Sudan: short-term gains, long-term disaster
Qala'en Nahl, Sudan
With the return of good rains, is Sudan's famine emergency over? Yes and no.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Yes, in that markets and grain stores are glutted with sorghum.
No, in that this glut has caused prices to fall to levels that may discourage farmers from selling surpluses they may have. And there is so much grain that any further shipments of relief grain from the West will further depress market prices and so undermine the morale of those farmers that they will be driven out of farming altogether - the West bringing about what the drought did not.
Moreover, there is a still bigger ``no,'' when one looks at the implications for the future of the methods farmers are using to produce this surplus - the planting of single crops void of so-called ``nitrogen-fixing'' agents for the soil. Workers on this agricultural project in Sudan's eastern plains envision only short-term gain and long-term disaster. (The project serves about 35,000 Eritrean refugees from northern Ethiopia and Sudanese farmers.)
The crisis that this part of Sudan faces is not the conventional disaster of desertification, the subject of much discussion on Africa's food crisis: A hurricane would not disturb our black clay, which is rock-hard when dry and like porridge when wet. Nor is it soil erosion: The place is flat, and water courses are rare - despite an annual average of 25 inches of rain squeezed into 13 weeks. And the soil is rarely less than six feet deep.
Nor is it really deforestation: That has taken place simply as a result of the fact that urban dwellers cannot rely on city energy supplies, so they cut down the trees to meet their needs. And the simple need to make room to grow the two staple crops - sorghum and sesame - has added to it.
Farmers face a twofold disaster:
First, there is the steady encroachment of a sorghum root parasite, striga hermontheca, which, as it starves its host into a shriveled travesty of a plant, itself produces showy spikes of red flowers. Farmers see it, rightly, as a sign of the land being ``tired'' of sorghum. It tells them it is time they moved onto fresh land. But there is no fresh land and the choice of alternative crops that are not susceptible to striga is limited to millet or sesame, growth of which only postpones the problem for a few years.
The second aspect of the disaster is the slow, remorseless decline in crop yields. This is widely attributed to declining rainfall (project workers doubt this is true), declining soil fertility (not confirmed by soil analyses project workers have made), and increasing weeds.
What may be the real problem is that no farmers plant any leguminous, or nitrogen-fixing, crops in their fields. Sorghum and sesame are ecologically poor substitutes for vegetation that once consisted of nitrogen-fixing deciduous trees, as well as a rich ground flora of grass and herbs, many of which are also legumes. Together with the annual falling of leaves, which gave a yearly mulch and a trickle of nitrogen to the soil, this vegetation kept the soil in good shape.