Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Vulnerability Does Not Happen Overnight

It is unfortunate what is happening in the central and eastern Sahel (IRIN News, “Mali: Pockets of Extreme Vulnerability Still Persist” This is not the first time, however, that Sahelian countries have endured chronic drought and long periods of desiccation. In the past 100 years, drought affected the interior of West Africa during 1911-1914, 1927-1928, 1931-1932, 1940-1941, 1968-1974, 1983-1985, 2005 and now in 2010. The Russian and Levant droughts and other extremities like the floods in Pakistan this year are signs of an approaching change in climatic events in areas like Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. A question remains if these and the regions within them are prepared for the demographic changes that will accompany such extreme shifts in climate.

The Sahel is not. Sahelian communities have lived with vulnerability in both good and bad years for decades. The article mentioned above is reporting on an immediate crisis and not on the chronic problems that have manifested into a long-term susceptibility to food shortages, malnutrition and famine. In the realm of academia Michael Watts’s book, “Silent Violence” and Alex de Waal’s work in the Sudan have showed the factors (both internal and external) that manifest into debt and dependency during good times and later exacerbate a crisis like food shortages and famines when natural or man-made disasters strike. In my reading of the IRIN news story I found points that omit information and need addressing, not just by spectators (like I am for the moment) but by policy makers and aid workers on the ground in the Sahel.

First, the above citied article makes an assumption that pastoral groups can subsist on the milk of their animals for an undefined period as long as pasture is adequate. This may hold true for part of the year, but to subsist exclusively on milk is a practice only able-bodied adults can manage for moderate periods. In pastoral societies, adults who are fit enough will live exclusively off of milk: ranging from a few weeks to extreme cases of five months out of the year. Malnutrition will become evident first in children and later in others the longer grain products are unobtainable. Pastoralists have always had a dependency on neighboring agricultural communities and any retardation of rice, millet and sorghum harvests affects their food security.

Second, the article talks of “…extreme stress as the preharvest lean season continues,” when discussing sedentary, farming communities. Periods of stress exist for all groups dependent on natural resources each year but their ‘lean seasons’ are usually not identical. Generally for the northern Sahel farmers experience the hardest of times at the start of the cold season (September to November). It is when granaries are emptying and work is essential to ensure a successful harvest. April through June is the saison soudure for pastoralists. This is the end of the hot-dry season when pasture is exhausted, an animal’s value drops significantly at the markets and drawing water from the wells becomes crucial and a contest for herd survival. Fisherman experience difficulties at the height of the rainy season (August-October) as catches are difficult and meager due to the recharging of rivers and other large bodies of water.

Third, the article acknowledges the efforts the Malian government and aid agencies are making to subsidize grain prices but omits the constant competition between local grain production and the imported staples and aid that is dumped on African markets in good years and times of crises (see a previous blog here entitled, “Food Aid Convention [FAC] in Madrid, Spain,” posted February 02, 2009). The consequence of importing grain which is encouraged by agencies like the International Grains Council is the retardation of local food production. Since farmers have to compete with imports the incentive for them and their children is not to continue farming but to seek out other income opportunities. The younger generations are not well represented among the local food producers in Tombouctou, Gao and Kidal (the three provincial towns mentioned in the article) and who can blame them?  They migrate to urban environments at home or abroad and enter into wage-labor opportunities that at first are lucrative but are dependent on a booming global economy. Problem: we have been in a global recession since 2008. In fact, Mali was one of the first countries to experience spikes in unemployment. Thus the subsidized prices, while a blessing to some, will only be an insult to young people who are out of work and struggling to return to their families to assist them in raising and harvesting the crops by December.

Fourth and perhaps the greatest tragedy, is urgency the article makes to find seasonal or temporary employment opportunities for agro-pastoralists living along or near the Niger River without any mention as to what type of work. To offer agro-pastoralists work opportunities like what their counterparts found in the urban environments is the same dependency treadmill that has brought Mali once again to the brinks of a food crisis. The global economy will continue to go through boom and bust cycles and when they are abandoned once more the effects of neglected local food production will be evident. In my opinion this is an excellent time for Mali and other Sahelian nations to use these labor pools to develop water infrastructure so that river water, ground water and temporary sources can be utilized in local food production. It is a chance to improve roads so food transport costs drop. The government and aid agencies need to pool their resources in order to offer wages, food and other incentives to these vulnerable groups to improve such infrastructures. It is a chance for these intelligent young people who lost their jobs in France, Bamako and Abidjan to return to Tombouctou, Gao and Kidal and apply their skills at tillage, pest management, and nutrient management. To offer locals a participatory role in improving local natural resources is a vital step in promoting food security.

In conclusion given the extremities in climate change happening across the globe, this article will likely reappear in the near future with a different title, a different set of people interviewed, but the same underlying message, “The Sahel needs help!” This is a true statement but the omission of long-term factors that amplified this vulnerability does not expedite a solution. It only perpetuates the story of Africans victims of their climate when in truth they are constrained by political, social and economic forces that retard local food production. Food producers, whether they are farmers, herders or fishermen experience tough times, be they seasonal or generational, but this does not mean they must abandon what independence they have for towns, wage labor, and imported foodstuffs. Subsidizing food prices and distributing food aid has its place but to constantly commit to this in ‘bad times’ and ignore the systematic problems occurring even when the rains are adequate is an injustice. New work opportunities should be directed at projects that encourage local food production and not directly and indirectly promote the importation of food. To bring back incentives for local farmers to produce will have ripple effects regarding reductions in illegal immigration and proper stewardship over natural resource management. Committing to a gradual withdrawal of grain imports on Africa’s markets will help but policy makers also must simultaneously encourage the local production of agriculture, animal husbandry and fishing. To empower a local food producer in Africa is to take a healthy direction in long-term food security.

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