Key to Sustainability
The following article is reproduced from Third World Network Features.
It was originally published in Resurgence (No. 254 May/June 2009) in
With best wishes,
131 Jalan Macalister,
the world plunges into crises, subsistence farming in Africa
holds the key to sustainable agriculture production, not only for the
region but also other parts of the world.
By Tewolde B. G.
I am from Africa, and you also came from Africa, albeit generations before me. I bring
you all masses of love from your original mother, Africa.
It is usual for the young, especially in Europe,
to look at the old, including their parents, as if they are past it;
as if they are ready to be buried and forgotten. Therefore, it is not
surprising to me that other continents think of Mother Africa as hopeless
and view Africans as permanently hungry.
Yes, there are hungry people in Africa.
But there are also hungry people in Europe,
and in every other continent, for that matter. And, yes, the proportion
of hungry people is probably the greatest in Africa,
but I want to tell you why.
Africa is where
all humans came from. Therefore, Africa
is the continent that has fed humanity the longest. Our lore regarding
food and feeding is massive in Africa.
Nevertheless, thanks to the centuries of colonial and neocolonial plunder
of resources and people, Africa
is the least populated of continents. So Africa,
of all continents, has the greatest potential to feed her resident
people. Why, then, does the image of hunger in Africa
To answer this question, I want to take you back to the 1950s when the
industrialisation of agriculture started in the violently dominant countries
of Europe and then America.
The industrialisation of agriculture requires, among other things,
a high population density. This is because of its need for both a large
market and a well developed transportation and marketing infrastructure.
The low population density of Africa meant
that, because of its less well-developed transportation and marketing
infrastructure, small quantities of subsidised food “dumped” on Africa
by Europe and America
easily disabled its internal small food markets. Africa's
non-mechanised agriculture thus remained at a subsistence level and
never developed intensive agricultural production.
Now, the industrial agriculture of Europe and
America, and recently
that of Asia,
is increasingly in crisis. It is polluting the land, the water and the
air such that agricultural land is degrading fast, water is becoming
unsafe for humans and for most of other forms of life, and polluted
air is trapping the sun's radiation to the extent that the whole biosphere
is warming up. Global food production risks failing to adapt to the
This risk is growing in spite of the lure of “quick fixes” for all agricultural
problems claimed by genetic engineers. Fossil fuels, on which the industrial
culture, including industrial agriculture, depends, are running out.
The rich banks of Europe and America
are collapsing and governments have had to buy up some of their assets.
The agreements of the World Trade Organization, which encouraged the
dumping of subsidised foods in Africa's
urban centres, now, hold little authority. Indeed, negotiations on
these agreements have been stuck since the Ministerial Conference in
failed in 1999. I would not be surprised if the World Trade Organization
were now to simply fade away.
But we must, all the time, have food to subsist on, and the subsistence
farming of Africa
is now the most intact of all agricultural systems precisely because
industrial agriculture has bypassed it. So, the more-or-less intact
African subsistence agriculture can become a reference point from
which to base sustainable global food production, whilst ensuring it
is compatible with the health of the entire biosphere.
For a start, subsidised food dumping in Africa must cease. The dependence it creates
by destabilising Indigenous agriculture is the main reason why the
proportion of hungry people in Africa
is now so high. But it will take only a few growing seasons for the
rurally intact subsistence food production systems in Africa
to fill in the gap created by the cessation of food dumping.
A new form of sustainable agricultural intensification is already taking
place in Africa.
This started in four local communities in the badly degraded north-eastern
highlands of Ethiopia.
Members of each local community met and analysed their environmental
and agricultural problems. They then developed their byelaws to determine
what each community would do, and elected their own leadership to oversee
the implementation. They built terraces and bunds to prevent soil erosion;
they restricted their animals to specific areas and fed them crop residues
so as to allow grass, shrubs and trees to maximise growth in the rainy
season, and vegetation cover improved dramatically in just one rainy
season. They could then harvest the grass and add hay to the crop residues
to feed their animals sufficiently.
The increased availability of animal dung and biomass waste made it
possible for them to make and apply compost on their respective fields.
Soil fertility improved and so did crop harvests. Rainwater percolated
through he improved soil structure and began recharging the water table
more fully. Springs and streams began to flow again and strengthen,
allowing irrigation in the dry season, which increased food production
further. Trees that had disappeared owing to land degradation began
returning in subsequent rainy seasons. Farmers enriched the resurgent
tree cover with the species of their choice, usually fruit trees and
leguminous trees for both fodder and soil enrichment.
Starting from just these four communities, the practice is now expanding
In November 2008, the African Union organised a conference in Addis
Ababa, preceded by field visits, to
extend these innovative and sustainable practices to the rest of Eastern
and Southern Africa.
Of course, I am not implying that the corporations that have plunged
the world into unsustainability will simply give up. They will not,
but Africa's subsistence agriculture could be
the basis for the much needed intensification of sustainable food production,
not only in Africa,
but throughout the world.
The time has come to learn from the wisdom and practical knowledge of
the people whose continent gave birth to humanity. We will then be able
to incorporate the globally resynthesised industrial culture of its
most impetuous species, Homo sapiens, into a more healthy form of development
that will sustain life robustly to the end of time. – Third
World Network Features
the writer: Tewolde B. G. Egziabher is the Director General of the
Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia, and co-founder of the
Institute for Sustainable Development.
above article is reproduced from Resurgence, No. 254 May/June
2009. It is based on a speech given at the opening ceremony of Terra
Madre, Turin, Italy,
When reproducing this feature, please credit Third World
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