hopeless, into an actual spirit of agricultural entrepreneurship.

An insight into my personal carreer may be instructive before I continue. After finishing my Developmental Studies in Paris in 1963 I was invited, in the beginning of 1964, to join CESAO (Centre d'Etudes Economiques et Sociales de l'Afrique Occidentale; Institute for Economic and Social Studies of West Africa) as a volunteer for some years at Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, at that time still named Upper-Volta. The Institute CESAO had been founded and built by the White Fathers as a gift to the French-speaking West African countries, which became independent in 1960.
In consultation with my fiancee Ria I could accept the offer. We got married and after a short honeymoon in Holland we made a twelve-and-a-half-year long voyage to and throughout French-speaking West Africa, from Mauretania to Cameroun.
The most fascinating part of the work were the villages, which at that time still completely lived in the old traditions. People lived in more-generation families. The oldest member of such a family had a seat in the village council presided over by the village chief, the oldest man of the family that had founded the village. Their lives were full of rituals about death, birth, initiation of young men, the soil full of ancestral spirits, the basis of agriculture.
After having worked as volunteers for six years we considered it a sufficient contribution to the advancement of CESAO in West Africa. We had become parents of two children in the meantime and found it time to direct ourselves a little more to their future.
Meanwhile the United Nations had started a project in the region aiming at better harvest yields. As I knew the villages selected for this project well, I was asked to join it. Despite the fact that I personally thought it a bad project not leading to a real development in agriculture.
When my wife and I left the project six years later, we made a kind of promise. If ten years later the villages would have made no progress, we would go back there for another ten years to help create a more permanent agriculture in these villages.
After working in the Netherlands for ten years we did go back to Africa and talked to the local people who had worked in the project. Our conclusion was: there was nothing left of the project and worse agriculture was deteriorating as a result of progressive impoverishment of the soil.
There is a huge number of problems of a social, economic and cultural (tradition) nature in the development of West Africa. Four of them have mainly impeded the agricultural development.

I.1 Traditional separation between agriculture and cattle-breeding.
Both the fields and the cattle continually are on the move: the herds in search of grass, the fields as a result of exhaustion of the soil. The growth of the population causes great tensions between sedentary peasants and nomad cattle-raisers. Moreover, great conflicts arise among peasants mutually, because they keep claiming more land as a result of the ever deteriorating soil.

I.2 Prolonged neglect of agriculture by the government.
At the independence of the region in 1960 a majority of bad governors came into power. They followed a policy in which industry was seen as the main factor of development. Agriculture was neglected and industry was hardly developed.

I.3 The impoverished peasants look upon themselves as doomed poor:
that is poor because they are peasants. They toil during the rain season, when they have to plough, sow, weed and harvest, but in the dry season they have little to do and therefore no income. Only mixed farming can bring about a change in this situation and generate an all-year income.

I.4 The weight of tradition
in the sixties was still very heavy; the soil is sacred. To cultivate it requires offers to spirits and ancestors. Changes are not tolerated.

II.1 In search of a lasting agriculture
At the end of 1986 we set up a programme, in co-operation with the "Action Sociale" of the diocese of San in East Mali, aiming at the foundation of mixed farms. During the reign of dictator Moussa Traore one could only work there with consent of either the government, or the United Nations or the Church. The diocese of San had the most social programmes for education, health care, agriculture, water supply (digging wells) and road-building.
We started with an inquiry: it told us, among other things, that the peasants worried about the deterioration and washing away of the soil. The villagers found out that they could prevent the soil from washing away by building little dykes and stone walls in accordance with altitudes. Apart from that programmes were set up for the processing of plant-rests into compost and for mixing these with the gathered cattle dung.

II.2 The start appeared successful
In a few years' time little anti-erosion dykes were built everywhere. Because few plant-rests and little dung were available, plant-holes (zaii in the local language) of thirty by forty centimeters were dug at one meter's distance. These holes were filled with fertilized soil and compost before sowing in them. Production increased considerably. Instead of 200 to 400 kilos of corn per hectare now at least 800 to 1,000 kilos per hectare were harvested. This did give some solace, but did not revolutionize agriculture.

II.3 "Mixed farming" was apparently one bridge too far then.
"A peasant does not labour for cattle; it feeds itself", tradition has it. This custom of old could not yet be broken down.

III Solutions in sight

III.1 In 1998/99 a new approach was thought out in East Mali. In the institute "Centre Songhai", Porto Novo, Benin, peasants can go on farming practice at a real agricultural enterprise. Practice there starts with a mild brainwashing to make clear to the peasants that they are not poor because they are peasants, but because their approach to farming is not right. As soon as they have the right approach, their future will improve.

III.2 The ORFED organization found some means to set up a pilot project. In five days at Songhai Centre thirty peasants learnt much that they could do better and/or cheaper. They ended their stay with a programme they are going to carry out at home. After returning in their home village everyone reports on what he has seen, heard and experienced.

III.3 The enthusiasm proved to be great and the results of that 'pilot year' extraordinary. The ORFED organization suggested a three-year plan "agricultural enterprise". In the pilot year the ORFED had made an inquiry into the 'economic zero-measurement' of the peasants that had made the trip to Songhai. In Year One of the project fifty per cent more was harvested on the average. It is interesting to note that the poorest peasants, in percentage terms, did better than the slightly richer ones. The handicap of any head start (the dialectics of progress).

III.4 The implementation of the programme implied:
- Year One started with a further widening of the basis. Another ninety peasants, male and female, learnt and worked at Songhai Centre and at home propagated what they had seen and learnt.
- In the Second and Third year (2011, 2012) the accent was on supervision of the framework of a FARM, the processing of products and the planning of cooperative structures. Exchange of experiences and the best techniques of making compost are continually under discussion. Training and education in the fields of cattle-breeding and poultry health care take place everywhere. A credit system in tune with production is started.

III.5 The considerable increase in production was mainly caused by penning in all small domestic animals such as hens, guinea-fowls, sheep, goats and pigs, so that no dung was spilt. Also, compost making in the Songhai way resulted in a change for the better.
III.5a The bad rain year 2011 brought to light how much difference the use of compost and dung can make in the harvest. The well fertilized soil yielded a good harvest yet, where the rains stopped far too early, but the traditionally cultivated fields yielded nothing at all.

III.5b The attitude of those who remained without harvest was very peculiar. In the sixties and eighties forerunners in innovation of agriculture were still given a cold shoulder; (part of) their seed plants (was) were often destroyed during the night. Equality was the starting-point, all farmers do the same things. Now the men and women who did have a reasonable harvest, were congratulated on all sides. They were even helped with their harvest with a view to getting a better insight into the new methods.

III.5c Training and education in the fields of cattle-breeding and poultry health care took place. Also, a credit system "in tune with production" was started, meaning receiving credit at the moment one has to buy seeds; paying back after the harvest and sale of the harvested products.

III.5d In many villages the lives of women changed as well by the fact that the small domestic animals were penned in for the dung. Until recently all these animals ran free in the village. It was the task of the women to sweep clean the village twice daily. Now there are already more than three hundred villages that are clean, because all the small domestic animals have been penned in. A considerable relief of the work of the women, who have now got the time for things they learnt at Songhai: making a better type of soap, baking biscuits and selling them in the market the next day, and/or cultivating their vegetable garden and by doing so improving meals and also generating some extra income.

III.6 A special side effect of all this is that long-lasting and bloody soil conflicts have been settled. Villages and families in question were invited for a farming practice at Songhai, where they learnt that well fertilized soil yields much more than large exhausted fields. After listening to the reports the villages in question celebrated exuberant reconciliation parties.
IV One big question remains unanswered: what happens with the big domestic animals like cows, horses and donkeys?
During the dry season, which lasts seven to nine months, cattle runs free nearly everywhere. After some months of dry season it hardly finds enough food. 'New' conflicts arise, which were unknown in the past, because for instance newly planted orchards are destroyed by stray cows, horses and donkeys.

IV.1 A number of developments
In present-day Mali rural municipalities hand in an 'agricultural programme' to the government every five years. The problem of the 'stray' cattle may be part of it. In the rain season there is an abundance of grass everywhere and the cattle is traditionally looked after by the children. After the harvest looking after the cattle stops. The cattle seeks its own food and when there is no more grass, it survives on its own fat. Towards the beginning of the new rain season the animals that have survived the dry season, are all skins and bones.

IV.2 In recent years every rural municipality organizes an annual meeting with farmers. The mayor accounts for the use of the municipal estimates. One of the results proves to be that peasants nowadays pay their taxes better, because now they have an idea of what happens with their money. It was ORFED in the first place, which initiated this municipal discussion.
ORFED is also the organization which at one time (1994) started with "local politics as a basis of progress". At this level, too, the problem of the big domestic animals running free will have to be discussed in order to reach sufficient consensus in the matter.

IV.3 Agriculture and cattle-breeding joining in mixed farming is not yet a generally known and accepted concept every farmer brings into practice. "Working for one's cattle" is still new and contrary to tradition, which is indeed crumbling away in many respects. Stray cattle is an ever increasing source of conflicts. There are no railings for pastures yet. The material for it, barbed wire, gauze, is rare and expensive, hardly sufficient for penning in poultry and other small domestic animals in the village.

IV.4 Forestry is still in its infancy as well. With an eye to the future every peasant, male and female, has planted a number of trees already. The railings outside the village require a great many trees. Space for them is not wanting. Neither is a sufficient foresight upon the future, so it seems.

V The Sahel, the Sahara and Europe
In order to stop the desert from advancing in recent years there has been frequent talk of a strip of wood, fifteen kilometres wide, from south to north in the Sahel and thousands of kilometres long from west to east beginning in Senegal and the south of Mauretania and ending in Sudan. In my view a plan that is never to be realized.

V.1 If, however, every peasant in the villages of south and central Mali decides to plant beside an orchard of mango, papaya and other fruit trees, one or more acres of wood (from which he can collect wood for railings and all sorts of pens), the strip of trees will not become fifteen kilometres wide, but hundreds of kilometres. And as a bonus not only the climate of the Sahel may improve (large parts of the present-day Sahel can become savannahs again) and as a result the Sahara can be forced back, from which also the North-African and European climates will profit. Mind you, the south-north zone now in progress on farms in Mali has already reached a width of more than three hundred kilometres.

VI Conclusion
Taking everything into consideration a number of conclusions can be drawn:
-1 In places peasants succeed in seriously getting on with the design of their farming, but the integration of agriculture, horticulture, forestry and cattle-breeding into one business is sure to take some more years of investigating, reflecting and discussing by the new agricultural entrepreneurs.
-2 It is not to be expected that peasants in the third year can develop their structures of cooperative teamwork to such an extent that the line to the markets offers sufficient sales potential.
-3 The work done up to now shows that lasting innovation and planning of farms are possible. The road to it, however, will have to be covered step by step and by many peasants. The form and the substance of a good supervision remain essential for it; the procedure as well.
-4 In my opinion external supervision can only be done without, when outside the rain season at least thirty per cent of the big domestic animals have been penned in permanently.

Overloon, 6 September 2012.

Contribution to the discussion by Wim Peeters (1937, Overloon, Netherlands) on the occasion of the tenth Dutch Floriade (summer 2012, Venlo, Netherlands).

(Translated into English by drs. Jan de Haan)

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