Sudan: short-term gains, long-term disaster

With the return of good rains, is Sudan's famine emergency over? Yes and no.

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.

Deprived of these two sources of fertility (crop residues are either grazed or burned off), it is no wonder farmers exhaust the soil after 15 years. It is no wonder that weeds, with life cycles similar to the crops, are becoming a problem.

These are two key problems threatening long-term food security in Sudan's prime food-producing region. The solutions are not available in local textbooks, and the Ministry of Agriculture is so short of funds that it can hardly do anything for the big farmers, let alone the million or so small farmers.

This is where the international development agency Euro Action-Acord at the Qala'en Nahl Settlement Project comes in. Here, we are building a team of trained and experienced Eritrean and Sudanese agriculturalists and village workers. A series of crop trials in the refugees' villages has been set up to check the project's diagnoses of the causes of declining yields. Project workers are on the lookout for strategies that will be effective against these ominous trends.

The project is taking place in the villages rather than on an experimental site - not in order to show farmers what to do but so that everything that is done will be subject to popular discussion.

Farmers at regular public meetings held by the project say that their soil is exhausted. Chemical analyses are made. Project directors measure the results and discuss the implications of plant trials in each village with a range of traditional sorghum varieties subjected to various fertilizer treatments.

After exhaustive discussions with farmers on how best to combat striga, the project sets up trials in each village on farmers' land that is known to be heavily infested. Various methods to ward off the infection are tested: traditional farmers' remedies, mixing food crops, and adding a heavy application of nitrogen fertilizer.

After the results of this year are taken into account, all the sites will be planted with sorghum in order to judge what effect this year's treatments have had on the levels of striga infestation.

Methods of tillage and planting are also of great concern to the project. The black clay is ideal for no-till farming, but the labor of planting and weeding is so great that, without hired labor, optimal dates are passed with consequent yield loss. To make planting easier and faster, farmers are using a newly introduced manual planter that was designed and developed in Nigeria and made in Britain.

Early results have been remarkably good. If they continue, the projects workshop may soon begin making the planter.

Because weeds are the No. 1 misery, the farmers use the tractor. Meanwhile, the project is working on development of a satisfactory donkey-drawn, low-crop weeder. But, in the end, at $2, the weeder will still be too expensive for some of the farmers to buy, and the project's real objective remains to devise a sustainable no-till system of crop production.

It is hard work in a harsh climate. But, as anywhere else, it is the people who make it work. And when a refugee farmer breaks into our compound at night to steal a couple of tree seedlings, the staff here cannot but feel it is all more than worthwhile.

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