Thursday, May 1, 2008

Taking the fire out of farming in Africa

Christian Science Monitor: …. A growing number of development experts, as well as local agriculturalists, see organic farming as a way to achieve food security and slow deforestation – two big challenges in rural sub-Saharan Africa. "There are more and more people interested in it," says Anne Boor, the international project manager for the International Federation of Or­ganic Agriculture Movements. "It is the only sustainable means of production."

Ms. Boor says that organic farming in Africa involves more than being chemical-free, which is already status quo. "The so-called traditional agriculture needs to be developed," she says. "It's no longer sustainable.... Organic agriculture means putting a strong focus on the soil and taking care that the soil is healthy and fertile."

For generations, farmers in rural Africa have used slash-and-burn methods. They clear a small section of land and burn the underlying brush in order to plant corn or sorghum. At the end of each harvest, farmers do another burn, to clear the dying stalks and undergrowth. This is tough on the land. Fire depletes soil nutrients, and rain washes away rich topsoil unmoored on bare fields. After a few years, the soil turns reddish and crumbly, and crops no longer thrive. Traditionally, that's when a farmer moves on and cuts another plot. He leaves the original field fallow, letting nature slowly reclaim and replenish it. In a decade or so, it's ready for crops again.

But population growth in Africa, which is among the fastest in the world, has caused this system to break down. In some regions, there is simply not enough land for the growing number of small-scale farmers to constantly clear new fields. In other places, such as central Mozambique, villagers short on traditional farmland have moved into ecologically crucial forest areas. Here, a deforestation crisis now threatens the area's river systems and weather patterns….

Slash and burn agriculture contributes to flooding, shown here on the Limpopo River in Southern Mozambique, photo by Cary Humphries, US Department of Defense, Wikimedia Commons

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