Niger, exception to the rule in Sahel, has its barns full

The midday sun sends shimmering heat waves off the stony, yellow-brown Saharan plain. A lone camel, hobbled by a short rope around his legs, munches leaves in the 120 degree shade of a thorny acacia tree.

In the midst of this barren desert scene, a cool dark patch of green emerges, like a mirage.

African peasants stand in row on row of ripening rice, planted meticulously in leveled and diked parcels. Crouching in the muddy fields, they painstakingly pull weeds from around the rice shoots.

Water flows slowly and silently through three main cement irrigation channels. Women chat as they scrub clothes, and children splash about in the water.

Although most farmers in Sahel West Africa continue to face the threat of drought and famine, peasants at the Toula Irrigation Project, 70 miles northwest of Niamey, the Niger capital, are growing two secure rice crops a year and earning higher incomes.

During a severe drought that lasted from 1972 to '74, Niger was forced to import 300,000 tons of emergency food for its 5 million people.

Today, almost 10 years later, Niger has become self-sufficient in its basic food grains. None of the other Sahel countries - Chad, The Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, and Upper Volta - has done so well.

Niger has attained self-sufficiency by offering farmers higher prices for their crops - millet, sorghum, rice, and cowpeas - and investing a large share of revenues from uranium, the chief export, in agricultural projects like Toula.

The 540 farmers at Toula have conquered the drought by drawing water from the Niger River, the 2,600-mile-long lifeblood of the Sahel, to irrigate their fields. They have also organized themselves to look after their own project.

The Niger government is short of skilled civil servants and advocates a policy of ''self-managed development.'' Toula is an unusual example of actually achieving that goal.

When it started in 1975, Toula had $1 million in financial backing, foreign advisers from the European Community, and assistance from Niger government technicians.

As the farmers learned how to take care of the sophisticated four-engine pumping station and the 600 acres of collectively irrigated land, the outsiders were phased out.

Since 1980, there has only been one Niger official at Toula. The foreigners are gone.

The farmers belong to six cooperatives, each with 90 members responsible for maintaining irrigation works on 100 acres. They clean the channels and earthen drainage ditches and tend a common nursery for young rice shoots.

The key to Toula's organization is peasant ''demonstrators'' - two volunteers from each cooperative - who transmit technical advice from the project director to the farmers. This advice covers such topics as plant density, fertilizer application, and use of insecticides.

A seven-member management committee, composed of peasants, oversees the entire project, especially the maintenance fund for irrigation.

At harvesttime, collective irrigation costs are shared out among the farmers. Last year they totaled $32,000, with each of the 540 peasants paying $60 to the fund.

The committee also offers farm equipment and supplies on credit, for ox plows , donkey carts, and fertilizer. Farmers pay back the loans after the harvest.

With yields averaging more than two tons an acre - an exceptionally high figure for Africa - a typical peasant at Toula grew five tons of rice last year.

After selling one-quarter of his harvest to the government at a fixed price, as required, and setting aside a ton of rice to feed his family of seven, he sold the remainder to private traders at a higher price, earning some $1,200 in cash. Such an income is high by African standards.

Farmers at Toula have planted 35 acres of eucalyptus trees around their rice fields. The fast-maturing trees are cut every five years for firewood and building poles, which are scarce in the Sahel. Wood sales earned the cooperatives $4,000 last year.

To take full control of the project, the peasants have worked to improve their skills. They attend adult literacy courses in the evening, conducted in the local language of Djerma.

They sent one man to Niamey to train as project accountant, and another to study pump maintenance with the national electric company.

Government and foreign aid officials would like to create many similar agricultural projects in the Sahel, but it may prove difficult to imitate Toula elsewhere.

One reason is that only 25,000 acres along the Niger River, the country's only year-round watercourse, can be irrigated under present conditions. This is a tiny fraction of the land that must be cultivated if food producton is to keep pace with population growth of 2.6 percent a year.

Even though Niger is a vast country of half a million square miles - twice the size of Texas - only 3 percent of its land is arable.

Construction of a large dam upstream from Toula at Kandadji could add 175,000 acres of irrigable land, but the billion-dollar price of the dam is prohibitive for a country as poor as Niger.

The high costs of laying out irrigation in the Sahel - some $5,000 an acre - may also prevent rapid expansion of the area devoted to ''wet'' farming.

In the meantime, more will have to be invested in dryland agriculture, which the majority of Niger's peasants practice. This means improving crop varieties, building small dams, and expanding use of ox plows.

Despite these obstacles, Toula is still a useful example of how African farmers can organize and train themselves to improve their living standards. If the lessons from Toula are applied elsewhere in the Sahel, more of the desert may soon be turning green.

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