Taking the fire out of farming in Africa

Organic methods, distinct from traditional 'slash and burn' agriculture, holds hope of curbing deforestation and boosting food security

Stephanie Hanes
Fertilizer: Instead of burning the stubble of old crops, Joao Jongue plants new crops between rows. Rotting stalks feed the new plants.

When he started tending this field, not long after the end of his country's long civil war in 1992, Joao Jongue's neighbors thought he was foolish, even crazy.

He didn't burn the cornstalks at the end of the season, but left them on the earth to rot. He mixed tomatoes and peanuts in with the corn. When mice started eating the decomposing vegetables, rather than clear the field, he brought in cats.

"My partner, he didn't agree with this sort of farming," says Mr. Jongue, smiling in the shade of his wide-brimmed straw hat. "So I did it myself."

Now, 15 years later, the soil of Jongue's machamba (small field), is still moist brown, and the corn reaches toward the cobalt-blue sky. His neighbor's plot is dusty and red, but Jongue's yields are still large enough that he can sell half of his crop at the outdoor market in this sunny, brightly painted town. Meanwhile, representatives of international development projects are coming to visit – asking how, in this overly farmed region, he's had such success.

Jongue's plot is a model of what many local aid projects would like to repeat across this region: organic farming, African style.

For many Americans, the idea of "organic food" is connected with high-end grocery stores. But here, "organic" has a different face. 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.

Some local governments and international donors say fertilizer is the answer. Africa was largely left out of the "Green Revolution," where scientific improvements to agriculture, particularly fertilizer, increased food production dramatically in the mid 20th century.

Other development groups and re­­search­­ers say organic farming will be just as effective at increasing yields – and more sustainable. For instance, last year University of Michigan researchers published a report that showed organic farming could produce up to three times the yield of traditional farming methods in developing countries.

"My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can't produce enough food through organic agriculture," said Prof. Ivette Perfecto, one of the study's authors.

Here, near Vila Gorongosa, the politics of organic versus fertilizer takes a back seat to the facts: Land is scarce; crop yields are falling; no fertilizer programs is in place. And the forest is disappearing.

Meanwhile, Jongue didn't start his organic farming method because an organization told him what to do, he says. He simply saw another local farmer tending his crops this way and decided to give it a try – and found success.

He says many of his neighbors are wary of moving away from the traditional methods practiced by their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. But some of them are starting to change their practices.

"Look at this soil," he says, gesturing to the ground. "They see that it is good."

Stephanie Hanes's reporting for this article was partially funded by an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.