Tag Archives: global warming reforestation rural poverty Africa

Fool’s Gold

4 Sep

Fields of Fool's Gold So- called ‘Golden Rice’ is back.

If, that is, it ever really went away.

I remember people talking about Golden Rice several years ago — and not in very complementary terms either. What’s with spending millions of dollars figuring out how to get more vitamins into white rice when it could be spent on promoting small-holder agriculture, land reform and anti-urban-poverty initiatives in general so people could add some vegetables to their rice?

Or on food education showing how cheaper brown rice is much healthier?

But now the spectre of this genetically modified rice is coming at the urban poor again, this time with a golden halo of self-righteousness that imbues it with altruistic life- and sight-saving miracle powers.

“We’re talking about saving millions of lives here,” said Nina Fedoroff, a professor and former science adviser to the Bush administration, in the New York Times recently. Dr. Fedoroff even helped spearhead a petition supporting Golden Rice, signed by thousands of like-minded scientists, many of whom “vented a simmering frustration with activist organizations like Greenpeace, which they see as playing on misplaced fear of genetic engineering in both the developing and developed worlds,” said the Times.

Yes, at issue now is not the absurdity of going to extraordinary, typically technical, First World lengths to deal with malnutrition instead of acknowledging that we already produce enough food for everyone on the planet, but just don’t have a system whereby the poor can afford to buy it. It has instead been cloaked with an aura of legitimate scientific research, the kind that could see all kinds of foodstuffs beefed up with nutrients and other cool stuff. Complaining about genetically modifying — as opposed to using natural hybridization techniques to improve  — what we eat is like complaining about progress itself, in this scenario. After all, as former Monsanto engineer Gerard Barry puts it, the idea of the poor eating healthy, abundant and varied diets is both expensive and logistically challenging.

Right.  So it’s okay for the poor to eat nothing but a couple of bowls of white rice everyday — or roti or tortillas — as long as it contains some beta-carotene.

It reminds me of something the International Institute for Environment and Development’s Diana Mitlin said to me in London earlier this year, about how “one of the appalling things about development is it’s lack of ambition.”

This came up actually in the context of the Millennium Development Goals and its (still unachieved) plan to halve extreme poverty by 2015. Indeed. Why half? “The whole concept almost goes back to, you know, Sophie’s Choice,” said Ms. Mitlin. “Which of her two children is she going to save? Which of my two children am I going to give water to?”

Today’s critics of Golden Rice are calling it a “Trojan Horse” that will help convince farmers that GM products are, in general,  not such a bad thing after all. They won’t even have to pay royalties to plant it.

But for me the very notion that someone even thought about devising something like Golden Rice is a seriously dangerous one. An either-or proposition that actually reinforces the status quo of inequality that creates entire populations of people who are dying of hunger, it’s one that says, “We really don’t care if you  are poor and hungry. We just want to make your paltry rations slightly more nutritious.’


So it’s the year of forests …

8 Jan


The UN has declared this year the “International Year of Forests” and so I am going to devote my first blog of 2011 to not only forests but people who live in and from the forests.

They add up to about a billion and are among the poorest people on earth in terms of what they earn. Yet their main problem isn’t so much poverty as  invisibility. It isn’t easy to make a billion people disappear but logging and palm-oil companies, plantations and governments all do a pretty good job of it.

Older blog posts in The Global Kiosk tell some stories of forest dwellers who have been forced out of their forest homes, from areas where they have lived sustainably for eons. Some collect and sell forest products, others farm beneath the trees, using one patch for a few years before leaving it to go fallow for decades and return to their natural state.

So hopefully this year not only the forests but the many organized communities who struggle for tenure rights and the protection of their forest habitats will get some much-deserved attention. In Indonesia, the SPI campaigns for the rights of forest dwellers, while in Nepal, an organization called FECOFUN does the same. In Brazil, the National Union of Rubber Tappers have long used a class interpretation to assert the value of keeping loggers, ranchers and dam-builders out of the Amazon, while in Thailand, the Assembly of the Poor take on the issue of forest dwellers who have been evicted from wooded areas, so that pulp-and-paper companies can have free rein in destroying trees and replacing them with so-called green deserts: expanses of eucalyptus that kill anything around or underneath them.

And unfortunately, conservationists in rich countries have also added to the problem, standing by while forest tribes – especially in Africa – are kicked out of their homelands in a mistaken attempt to protect bio-diversity.

A few far-thinking NGOs, like the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development are coming out with studies showing the crucial importance (and simple common sense) of letting forest dwellers protect and manage their forests themselves. Let’s hope that international bodies like the UN take notice of them – as well as the cause they have decided to champion this year.

More from Senegal

5 Apr

Can Re-forestation Counter the Effects of Global Warming in the Sahel?

Payene, Senegal: As Babakar Mbaye strides assuredly across the sandy, arid terrain beneath a glaring sun, he rhymes off the names of each small plot into which his modest farm is divided. “This piece is Dakar Dhiatiri,” he explains, “and here I planted millet. That piece over there, we call Dakar Mamelles, where I planted two rows of millet beside every row of cowpeas. Every plot has a name that sometimes only we use, while other people in the village may have another name for it.”

Each parcel of the farm’s 11 hectares is encircled and dotted with trees.  Most of them were planted by Mbaye’s father, Thierno, in an attempt to stem soil erosion and stop the slow, insidious desertification of the land from which this family earns its livelihood. Yet in spite of years of tree planting, the crops here are far from abundant. The problem, says Mbaye, is not only a lack of precipitation, but changes in the way it comes. “We used to get the first rainfall in May,” he said, “with more steady rains coming a few weeks later. But last year, it took much longer for the big rainfall to come and most of my crop dried up. I let a neighbour bring his sheep here to eat the dying seedlings.”

A member of the Union of Peasant Groups of Mekhne, or UPGM, Mbaye has been working hard to bring development to Payene, home to 150 families. But as scientists debate the features of a planet that is heating up and getting drier because of global warming, Mbaye, 30, wonders if all his efforts at reforestation and crop management will prove no match for its effects in his tiny piece of West Africa’s semi-arid Sahel region. What’s more, some question whether the decrease in rainfall in an area so close to the Sahara Desert is simply a natural phenomenon.

Peasant farmers in central Senegal have been dealing with drought for more than two decades now, said Ndiakate Fall, secretary of UPGM. It was one of the reasons why some of them joined together in 1985 in an effort to find a solution for their problems. “The land had become degraded after years of planting peanuts,” he said, “and above all from the drying out of the environment.”

A group of educated farmers sons, the first members of the UPGM began to speak to their elders, said Fall, in a search for solutions that might bring their farms back to life. They began a campaign that eventually saw tens of thousands of trees, including baobabs, acacia, and fruit trees, planted around small plots. Any farmer joining the union, which has grown from five villages to 82 and has some 5000 members, is obliged to plant trees. They also went back to growing typical food crops such as millet and cowpeas, and using organic fertilizers instead of chemical ones.

However, said Gerrit Hoogenboom, a crop scientist at the University of Georgia who is familiar with the region “questions about the rains have always been there. If you talk to people, they have a lot of indigenous knowledge; they look at trees, they look at birds and whatever else is out there to see what type of rainy season they’re going to get.”

In fact, rainfall in the Sahel began decreasing in the 1950s, says a study carried out under the auspices of the United Nations’ Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change. It continued until the late 1980s, after which a slow recovery began although not to levels typical of the first half of the century. Some scientists have ascribed the decrease to overgrazing and the conversion of woodland to agriculture, increasing surface albedo – the ratio of incoming sunlight to what is reflected back by a natural surface – and reducing the moisture supply to the atmosphere.

Another possible culprit, is the warming of the Indian Ocean and parts of the tropical Atlantic, attributed in one model at least to man-made causes, a combination of anthropogenic greenhouse gases and sulphate aerosol. “But this is not seen in all models,” said John Fyfe, of the Canadian Center for Climate Modelling and Analysis in Victoria, B.C., “and remains a matter of debate. The predicted pattern of change overall is for 21st-century drying in North and South Africa, and moistening in central Africa.” 

According to Joel B. Smith of Boulder, Colorado-based Stratus Consulting, an environmental research firm, while rainfall patterns are still being studied, there is no doubt that temperatures will go up, although by how much is still a big question. “And one of the issues there,” he said, “is that because the temperatures are already so high, the evapo-transpiration goes up exponentially. In the tropics, particularly the arid tropics like the Sahel, it would take an awful lot of precipitation increase to offset it. I think most of the models don’t show that.”

Rising temperatures also mean fewer options for planting. “Millet is the crop that requires the least amount of water and withstands the highest temperatures,” said Hoogenboom. “But you can only push those temperatures up to a point.”

Indeed, the IPCC estimates that, overall, the African continent could lose as much as 600,000 square kilometers of cultivatable land to climate change. With 70 per cent of African peasant farmers dependent on rain-fed, small-scale agriculture, just like the Mbaye family, aid experts say that poverty alleviation policies needs a complete rethink.

Although his extended family of 12 survives on an average monthly income of about $96, Mbaye remains convinced that participation in the UGPM is improving their lives. The Union has worked with international partners, such as New York-based The Hunger Project, which brought two new wells into Payene, allowing villagers to plant a co-operative garden.  Other campaigns have resulted in micro-credit schemes, free seeds from the government and community solar panels for electricity. For these at least the intense, steady sunshine will give them something to harvest.

And while many rural poor in Africa must migrate to cities or even other countries to stave off total ruin, Mbaye has no wish to leave. “My name in Wolof actually means farmer,” he said, “and I like what I do very much. I can work out here all day and not get tired.” 

While his future remained uncertain, Smith believed that planting trees “can help. Trees create shade, which can keep the temperature down somewhat. But whether it’s enough, depends on the effects of climate change.”