Safeguarding Local Food Biodiversity in Africa

Guinea-Bissau means rice. On average, people there eat half a kilogram apiece of rice a day, and if they have not eaten rice, they will tell you they haven’t eaten. Until the 1960s, this small country in western Africa between Senegal and Guinea-Conakry produced enough rice to export the surplus to its neighbors. Many different traditional varieties were cultivated. Some, selected by the Balanta, the country’s main ethnic group, were (and still are) grown in salty water using a very sophisticated technique called arroz de bolagna. The Balanta regulated the inland waterways, which look like rivers but are actually deep marine inlets, by building earth-and-mangrove dikes and letting the seawater gradually run out from the basins through drainage canals (made by positioning dugouts on the dike) and then filling them with rainwater.i

Today the number of traditional rice varieties has declined and, more significantly, so has national production. Too little rice is grown in Guinea to meet even domestic demand. The deficit is covered by cheap rice imported from Asia, particularly Thailand, which has replaced local rice in people’s food preferences. The rice is brought back by the ships that travel to the coasts of Asia with over 100,000 tons of Guinean cashews a year. Since the mid-1980s Guinea has focused on this crop while neglecting most others, undermining its food self-sufficiency. The cashew is now the country’s real currency. Along Guinea-Bissau’s roads there are only endless lines of these trees. From May onward, everyone in the community picks the nuts, with women even abandoning the village vegetable gardens to help with the harvest. Cashew wine is made in every village and has brought with it a plague of alcoholism, common even among children.

The case of Guinea is emblematic of what is happening in many other countries in Africa. Over the past few decades, traditional agriculture based on local diversity has given way to monoculture crops destined for export, including cashews, palm oil, and peanuts, and to more widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This typically reduces biodiversity, threatens local economies, and undermines the autonomy and cultural identity of communities. Many farmers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and scientists are questioning and resisting this trend, however. They are finding ways to restore both agricultural and cultural biodiversity in the field, at the market, and on dinner tables in Guinea-Bissau and all over Africa.

Preserving Wild Resources
Agriculture is linked to the environment. It cannot be treated as only an economic sector or rigidly subjected to the laws of demand and supply. Food production must also protect ecosystems and soil fertility, it must preserve wild resources, including forests, and it must protect the ocean, rivers, lakes, and groundwater supplies. When forests disappear, for example, so do the ecosystems that are fundamental to a country’s hydrogeological equilibrium and the survival of communities. When the trees are lost, so too are many wild foods and medicinal herbs essential to communities’ diet and health. The same is true of waterways that become contaminated, destroying marine life and sources of food for local communities.

For small-scale fishers in West African fishing communities, making a living from harvesting the oceans is becoming increasingly difficult. After exhausting most of the fish stocks in their own seas, fishing fleets from Europe, China, Japan, and Russia have now found ideal conditions on the African coasts. Many governments are happy to grant fishing licenses, even if it means the depletion of fisheries, and the lack of regulations and controls means the foreign fleets can fish indiscriminately. Currently 9 million people make their living from small-scale fishing in Africa, but massive overfishing means coastal communities are disintegrating. In many cases, the fisherfolk are becoming workers in fish-processing factories run by foreign companies and are often forced to sell their boats at low prices.

But in Senegal, next door to Guinea Bissau, women’s groups are finding alternatives to overfishing. Consider the yeet, for example, an endemic mollusk living in the shallow, sandy waters along Senegal’s Saloum Delta. The yeet has been an important food source for the delta communities; the snail is extracted from its shiny shell, dried in the sun, and cooked in various dishes. But the once-abundant mollusk is now at risk of extinction; while it can grow up to 35 centimeters in length, the sizes and quantities of snails have decreased dramatically as demand from Japan has increased. Today most of the harvest is sold for export, leading to a reduction in an important local source of protein.

Intervening in this situation is not simple. Ideally the sale of yeet to traders would be blocked or, even better, harvesting would be suspended to allow the mollusk to regenerate its stocks—though this would remove the main source of income for the local people. On the other hand, diversifying the local economy and finding other sources of income, including harvesting and adding value to local fruits, can help the community. So women in three communities of the delta islands—Dionewar, Falia, and Niodior—are working to map the varieties of fruit available on the island, including karkadè, pain de singe, ginger, tamarindo, ditakh, and new. The women are not only collecting the fruit, they are also processing it into value-added products, such as juices and jam that are then sold to businesses and residents.

“In diversifying our activity, the first problem to be solved was the mobility of the women, who were dependent on being able to use the fishers’ pirogues [dugouts],” says Seynabou Ndoye, vice president of Fénagie Pêche, a fishers group, and president of the Slow Food chapter in Sèelal Dundin. “In the Saloum Delta one must move between islands and has to be able to reach dry land regularly in order to pick the fruit, transform them and sell them. The first part of this project has given us two pirogues that are directly managed by the three cooperatives of women. By using the pirogues we also manage to make a small profit but above all we are now able to achieve the most important part of our project: to start up a laboratory for processing in line with regulations, where we can collect fruit, process, and pack them.”

Growing Biodiversity in the Field
Diversification allows communities to manage production, keeping some of their produce for their own consumption and selling the rest. They have a greater variety of things to sell throughout the year, which in turn provides income year-round rather than just during traditional harvesting periods. It helps ensure the availability of food in every season and helps protect against the risks of climate change, predators, and epidemics of diseases that attack crops, and predators. Diversifying production also means being less vulnerable to the fluctuation of prices set by international markets.

The Dogon, an African people living on Mali’s Bandiagara Escarpment between Mopti and Timbuktu, have built a close relationship with their harsh but magnificent land. They have built their houses into the sides of the red rock cliffs here, digging into the sandstone and constructing low huts made of mud. And like many other communities in Mali, they raise a wide variety of vegetables and grains, saving and conserving seed from year to year and developing varieties that are adapted to the hot, dry conditions. Visitors are shown bags and small gourds containing the precious seeds, and the women describe their traditional dishes: millet and bean beignets, tò (millet porridge), fritters of shallot and wood sorrel, onion powder, baobab powder, acasà balls made from a paste of peanuts and sugar, millet couscous, and millet beer.

Alongside the barrages, small dikes built in the 1980s that made more water available, the Dogon grow shallots—an excess of shallots, in fact. Many rot in the fields or sit unsold in warehouses. So farmers are now switching production on small plots to more traditional foods, including an area of fruit trees (mango, orange, banana, shea), one for grains (rice, corn, millet, fonio) and peanuts, and one for vegetables and legumes. These products—partly farmed and partly wild—and the Dogon’s farm animals are used exclusively for family consumption. The more the production is diversified, the richer and more complete is the family diet, regardless of the availability of money or external factors that are out of their control, such as climate, water supply, and the status of international markets.

This range of biodiversity, packed into a small area (all these crops can often be found in single-hectare plots), is a very precious resource. And so is the knowledge of the women, who transform the flowers, fruits, and leaves of every plant into seasonings and other value-added products. Their ingenuity has led to the marketing of Dogon condiments, known as somè. These spices include kamà, a powder made from sorrel leaves; pourkamà, made by grinding pellets of leaves from a local tree called nerè; djabà pounan, made by grinding dried shallot slightly sauteed in peanut oil; gangadjou, dried okra powder; oroupounnà, baobab-leaf powder; and wangue-somè, a mix of ground local chili, garlic, and salt. These powders form the base of Dogon cuisine and are used to make sauces for rice or couscous (made from millet or fonio) and to season soups, vegetables, and meat.

People in every African country have refined their own techniques for transforming wild and cultivated resources into a variety of seasonings to spice up dishes, but these more complex preparations are increasingly rare. Even in the most remote rural areas, families buy sodium-laden Maggi flavored stock cubes to season soups and other dishes. These brightly packaged cubes, along with powdered milk and bottles of Fanta and Coca Cola, are another sign of how traditional foods are being replaced with less-healthy alternatives. But now the Dogon are helping reverse this trend by reigniting an interest in and a taste for local seasonings, which are both less expensive and healthier. And the flavor is spreading beyond the local community.

Biodiversity and the Market
A link with the local land gives traditional products unique characteristics that distinguish them on the market and allow them to compete with imported industrial products despite smaller and less constant supply. What the French call terroir and have so successfully done with wine, Ethiopians are seeking to do with honey.

An ancient Egyptian legend claims that Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) is the homeland of honey and wax. While the historical evidence may be ambiguous, what is certain is that24,600 tons per year, Ethiopia is Africa’s biggest honey producer—at 24,600 tons a year. Some of that honey comes from the villages of Wukro and Wenchi. Wukro is located in the heart of the Tigray region, near the Eritrean border in the far north of the country, on a 2,000-meter-high plateau. In this arid land, imposing mountains of red rock alternate with deep gorges. Wenchi, meanwhile, is just a few hours’ drive from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. The road leading west out of the capital climbs up through pastureland and palm trees before arriving at the Wenchi volcano’s great caldera. Inside the crater is a lake surrounded by dense vegetation of false banana, eucalyptus, heather, fir, and wild rose.

Like their places of origin, the two honeys have very different characteristics. The Wenchi honey is amber-yellow and creamy with a very fine grain, marked by floral notes and hints of lightly toasted caramel. The Wukro honey is bright white with a delicate fragrance, a subtle sweetness, and a lingering aftertaste.

In 2006, when Slow Food International first met with the producers, the honey was being made in large cylinders of woven bamboo hung from trees or tied to rocky crags. The beekeepers only collected the honey and knew very little about the organization of the hives. To extract the honey they used a large amount of smoke, killing most of the bees and giving the final product an unpleasant smoky flavor. The honey obtained from these hives contained impurities and was sold to passersby in combs along the road.

But after training with other Ethiopian beekeepers as well as Italian ones, the Wenchi beekeepers learned not only better beekeeping methods but also how to process and sell their honey more efficiently. Over the last four years, the number of producers, the selling prices, and the quantity of honey produced and harvested have all increased. The honey is no longer sold anonymously but is now labeled with the name of its place of origin and the producers’ association.

In 2009, a national network of beekeeping communities was created based on the example of the two organizations in Wukro and Wenchi. The network is working now to catalog the specific characteristics of each honey and to enhance quality with different processing techniques. It is also working to promote the sale of the honey in the cities, particularly Addis Ababa, where it is common to find honeys adulterated with sugar and with no identity or link to the land. This effort is consistent with the notion that it is important to help small-scale producers organize themselves to sell directly, removing as many intermediaries as possible and guaranteeing them a better income. Both consumers and producers in Africa would be less vulnerable if they depended on the local market—flexible and close to the needs of the communities—rather than the international market, conditioned by speculation and external interests.xxii

Biodiversity and the Community
African supermarkets typically contain very few products that have been domestically produced. Instead, they sell products imported from Europe, the United States, Asia, and even South America: fresh and powdered milk, baguettes and mayonnaise, lettuce that has been flown thousands of kilometers. Even staples like rice or corn are sometimes imported and, incredibly, they usually cost less than the locally grown products. Yet the traditional products are almost always better from a nutritional perspective, as is the case with local grains like fonio in Senegal compared with white rice from Thailand. Meanwhile, poor-quality imported processed foods, heavy in salt, fat, and sugar, are unbalancing diets, particularly in the cities, and leading to health problems.

Encouraging the consumption of local products though education, promotion, and added value is a decisive step toward strengthening the economy of the communities and improving people’s health and quality of life. The production and preparation of local food gives strength and cohesion to the community and consolidates and improves social relations, thanks to the associated collaboration, the daily exchange of goods, work, and knowledge, the cementing of solidarity between different groups and generations, and the bonding that occurs through feasts, rituals, and food provided for the elderly or pregnant women. The bonds thus created help prevent social conflicts, positively reinforce local identity (as a shared cultural fund and not as an ideological barrier toward anything foreign), and reduce the economic and cultural attraction to western consumption habits. To some extent, they can even reduce mass migration toward the cities or other countries. Even simply cultivating a vegetable plot means producing healthy and fresh food for the community, passing on knowledge from older to younger generations, and encouraging an awareness of local products, respect for the environment, the sustainable use of soil and water, and the safeguarding of traditional recipes.

There are communities all over Africa demonstrating some or all of the benefits of local food production. The vegetable gardens promoted by Slow Food in Uganda and Côte d’Ivoire, for instance, are farmed sustainably, using composting, natural treatments for pests, and rational water use. They are planted with local varieties (with seeds produced by the communities themselves), intercropping fruit trees, vegetables, and medicinal herbs. In Côte d’Ivoire, in the village of N’Ganon, a community of women is cultivating a seven-hectare vegetable plot. Some of the harvest goes to feed their families, some is donated to the school to feed the children, and the rest is sold at the local market.

Simply cultivating a vegetable plot can do so much: produce healthy and fresh food for the community, pass on knowledge from older to younger generations, and encourage an awareness of local products, the safeguarding of traditional recipes , the sustainable use of soil and water, and respect for the environmentng of traditional recipes.

One of Slow Food’s key goals in 2011 is to launch 1,000 food gardens in 20 African countries.
Click here for more information on the Thousand Gardens in Africa project.

Article by Serena Milano, General Secretary of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, published in the World Watch Insitute’s State of the World report.

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