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June 22, 2009

ICRISAT develops techniques for soil reclamation in West Africa

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has developed an innovative technique of reclaiming severely degraded, abandoned farmlands in Western Africa successfully bring them back into profitable agricultural production.

This accomplishment is significant for the semi-arid Sudano-Sahelian region, whose few arable lands are under extreme pressure to produce more food for a growing population in the backdrop of climatic variations that threaten the region’s fragile agricultural production, and food security.

Additionally, the recovered degraded lands, which had been allocated to women in a moribund state, are giving back Niger’s largely marginalised women their socio-economic rights to making a livelihood through agriculture.

“In dry West Africa, studies have shown that between 13 and 15 percent of children are suffering from acute nutritional deficiency”, says Prof Dov Pasternak, a scientist at ICRISAT. “By working with women to grow indigenous vegetable and fruit trees, we have not only restored the self-worth of women but also enabled them to better care for their children and families as well as make some money on top of it all.”

According to Prof Pasternak, more than half of the Sahelian soils are severely degraded, continuously losing nutrients and organic matter through wind and water erosion resulting in hard-to-plough encrusted lateritic soils that characterise many abandoned farms across Niger. Droughts account for crop failure in two out of every five years.

Extremely adverse weather conditions in the Sahel and growing population pressure are adversely affecting agricultural production in the Sahel. In Niger, population pressure has progressively led to highly fragmented farm holdings whose ownership and farming rights are generally vested in men. This has in turn systematically edged women out of farming leaving them without means of adequately caring for their families, or making an income.

“(Some areas of Niger) are witnessing emergence of a first generation of women who do not work the land. This process begins when a woman’s gamana is cultivated by her husband because it is so small that her labour is only required for certain types of harvest. In Jiratawa, we found a second generation of landless women who have never farmed because they never had the opportunity to help their mother in her gamana as she was landless too. They don’t even know how to sow seeds!” a study undertaken by the International Institute for Environment and Development says.

In an effort to keep women farming and to avert their impoverishment, the Government of Niger, in 2004, enacted a Rural Code to govern access to and use of land and other natural resources. Land tenure is governed by a variety of unsynchronised laws ranging from customary, Islamic and civil laws. The Rural Code is envisioned to enable women to directly own and use land as they wish. But initial trends show that more often than not women are being allocated the least productive, often abandoned, lands that men cannot put to any use.

ICRISAT is developing a range of techniques to help Niger’s women transform their erstwhile unproductive, impenetrable crust-lands into productive farmland. The techniques present an integrated system to food production and include rebuilding the fertility of the degraded soils, water management for this semi-arid zone and general land reclamation using drought-tolerant tree species.

ICRISAT scientists have taught women how to create a favourable medium for planting crops that will enable effective rooting, as well as how to manage the soils to prevent water-logging. Farmers have learnt how to harvest rain-water on-farm using micro-catchments or planting pits known as zai holes, which are able to hold water for prolonged periods after the rains. The zai holes also hold soil and compost to support the growth of locally adapted, deep-rooting and highly nutritious fruit and vegetable trees such as the Pomme du Sahel, Ziziphus Mauritania, and the Moringa, Moringa stenopetala.

The Pomme du Sahel fruit is rich in iron, calcium, phosphorus and has ten times as much Vitamin C as the regular apple, while the Moringa leaves, Niger’s most popular vegetable, has seven times as much Vitamin C as oranges, four times as much Vitamin A as carrots, four times as much calcium as milk, thrice as much potassium as is found in bananas and twice as much protein as is found in milk.

These and other crop trees under test for reclamation of Western Africa’s degraded farmlands are typically tolerant to drought, high soil salinity and water-logging. They hold the promise of transforming vast swathes of degraded land in West Africa into Africa’s new horticultural front. ICRISAT estimates the value of fruit and vegetable produced from these indigenous tree crops at about USD1, 200 per hectare.

About ICRISAT: The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is a nonprofit, non-political organization that does innovative agricultural research and capacity building for sustainable development with a wide array of partners across the globe. Its mission is to help empower 600 million poor people to overcome hunger, poverty and a degraded environment in the dry tropics through better agriculture. ICRISAT, is one of 15 centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).


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