Planet Diversity World Congress on the Future of Food and Agriculture

Farmers cross the borders

c. Anna Tankeh

Doudou Sow from Senegal and Remi Schiffeleers from Belgium are two friends who have known each other for a long time and visited each other’s farm and village to learn and improve their knowledge. They believe exchanging information is essential to be able to survive the changes they face. For them autonomy, solidarity and communication are the key to a better future.

Doudou Sow explains: "I belong to the ethnic group called Peuhl. In Africa everyone knows the Peuhl. They are the men who follow their cattle anywhere throughout Africa. We are nomads. Even if our environment has degraded, it doesn’t prevent us from being with our cattle. Before the dry periods of the 70ies, we had cattle all throughout the village. Each family had more than 40 cows. Not for the meat, but for the milk. We gave the milk to the farmers and they gave their products to us. We could not stay in the same place for very long. We need space. When we live close together, it will be not good for our cattle.

The area where we live in small groups of four or five families is called Guelackh. Guelackh in our language means a place surrounded by water. In the north of Senegal we have 200 mm of water. We have it only during two months. I cannot say that only because of that we have a desert. It is also caused by human beings using trees. Since we have no electricity, we use wood for fuel. We are Muslim, at night our children need a fire to learn about the Koran.

Only two months after the rain season everything is dry, dry. We cannot find grass and so we cut trees to give leaves and twigs to our cattle. Our houses are also made from trees. Before the dry spells of the 70ies we let the cows go out in the forest to graze and kept the calves in the stables. In the evening we milk the cows, but the cows have nothing to eat and their milk is nothing else than what they eat. Therefore, the cows give no milk so we let the calves and the cows in the forest together.

In the valleys, they say that 30 years ago, they cultivated rice here.... Before the drought, we had cow milk. Women sold produce, they had to walk 8 km and then take a taxibus. At any time, night and day, women were selling the milk door to door. Our only means for getting money is our milk. But our cows died."

We had to do something
"My cousin was with an NGO called Maison Familiale Rurale. He went to the village during the weekends and thought "I have to do something in my village. We have to find a solution to be able to stay here." We could not do anything else but change, we had no choice. The cows died. My cousin used to go to the village every week to discuss the problems. We needed help, not with money but with ideas.

When he went to Belgium to train himself in computers, he found Remi by chance. Remi invited him to visit his goat farm. When my cousin got home, he gathered the members of the village in a general assembly. At that time, I was in Dakar with my brother. I worked as a teacher at the university. My cousin still had his job, which he could not leave, but it was in my blood, I wanted to go back to my village. I was not married, so I went. Two years after that, my cousin joined us.

The first problem we had to solve was the problem of water. So we began to dig wells. Then we said we cannot feed ourselves if we only depend on cattle. If we want to dwell here, we have to produce our food. So we began farming. At the same time Remi and his friends visited our village to exchange ideas. Together we discussed that goats can survive in this condition. They can be fed on trees and do better than cows.

But if we let our goats roam free in the forest, they contribute to desertification. We had to struggle against that and decided to build a stable. It was a big problem, because this was not our custom. So we began with a demonstration farm. We said to Remi that we wanted a goat and Remi sent us a little goat that travelled to us in 12 days. The name of the goat is "Alken", which is also the name of Remi’s village. We made a crossing with our own goats."

Our life depends on trees
"We had to change our customs. Now, we have to go to the forest to look for Acacia fruits, and to gather grasses. We also started to grow trees. With the rope pump that we built ourselves, even children can now water tree seedlings. Our life depends on the trees. For houses, for lights, for cooking... we cannot live without trees. If we cut two, we have to plant more than two. However, it is difficult to plant trees in our area because of all the animals that eat the seedlings.

We therefore started to build dead fences with branches. Our goal is to one day take down the dead fence because we have a live fence. For that purpose we plant acacia seedlings in double rows 20 cm apart. After a few years, animals cannot get through and you can use the leaves and the fruits for your animals.

Many things changed. Our parents didn’t send their children to school. But one day, I have to die, my cousin also. We have to be replaced by other people, so we have to teach the children. We built a school, where we ourselves are the teachers. We teach not only theory, but also practise. If we were to ask parents to pay for pencils, they would take their children out of school, because they are not familiar with this type of schools. We therefore have to produce vegetables and teach the children how to do it at the same time. The vegetables are sold at the market.

The women started a training centre, where they learn to dye clothes and sew. In the gardens, women produce a diversity of vegetables for food. Now we have gathered all women in a milk producing co-operation. We have a shop in town and only two women are needed to sell the produce They no longer have to sell their milk from door to door. In order to keep the money in our village, we opened a shop to be able to buy goods we don’t produce ourselves. We also opened a market so that we don’t have to go to town to sell surplus produce."

A place of learning
Fifteen years ago, Remi Schiffeleers decided to start a goat farm to find an alternative for the degenerating form of agriculture that surrounded him. Remi says: "Increasing mechanisation has forced many farmers to quit farming, pesticide use is extremely high and agriculture depends on large-scale inputs from the South. Overproduction is a serious problem. Last year, one farmer in my village had to dump 8 million kg apples on his fields....

Therefore, we decided to start a co-operative to see how we could do things differently. We felt our farm had to be economically viable (people would have to earn a living), it had to provide people with a rewarding job with equal rights and responsibility for all members and it had to have low capital input (we had no money to start with). Our farm further had to produce healthy food that people can afford to buy. Our farm had to be ecologically viable, not just without chemicals, but also building on local resources with low energy input. We also wanted our farm to be a place of learning, to exchange ideas with the community and with our colleague farmers in the South.

A goat farm fitted our purpose: it needed hardly any capital investment and goats are found all over the world. For many people, goats are their last resort. We sometimes call them the cow of the poor man. In our desire to be autonomous, we slowly built our farm with local materials. Our goats are fed with 5 types of clovers and 5 types of grasses that we grow ourselves. They further eat by fodder beet, waste products of the local brewery and lin-oil producers and our neighbour’s barley.

We try to keep the cycle closed as much as possible. We try to improve our goat breed to fit these circumstances. The goats are milked twice a day and the milk is used to make cheese. Eight times per week, we go to the market to sell our own cheese. We also have one pig to eat the farm’s waste products and some cows. This farm is the basis for everything we do. If our farm is no longer profitable, we might as well stop all our activities."

Farmers are the actors
"The goat farm is also the basis for our exchange with farmers like Doudou. Throughout the years, we have built up contacts with many farmers in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Kenya and Morocco. When all these farmers came together in the village of Doudou, the "Mouvement Paysans sans Frontieres" was born. We all walked the last 8 kilometres. Gogo, a farmer from Kenya said to me: "Are you certain we are on the right track? Surely no people live here in this desert? And their goats give milk?!"

From this experience Gogo learned more than he could have learned reading hundred books. The farmers did not only come to Guelackh to talk. Together they also built a stable. Everyone learned from this. Our movement is all about practise. Farmers are the actors, the carriers of our action. Acting and thinking are united in one person.

In our idea, farmer-trainers should also be people from within the society, who know and respect local culture, but who are also exposed to ideas from outside. We are working here and they are working there, and we both learn. We do not say that this is the only way to do it. No, we say for us, at this moment, this is the right thing to do. We also see that other farmers, in a different place, have different results. That is nice, it is not a problem. In ten years time, everything may have changed and our practices may no longer work. We will find new ways by working together. We must not convince others, we must convince ourselves. That is the only way."

Doudou Sow, GJEG, BP 393, St. Louis, Senegal.
Remi Schiffeleers, Trakomula, Aardbruggenstraat 85, B-3570 Alken, Belgium.

ILEIA Newsletter Vol. 11 No. 4 p. 8

Farmers cross the bordersFarmers cross the bordersFarmers cross the bordersFarmers cross the borders

Local Organising Committee