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Listening to what women don’t say July 17th, 2016 by

What women don’t say can be as important as what they do say. As I learned recently in Nigeria.

Cassava is a crop that is native to the Amazon Basin, but spread in early colonial times to much of tropical Africa. The hardy cassava is a short, woody shrub that can live for several years, thanks to its large roots which absorb water and nutrients, which helps the plant to survive the dry season.

Villagers love cassava because of its flexibility. People can harvest the plants one or few at a time, as the household needs food. But cassava can also be tricky. Once the roots are harvested they are fairly perishable and should be prepared into food fairly soon.

Moyo Olorunlagbe toasting gariDuring a recent fieldwork sponsored by IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture), we found that, in Southwest and North Nigeria, men grow much of the cassava and women detoxify it by making it into several products, especially one called gari.  To make gari, women peel huge piles of roots, one at a time, with a kitchen knife. Then the roots are grated in little motorized grills, and the mash is fermented in sacks, and then the moisture is squeezed out. Men may help with the grating and pressing out the moisture (often for a small fee). Then the women toast the mash into gari on a metal pan over a hot wood fire, continuously stirring the mash with a wooden paddle. The women also collect the firewood. Women can sell gari in village markets to buyers, usually women, who bulk the gari and take it to the cities.

unloading cassava from motorcycleTo get cassava to transform into gari, Nigerian women use several strategies. They grow some cassava; they get some from their husbands and they can buy roots in the village. In the photo, a man sells a motorcycle load of cassava to a neighbor who will process it. Within four to five days women can turn the cassava into a bit of cash—which they can spend or keep.

In the villages across Nigeria my colleagues and I interviewed the men and the women separately. Some of the men told us that, among other things, they needed what they called “ready markets,” meaning that the men wanted to be able to sell their cassava  roots raw, in local markets, for a profit.

In separate meetings, the women had plenty to say, but they never mentioned markets. On the other hand, the women wanted cassava that was easier to peel.

If we had interviewed men and women together, the women would not have bothered to contradict the men, when they asked for better markets for cassava.

The women did not ask for a ready market for cassava, because they already have one. They can always carry a basin full of gari down to the village market and sell it. Even landless women can buy cassava and transform it to make a living, working at home.

Men and women may even have conflicting interests. Higher prices for raw roots might benefit men, but could even harm the women, who buy the roots as raw material to make traditional foods like gari, fufu (with the consistency of mashed potatoes) and abacha (almost a kind of noodle).

In Nigeria, women are quietly feeding the nation; they are happy with the market just the way it is. That is why women don’t ask for ready markets. What women don’t say can be as important as what they do say. To learn women’s specific views and perspectives, we were reminded one more time that it is important to interview men and women in separate groups.

Acknowledgements

Tessy Mady and Olamide Olaosebikan held the meetings with the women. Adetunji Olarewaju facilitated the parallel meetings with the men.

The field work mentioned in this blog was part of the IITA lead Cassava Monitoring Survey project funded by institutions including RTB (CGIAR research program on Roots, Tuber and Bananas) and IITA.

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Modern ideas for an ancient land July 10th, 2016 by

In his beautifully crafted book, A Shepherd’s Life, British farmer James Rebanks describes what it is like to grow up on a smallholding in the north of England, in the mountainous country called the Lake District. He describes how it feels to be sitting in a concrete school building, enduring a lesson on Esperanto (the artificial language), when one could have been helping one’s grandfather catch a badger. Or the frustration of watching a hay wagon turn over late on a summer day, and all the bales will have to be dragged up the slope and restacked in the gathering twilight.

Hill scene LD 1smallThe book catches the dynamic tension of blending an ancient herding way of life with newer technology. The sub-title calls it: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. Rebanks muses that if a Viking shepherd were suddenly resurrected on the mountainside on a fine day in late summer, he would feel at home, watching the men and women use their dogs to gather the sheep from the upland pastures. The Old Norse visitor would understand that the farmers were guiding their flocks to winter shelter.

Windermere smallFarming in the Lake District involves aesthetics as well as economics. For example, farmers take pride in rebuilding a handsome stone wall so that the flat, mossy slabs are back on top of the wall. At livestock shows, one particular old breed of sheep (Herdwick) is died red for the audience, as though the animal had rusted from the neck down.

Yet it is hard to make enough money in the sheep business. The price of wool is abysmal, thanks to competition with synthetic fibers. So farmers adapt in an effort to stay profitable. As Rebanks says of his grandfather’s career.

“(He) was an opportunist, like so many of his peers. If pigs paid, breed or fatten pigs. If Christmas turkeys paid, fatten turkeys. If selling eggs paid, get hens. If wool was wanted, grow wool. If milk paid, milk cows. If fattening bullocks paid, buy bullocks. Adjust. Adapt. Change.”

James Rebanks continues to adjust and adapt, unselfconsciously describing the various modern vaccines, antibiotics and topical ointments that he applies to keep his sheep alive and healthy. He mentions his new metal barn, which was no doubt fast to build, spacious and easy to connect to electricity. It is a practical place for tending the sheep in the dark winter evenings.

Paradoxically, Rebanks says “resisting change is key for us.” I think I know what he means. Farmers have to always accept new ideas with some rational skepticism. On the Rebanks’ farm, new improved breeds of sheep were more profitable than the ancient breeds, but only as long as feed and fuel were cheap. When costs rose, the hardier native breeds became more profitable again, and more farmers switched back to them. The local sheep could withstand the northern winters and grow fat on the upland pasture.

The point Redbanks makes is not that the old ways are always better, but that smallholders must constantly use their creativity to adapt and be inventive. Never forget or abandon the old technologies completely because some day they will be useful again. Old breeds of animals cannot be recovered once they have become extinct. As Rebanks puts it “some of the smartest people I know are semi-literate.” I couldn’t agree more.

Further reading

Rebanks, James 2015 The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. New York: Flatiron Books. 293 pp.

The website www.accessagriculture.org hosts videos for creative smallholder farmers (literate and illiterate), who are looking for new ideas to experiment with.

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Things ain’t what they used to be July 3rd, 2016 by

Patchwork fields at anglesHidden away in the vast mountains of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is a largely forgotten former republic of the Soviet Union which gained independence in 1991.

As I landed in Bishkek a few weeks ago I marvelled at the sharp contrast between soaring, snow-capped mountain, and plains with multi-coloured strips, mature fields of wheat and freshly planted maize, sunflower and other field crops. On the ground there are plenty of hardy fruit trees, such as apples, pears, apricots, plums and other stone fruits. I watched a family pick cherries from trees they had planted in a hedgerow, making maximum use of their agricultural land. Kyrgyzstan is still hugely dependent on agriculture. A short growing season means that farmers have to be creative. There is plenty of water, if you have access to irrigation.

I heard mixed stories about the profitability of large scale field crops, much of this linked to the phrase that cropped up repeatedly: “after the collapse of Soviet Union”. In the winter of 1991-92 state farms lost their support and the new Kyrgyz Republic could no longer count on the USSR to absorb its exports, leaving farmers exposed to unfamiliar, global competition. Cotton, a major commodity during the Soviet era, is still widely planted in Osh district, in the warmer south, though areas have decreased.

The Kyrgyz language is related to Turkish, and expanding links with Turkey offer new opportunities for trade. Savvy buyers from Turkey have introduced improved cotton varieties, as have the Chinese, only a few hours away by road from Osh. Foreign buyers provide technical advice and training to farmers. Turkey and China also sell agrochemicals. The private sector is taking up some of the slack of a once dominant state-controlled agriculture. Farmers welcome the new sources of support.

Israil, Myrzabamov Payzulla, Tumar, OrunbayRussia’s influence has not entirely disappeared. They will build and equip a new plant diagnostic laboratory in Osh, and advisors from Moscow were discussing the start of construction during my visit. As they arrived in shiny 4 x 4 vehicles, the similarities to a development project in Nepal or Nicaragua were difficult to ignore.

The agricultural scientists I talked to constantly said how difficult it was for farmers to afford things, part of a general post-collapse pessimism. But it is easy for those who work in laboratories to underestimate farmers. I saw farmers who were investing in their farms and who appeared optimistic about the future. In a recently planted cotton field near Aravan, on the edge of Fergana valley, I was impressed by the size of Israil’s farm, the health of his plants and a modern tractor working the land. Israil has been growing cotton for the last five years, after deciding it was more profitable than wheat.

Farmers now have the freedom to change the crops each season, no longer bound by central planning that may have limited agricultural potential but created a dull kind of certainty. And, encouragingly, there are newcomers to agriculture with no previous experience of farming. Tima and his business partner, Mirlan, had left secure jobs in Tima examines plantsfinance and telecommunications to start a strawberry farm, complete with drip irrigation. They asked me to examine some unhealthy strawberry plants in a newly planted field on the edge of Bishkek, the capital city. They were learning the hard way that small-scale agriculture can be risky, particularly when you are growing a crop for the first time.

Tima and Mirlan wanted a change in lifestyle and were attracted by the commercial potential of fruit growing. Tima and Mirlan had done their homework before planting, sourcing the best plants and following recommended planting procedures. But Tima also told me that strawberry farmers were not so keen to share information and experiences. After years of working in enforced collectives I have read that farmers in ex-Soviet republics value their independence. On the way back to Bishkek we met Dilmurat, an experienced strawberry grower. He was more than happy to talk about what he did. Maybe my presence made a difference, but I think farmers everywhere want to learn and the best way to do this is to be open and share experiences.

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Save the trees June 26th, 2016 by

I was home Thursday evening, when my daughter, Clara, called us outside to see the forest fire. It was dusk and there was a bright, orange patch of flame dancing around the crest of the Andes, above Cochabamba. The jets of flame were so large we could see them leaping high above the tree tops, even from the city, far below on the valley floor. There had been no rain lately, so we imagined that within a few days the whole forest would be burning.

Now here, the word “forest” needs some explanation. This forest is a large swathe of pine and eucalyptus planted on the upper slopes of the Andes in Tunari National Park. Until the twentieth century, the mountain had been covered in native trees: short, gnarled, slow-growing hardwood trees with papery bark, called qhewiña in Quechua (Polylepis spp.). Throughout the mid twentieth century, wagon loads of the qhewiña wood were sold as firewood in the city of Cochabamba.

By the 1980s, these native trees were mostly gone. Then the Swiss government financed a project to reforest the mountain. Over the next few years, they planted pines and eucalyptus in the national park on the mountain above the city of Cochabamba, and in and around farm communities in the central departments of Cochabamba and Chuquisaca.

ruined building up closeBy Friday the fire we had seen from our home was largely out. On Sunday our curiosity got the better of us and with some of the extended family we drove 10 km above the city on a winding, dirt road, and parked at an abandoned pic-nic ground. Looking around, I realized that the Swiss planned Tunari National Park to be a peri-urban, family-friendly recreational park, where people would come for hikes and meetings in the pines. Among the trees above the city, the project left behind some children’s playgrounds and brick cabins where people could hold meetings or training courses. The buildings were abandoned years ago. The roofs have started to cave in and someone has stolen all of the rope from the children’s swings.

We hiked towards the site of the fire. There were isolated patches of smoldering fire, but no flames. A police fire-truck passed us on the way down, heading for the city. The fire fighters had also decided that the flames were out.

burned forest 2Once in the forest, we could see that the dried grass was thick on the ground, and that seems to have been the main source of fuel for the fire. We thought that some of the trees might survive. This forest has a fire almost every year, during the dry season, and many of the big pines and eucalyptuses have survived earlier burns.

We stopped at a ranger station to get more information. The staff explained that Tunari National Park has seven employees, and they respond as soon as they see a fire. When the fire is too much for the park staff to handle, they call on the departmental branch of the national police (the fire truck we had seen). The park service also relies on an energetic group of volunteers, a membership-based community organization called SAR (Search and Rescue) that looks for lost hikers and operates an ambulance, besides helping to put out forest fires. SAR was founded in 1988 and has no ties to the Swiss project that planted the forest.

By 1999, the original Swiss reforestation project morphed into another project, and no more trees were planted. Yet the original planted forests were not abandoned. The patchwork of organizations (the national park, the police and SAR) that come to the rescue are doing a competent job of saving the trees. The planted trees are now thick and healthy in most places.

The Bolivians put out the forest fires, but don’t care much for the cabins and other buildings left in the forest. I think that is a pattern; when donors invest in tangible, capital goods, local people tend to maintain certain kinds of investments (especially forests), even if the local people are not always willing to maintain buildings and some other investments.

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The ruffled reefer June 19th, 2016 by

Reefer (a marijuana cigarette) is the perfect example of a common word with an unknown origin. I heard Richard Diebold say this several times. He was an eminent historical linguist (and one of my mentors). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language noted that the etymology of “reefer” was obscure, but that it might come from the phrase “to reef (i.e. roll up) a sail.” Diebold found this unconvincing. I’ve since learned where the word “reefer” really does come from, but first, a bit of history.

marihuana leavesMarijuana is an old crop, native to Central Asia, where it still grows wild (pictured), and cultivated in China at least 4500 years ago (Zohary et al 2012). It came to the Americas with the early colonists, and it was called “hemp” (or cáñamo, in Spanish). Hemp was grown for fiber, to make sails and rope. The word “marijuana” or “marihuana” is a Mexican invention, according to the authoritative Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española, a major reference for Spanish etymology.

Hemp and marijuana are the same species of plant, but there are many different varieties. In the USA, recreational marijuana arrived with Mexican immigrants in the 1920s, following the end of the catastrophic Mexican revolution. The word marijuana was loaned into American English about then. The word “reefer” was well enough established to be used in the title of the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness, which sought to discourage marijuana smoking; the movie was so loaded with errors it became a classic in the annals of disinformation.

In Honduras in the 1980s, I realized that “reefer” came from grifa, a synonym in Spanish for marijuana. I wanted to publish the idea, but I was too much of a coward to publish on an illegal crop. Spanish makes some sense as the origin of reefer. After all, some of the other words describing marijuana are also from Spanish: such as “sin semilla” for seedless marijuana (female plants produced in isolation from male plants to produce lots of drug-rich resin), and “toke” for a hit, from toque.

I am only now getting up the nerve to write about reefer, and I am almost too late. By 2016 the American Heritage Dictionary has stopped repeating the old story about reefing up a ship’s sails, but it still says that the etymology of reefer is obscure. Wiktionary, a collaborative dictionary written by readers (www.wiktionary.org), does say that reefer is from grifa, but stops there. The Real Academia corroborates; “grifa” does mean marijuana, but only in the Americas. And that’s where the books end.

The Honduran campesinos not only use “grifa” to mean marijuana. The term is rich in other meanings. As an adjective, “grifo” means ruffled, or fluffy, for example when weed seeds stick to your trouser legs after walking through a field of maize: one is said to “salir de la milpa con el pantalón grifo de mozote.” The verb engrifarse means to ruffle up one’s own feathers, the way birds fluff up their feathers to look big.

So “grifa” (the feminine form of “grifo”) is a perfect way to describe a bud of marijuana, which is fluffy, feathery or ruffled. The word “grifo” in turn comes from standard Spanish, and it is the name of the mythical gryphon, with the head of a lion and the body of a ruffled eagle.

The other thing they say about marijuana in Honduras is that it turns your head grifo or fuzzy, which is a good reason not to smoke it, at least not every day.

I wish Diebold was still around to hear this story. He spoke Spanish well and would have appreciated the real origin of reefer. Crops need names and it was always going to be more likely that the etymology of reefer came from the land and farmers rather than from the sea and sailors.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2001 Diccionario Campesino Hondureño. Ceiba 42(2).
http://www.jefferybentley.com/Diccionario%20Campesino%20Hondureno.pdf

PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) 2014 “Marijuana Timeline.” PBS Frontline.
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dope/etc/cron.html

Zohary, Daniel, Maria Hopf and Ehud Weiss 2012 Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Domesticated Plants in South-west Asia, Europe, and the Mediterranean Basin (Fourth Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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