As the COVID-19 pandemic forces us to adjust to new realities, the fragility and injustices of our food and farming system have been laid bare. While we are working in real time to support those on the frontlines of this crisis, including farmworkers, community-scale farmers, food workers and Indigenous communities, we are also seeing a moment of opportunity to transform the way we cultivate, harvest, and distribute our food in ways that strengthen ecological and economic resilience within communities.
Agroecological farming practices restore ecosystem function, safeguard biodiversity, protect public health, produce high-quality foods, and sustain rural communities and economies. Farmers around the globe have been cultivating and implementing these practices for generations. Here is one on-the-ground example that highlights the success and the promise of agroecology.
Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa, is classified by the World Food Programme as a food-deficit state, where frequent and prolonged droughts leave soils dry, hard, and difficult to cultivate. This is particularly true in the Sahelian north, where over time, some families have migrated south in search of more viable livelihoods. Recently, however, domestic and international NGOs have begun to introduce a variety of agroecological techniques into local communities designed to capture rainfall and runoff, retain soil moisture, and ultimately offset the effects of drought. As farmers increasingly have adopted such techniques, many find themselves able to grow enough food for their families, and in some cases, for local markets as well.
Among the techniques used are contour bunds: successive lateral ridges built of earth, vegetation or stone that slow the flow of runoff on slopes and hillsides, allowing more water to infiltrate the soil while also reducing erosion. Using a combination of these and the composting of crop residues and cow manure, one farmer, Souobou Tiguidanla from the village of Toumbenga in Gayeri, has almost doubled his yields of maize, millet, and sorghum, increasing these from 1900 kg to 3900 kg. According to Tiguidanla, at times in the past his family went hungry. Now, however, he produces not only enough food to provide for his family, but also to share with neighbors in times of need. “I am very proud of these achievements,” he says, “My children are already learning to use the new practices and I am ready to teach others too.”
Tiguidanla is not the only one eager to share his knowledge. Tambiga Pomougou, also from Gayeri, has been using different agroecological techniques to increase her production of millet: “I found the technique[s] to be very effective,” she says, adding “Just this year I went to many of my neighbor’s farms and I trained them how to do this.” Pomougou uses a combination of contour bunds and zai pits; the latter shallow (~10cm) holes dug around cultivated plants and filled partially with compost. The holes capture runoff and the compost absorbs its excess, extending favorable growing conditions beyond the runoff event. In addition to aiding cultivation by creating a damp environment, zai pits help regenerate soil through the gradual return of porosity and permeability, improve groundwater recharge, and limit the extent of erosion.
The shift towards agroecological farming in Burkina Faso may be gradual, but it provides farmers with simple and inexpensive means for improving short- and long-term food security as the techniques utilized improve both yields and soils. On-site demonstrations of agroecological techniques performed by NGOs continue to draw attention, and farmers who have learned these from knowledgeable neighbors like Pomougou already report that they are able to feed their families again. Further, and importantly for many, the results achieved through the adoption of agroecological techniques has alleviated, at least temporarily, the pressure to migrate, affording farmers the hope that they may remain in their home villages.
Photo: Agricultures Network