Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dov Pasternak - Part 2

Hi All -

Today we're going to talk about lateritic soil. It is really important, and I understand only the barest essentials, so this won't be complicated.

First of all, lateritic soil is degraded soil in which almost nothing grows. Africa is very old, geologically speaking. (I have no idea about millions and billions so don't ask.) Early on, the atmosphere had much more carbon dioxide than it does now. The climate alternated between tropical and dry periods. During tropical periods, acid rain (because of the high CO2) depleted the soil of its soluble nutrients, leaving it wuth high concentrations of non-soluble elements such as silica and iron (which gives it the characteristic red color today). During dry periods, this lateritic soil would be covered with sand.

Plants grew when there was a sandy top layer. This prevented soil erosion. Then - in the last 10,000 years - humans came. We grazed animals on the land, cut trees and cultivated the soil, exposing the laterite. Current agricultural practices exacerbate the problem. After harvesting crops, herders graze their animals on the residue. The annual hamattan winds blow the soil away, further exposing the laterite patches. This crusty surface does not allow water to penetrate causing major runoff and further erosion. (Now I bet you see how important it was that Acacia tumida can thrive in lateritic soil!) This vicious cycle is also - according to Dov - an opportunity, in that there is an abundance of land which might be put to productive use feeding and supporting hungry people.

The surprising good news about lateritic soil is that once you break through the crust it retains water! Dov is employing three methods of capturing rainfall (zai holes, demilunes and shallow trenches) in his research on plants that can survive without irrigation. They're pretty interesting. John has pictures of them.

He also has pictures of many of the plants Dov is developing. Besides the plants I mentioned yesterday, Dov is also adapting okra, tamarind, mango, moringa, heat resistant lettuce, carrots, papaya, grapes, pomelo, tomatoes, onions date palms, cassava, watermelon, cantaloupe, Acacia senegal (for gum Arabic) neem, marula, jatropha - an incomplete list in no particular order. I'll let you know when the photos are online.

In all of his efforts, Dov is looking for plants that will thrive in these harsh environments and will also provide food security, nutrition and, ideally, income generation.

Dov's African Market Garden is designed to accomplish these goals. The concept combines irrigation with superior varieties of vegetables and fruits. MASHAV, the development arm of the Israeli government (the same folks who provided the water course last year for 30 Millennium Village staff people) considers the African Market Garden its flagship project in Africa, and hopes to organize a donor conference in Senegal to promote it. Several different versions of the concept are being tested, some varying the type of irrigation, some varying the scale and type of ownership.

Irrigation can use either drip or hand-watering. Both methods enable farmers to grow 3 crops per year rather than the one produced now. Dov has modified existing drip irrigation equipment for the smallholder farmer, greatly reducing the initial cost and simplifying ongoing maintenance. With either irrigation method, there are significant fixed costs (pumps, holding tanks, perimeter fencing to keep out critters, technical supervision, etc.). Each individual plot is approximately 5000 square feet, and the economics are greatly improved by clustering multiple plots together and sharing these fixed costs.

It isn't intuitively obvious how best to share costs, so Dov is testing various concepts of ownership. The form of ownership raises all kinds of interesting cultural issues relating to the role of women. If you remember the NY Times Sunday magazine on the critical importance of empowering women,'s%20rights%20are%20the%20cause%20of%20our%20time&st=cse

you will remember that when women grow crops, they choose food that will feed their families (and - if there is surplus - can be sold). But typically, only men have rights to crop land. Dov says that women have a hunger for soil, and the chef du village can often be persuaded to allocate degraded land to the women.

Dov has tested single gardens, cluster gardens (where each farmer has a separate water, fertilizer and pesticide supply) and communal gardens where each farmer works a section of a large field and shares the costs of communal water, fertilizer and pest control. It's like the difference between a family farm, a moshav and a kibbutz. The economics are the best in the communal model.

Not surprisingly (at least, I'm not surprised) women are much better at the communal method than men. Women behave better in groups, women cooperate better, women pay their share more reliably, etc.

The ICRISAT research center where Dov is chief scientist is located in the country, about 25 miles south of Niamey, next to the village of Sadore. We saw an installation of the African Market Garden in Sadore, as well as some other very interesting things. I'll tell you about some of them now, but the most important - Dov's Farmers of the Future program - I'll save for part 3 tomorrow.

The ICRISAT field workers live in the village. We saw a school (ICRISAT built it, the government supplies the teachers), homes, a very nice greenhouse and the most BEAUTIFUL children you have ever seen (John has pictures).

The children looked so healthy - not covered with flies and none had the eye problems we saw among the Maasai of Kenya. When we asked Dov why, he explained that the children eat a diet rich in vegetables.

The greenhouse turned out to be entirely a private operation of the village women and their children; ICRISAT had not paid for anything - plants, greenhouse construction, netting - all of it was financed by the women of the village. The children had grafted mango to root stock, using techniques developed by Dov's work. The resulting mango plants are of such high quality that people drive out from the city to buy them. Each plant earns the village women approx $1.50 and we counted over 500 plants. The women have used the profits from this business to build new homes - adobe rather than the usual thatched hut - that are the finest in the village.

Sadore shows the potential that agriculture has to lift people out of extreme poverty.

No comments:

Post a Comment