A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: BorderJump

Makutano Junction Soap Opera

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

MakutanoJu..Cropped.jpg

The last place most of us look to for useful information is television soap operas. But Makutano Junction, a Kenyan-produced soap opera set in the fictional town of the same name is not your average TV drama. Broadcast in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and throughout English-speaking Africa on Digital Satellite Television (DSTV), Makutano Junction doesn't deal with the evil twins, amnesia, and dark family secrets typical of U.S. daytime dramas. Instead, the show's plot lines revolve around more grounded (although not necessarily less dramatic) subjects like access to health care and education, sustainable income-generation, and citizens' rights.

Funded by the U.K. Department for International Development, produced by the Mediae Trust, and broadcast by the Kenya Broadcast Corporation, the show was originally designed as a 13-part drama in 2004. But Makutano Junction was since developed into a six-season TV phenomenon, with over 7 million viewers in Kenya alone. Its website provides all the information one might expect from a television show site, including episode summaries and character profiles. It also features "extras" on themes from specific episodes and encourages viewers to text the producers for more information.

In Episode 8 of Season 6, which aired in 2008, the character Maspeedy gets into trouble for soaking seeds. Seed soaking works by essentially tricking the seed into thinking it has been planted, allowing it to soak up in one day as much water as it would in a week in the soil. This speeds up germination and significantly shortens the time between planting and growth, leading to a vegetable harvest in a quick amount of time.

But the other characters in the show are unfamiliar with this practice and, when they discover Maspeedy's project, have him thrown in jail because they are convinced that he is brewing alcohol illegally. After some plot twists and a little slapstick humor involving two trouble-making characters who attempt to drink the water in order to get drunk, the truth comes to light and Maspeedy is released from jail. He then teaches the rest of the town the simple technique of soaking seeds to speed plant-growth time.

After the episode aired in May 2008, thousands of viewers sent texts to Mediae  requesting more information about seed-soaking techniques. These viewers were sent a pamphlet with detailed instructions on how to soak their own seeds. Follow-up calls-- which were part of a study to test the effectiveness of the show's messaging-- revealed that 95 percent of those who had texted for more information had found the pamphlets helpful. And 57 percent had tried out seed soaking even before the pamphlet arrived, just based on the information provided on the show. Ninety-four percent said that they had shared the information with up to five other people.

By peppering the drama-infused lives of its characters with demonstrations of agricultural practices, trips to the doctor for tuberculosis tests, and Kenyan history, Makutano Junction serves to both entertain and provide reliable information for families throughout sub-Saharan Africa. This is soap opera drama that people can actually relate to--and learn from.

To read more about innovations that use entertainment and media to alleviate poverty and hunger see: Using Digital Technology to Empower and Connect Young Farmers, Acting it out for Advocacy and Messages from One Rice Farmer to Another.

Thank you for reading! As you may already know, Danielle Nierenberg is traveling across sub-Saharan Africa visiting organizations and projects that provide environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty.  She has already traveled to over 19 countries and visited 130 projects highlighting stories of hope and success in the region. She will be in Benin next, so stay tuned for more writing, photos and video from her travels.  

If you enjoy reading this diary, we blog daily on  Nourishing the Planet, where you can also sign up for our newsletter to receive weekly blog and travel updates.  Please don't hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Posted by BorderJump 14:25 Archived in Kenya Comments (0)

Fighting for Farmworkers’ Rights for More Than 40 Years

By Ronit Ridberg

This is the first of three parts of an interview with Baldemar Velasquez, President and Founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. In Part One, Mr. Velasquez describes the biggest challenges and abuses farm workers face in the U.S., and what it was like for his family to work in America’s agricultural sector. Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

Baldemar Velasquez

Baldemar Velasquez


Name: Baldemar Velasquez

Affiliation: President and Founder, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, FLOC, AFL-CIO

Location: Toledo, Ohio

Bio: Incensed by the injustices suffered by his family and other farm workers, Baldemar Velasquez founded the union of migrant farm workers, Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in 1967. FLOC works tirelessly to give voice to migrant farm workers across the country and include them in decision-making processes on conditions that affect their lives. Mr. Velasquez is a highly respected national and international leader, not only in the farm labor movement, but also in the Latino and immigrant rights movements.

What is your background, and how did you come to found FLOC?

My family was recruited into the migrant worker stream back in the early 50s from South Texas to harvest tomatoes, sugar beets and other hand-harvest crops in Ohio, Michigan and the Midwest. That began my long odyssey to this work, getting stranded in Ohio and not making enough money to get back to Texas. In those early years we didn’t even have our own transportation and we got so in debt one fall, we had to stay the winter and borrow more money from the local farmers just to stay alive. Then we worked off the winter debt the next summer– working for free in the fields. We then stayed another winter and were in debt again, we sort of became like indentured workers for about seven years.

Just to get out of debt we traveled the summers around the mid-west to find the back-to-back-to-back crops. In Michigan with the cherries and the strawberries, and trimming Christmas trees then back to Ohio for the sugar beets and the tomato and cucumber harvest, right into the fall and picking potatoes for the local farmers. So that’s how we just tried to keep out of debt and try and survive the winter so we could survive the following summer.

The silver lining in all of this was that I was able to learn English and stay in school – it was cold at home and warm in the schoolhouse so I kept going back to school. I ended up going to college – almost by accident! I didn’t think that college was for Mexican kids, I thought it was for white kids, and my senior literature teacher said, “Why not?” My grades were good enough. During college vacations I would go back to the fields to work and by my senior year I was already organizing my dad and his friends, and my mom and her comadres in the fields.

Can you describe some of the biggest challenges and most common abuses faced by farm workers in the United States?

Well there’s the outward abuses, like stealing your wages, getting cheated in your pay, employers cooking the books and falsely reporting the wages of workers. And a lot of times they hide it – like in our family, our whole family worked together but only my dad and my mom would get a paycheck. So they reported it as individual earnings, but it was really the collective earnings of all of us who worked on piece-rate crops. We were regularly cheated out of minimum wages. And as long as people were working piece-rates, getting paid by the bucket, by the acre, by the lug, by the crate, by whatever container or unit we were working and getting paid for, the record keeping of hours was very sporadic and very distorted.

Then there’s the disregard for the health environment of the workers, the labor camps where many times the legislation was so lax that you could house people in chicken coops and barns, and still qualify to have registered labor camps. And even then, whatever laws were in the books were never enforced anyway. So we grew up in very bad labor camp conditions. So there’s that environmental factor.

And then the human abuse, the tongue lashings that workers would get, that women would get from unscrupulous labor contractors, crew leaders, field men, and even some farmers. One of the things that would really shock me and anger me was the way they would talk to my mom, in ear shot of my little sisters who were all smaller. Well, it makes a young man very angry, and you want to do something but you don’t know what to do.

So those are the kinds of abuses that we grew up with. By the time I was old enough to think about this seriously, I thought well, when I grow up, if I can do something about this, I’m going to do something!

How common is child labor is in agricultural production today and do you think labor policies can address the problem?

You know, we’ve had child labor laws on the books for a long time. And the problem with any kind of laws governing the agriculture sector is the lax enforcement, or no enforcement at all. I started working the fields when I was six. By the time I was eight or nine, I was already carrying an adult load in terms of ability to harvest the number of lugs or crates or baskets or hampers or whatever.

And as far as putting more inspectors in the fields to enforce child labor laws, it’s a two-edged sword. The reason parents have their kids in the field is not because they like child labor, but really in our family, the alternative to that was not eating. And that’s what it boils down to. And it’s very easy to say, “yeah let’s pass some laws and get really tough enforcement and big fines for those who have kids in the fields,” but if you get the kids out of the fields – okay, so then what? You let them languish in the labor camps all by themselves? They have nothing to do. Or you take away an adult wage-earner to stay home and baby-sit him? Take away that income from the family?

You cannot talk about eliminating child labor without dealing with the other family impacts – for instance family income. The kids may not create as much income as an adult worker, but it is income. And we used to pool our income as a whole family to make ends meet, to stay alive. And so you’ve got to deal with the wage issue. You’ve got to make the job where adults can earn a living so the kids don’t have to be in the fields and you can still provide for them, you can still give them food. All of these have to be answered together – you can’t just say, let’s eliminate child labor. All these advocates in Washington talking about child labor laws and so on, well-intentioned as it is, they’re not addressing the other issues.

What are some of the health hazards that farm workers face?

Every crop has different foliage and its own chemical make-up, and sometimes people have allergies and react to them. Not to mention the residue that might be on some of those crops – the fungicides, the pesticides that they spray on them, and the lack of enforcement on reentry time in the field. You can have all the regulations you want – if you don’t have a way in which workers can police that and be able to decisively do something without fear of retaliation, then the laws aren’t going to do you a lot of good.

I’ve watched over the years well-intentioned efforts like the Environmental Protection Agency’s Worker Protection Standards, and the required training of workers around pesticides and so on. And they have put millions into funding organizations to train workers about pesticide safety. Well, here’s my question: a worker gets out of bed in the morning, and he sees a farmer who just finished spraying a field, and the crew leader takes him out there and says, “Okay – time to go to work”. And he’s educated about the reentry time, and knows it is too early to go back in. (The more toxic ones have longer reentry periods – two, three-day reentry period). And sitting on the edge of the field – the difference between a trained worker and an untrained worker, is either that you’re knowingly going to go in and get poisoned, or you’re not knowingly going to get poisoned. The guy that knowingly goes in and gets poisoned, what’s his choice? What are his options? Not go and maybe get fired? And get retaliated against? What do you have on the books to protect him from being retaliated against, and how is he going to process that – file a complaint with the Department of Labor, who might respond in two weeks? And then you have to pack up and go make a living with your family somewhere else. Where is the follow-up on that particular incident? What good does it do you that day? That’s the problem.

So there’s the problem in terms of the chemicals, the residues on the plants. There’s also the climate issue. We have had nine deaths in the fields of North Carolina in recent years, and seven of them from heat stroke. This summer already, among our membership, we’ve had two heat stroke cases: One guy is still in a coma, and the other fellow just came out of a coma. We have him in a hospitality place down where we’re working on his workers’ compensation case and in the past those workers who didn’t have an organization, well they were out of luck. They were forgotten, put on the bus and sent back to Mexico, or just left to languish wherever they are.

So a lot of that is just due to pure neglect. The farmers can be held accountable, but workers have to have a right to make decisions about when they can walk out of a field, when they can file a complaint or a grievance with the employer. Already this summer we’ve probably processed a couple of hundred complaints from workers.

Stayed tuned to parts two and three of this series, which will focus on how FLOC helps farmworkers gain a seat at the negotiating table, and ways consumers can get involved. To read more about workers in our food system, see In a Global Food System: Breaking Down Barriers and Improving Livelihoods for Food Workers and Making Sure the Food Industry Works for its Employees.

Ronit Ridberg is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

Thank you for reading! As you may already know, Danielle Nierenberg is traveling across sub-Saharan Africa visiting organizations and projects that provide environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty. She has already traveled to over 18 countries and visited 130 projects highlighting stories of hope and success in the region. She will be in Benin next, so stay tuned for more writing, photos and video from her travels.

If you enjoy reading this diary, we blog daily on Nourishing the Planet, where you can also sign up for our newsletter to receive weekly blog and travel updates. Please don’t hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Posted by BorderJump 07:25 Comments (0)

A Conversation About Organic Agriculture with Chuck Benbrook

In this regular series we profile advisors of the Nourishing the Planet project. This week, we feature Chuck Benbrook, Chief Scientist at the Organic Center.

Charles-Benbrook-PhD.jpg
Name: Chuck Benbrook

Affiliation: The Organic Center

Location: Enterprise, Oregon

Bio: Dr. Charles Benbrook is Chief Scientist at the Organic Center. He worked in Washington, D.C. on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues from 1979 through 1997. He served for 1.5 years as the agricultural staff expert on the Council for Environmental Quality at the end of the Carter Administration. Following the election of Ronald Reagan, he moved to Capitol Hill in early 1981 and was the Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture with jurisdiction over pesticide regulation, research, trade and foreign agricultural issues. In 1984 Benbrook was recruited to the job of Executive Director, Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences, a position he held for seven years. In late 1990 he formed Benbrook Consulting Services.

On Nourishing the Planet: Promoting agricultural and economic development in Africa requires intimate understanding of the resources people have to work with, and the factors shaping the decisions farmers make about what to grow and how. Such understanding is a prerequisite to cost-effectively relax multiple constraints in unison. The “Nourishing the Planet” project excels at gathering and sharing this sort of key information and, for this reason, has much to contribute in shaping development assistant programs that produce meaningful, sustained results.

Can you describe the possible ways that organic agriculture methods can help improve farmers’ income, increase food security, and decrease world hunger?

If you dispassionately look at what is needed to promote productivity and food security in chronically food short regions, core organic farming principles and practices have much to contribute, and certainly far more than the GMO and chemical-intensive corn-soybean production system in the U.S. corn belt. This is particularly true in restoring soil fertility and reversing the steady decline in soil organic matter.

Six core principles and objectives of organic farming must form the foundation of sustainable food systems, and hence food security in Africa –

* Build the quality of the soil by increasing soil organic matter;
* Promote above and below-ground biodiversity for its inherent, multiple benefits (biological control, more diverse diet, lessening risk of catastrophic crop loss, etc);
* Integrate crop and livestock operations to exploit synergies between the two;
* Use crop rotations, cover crops, multi-cropping systems, and agro-foresty to utilize available sunlight and moisture more fully, especially in the spring and fall months;
* Avoid the use of toxic chemicals and hot fertilizers because of their potential to burn up organic matter, kill or reduce populations of non-target organisms that play valuable roles in food chains ultimately helping to feed people, and pose risks to people living in close proximity to treated areas; and
* Produce high-quality, nutrient dense products that will hopefully command a premium price in the market place, reflecting their true value.

What are some specific innovations, policies and techniques that could be implemented to promote organic agriculture while also improving livelihoods?

Obviously, the combination of new practices, inputs, and technologies needed will vary tremendously based on local conditions. Nearly everywhere, soil quality must be restored, a process that will require a number of years and a proper sequence of changes in management systems and inputs. What a farmer does in the first three years of this journey will differ considerably from common practices ten years down the road.

Early steps will be dependent to a greater degree on fertilizer and organic soil amendments from outside the farm, and will often need to be shipped hundreds of miles into the region, while in later years, much more of the organic materials needed to sustain soil quality will be generated on the farm or locally.

Unfortunately, many projects and policy initiatives have delivered uneven, unsustainable results because they stopped at just subsidizing fertilizer, and failed to support the farmer’s evolution toward more biologically-based methods to sustain soil fertility.

It is critical to support this incremental evolution, because the real and sustainable economic benefits to farm families kick in only after the transition is well along toward systems that have a high level of internal self-sufficiency, stability, and resilience.

It would be helpful for researchers and development organizations to provide recommendations for cost-effective trajectories of change in soil quality, including recommendations for the most cost-effective steps, and investments that will promote sustainable progress during each stage of the process.

More efficient capture and use of water, especially through micro-irrigation schemes, will also deliver significant benefits in many areas. Diversifying rotations to include small plots of several short season vegetable crops in various combinations will also deliver multiple benefits. Diversifying livestock enterprises to include more small livestock like chickens and rabbits is also a promising addition to the development assistance tool kit.

The lack of safe storage and markets for new crops, or difficulties in storing and utilizing new foods, often emerges as a major constraint to positive changes on the farm, and in terms of the diversity and quality of diets. It seems to me that this is an obvious area for development assistance programs to target resources.

Why should wealthy consumers care about hunger in other parts of the world?

For the same reason that everyone should – helping assure everyone has enough to eat is a universal moral imperative. There is no chance for peace and stability in a world where chronic poverty and hunger afflicts one-sixth of mankind. Hungry people are desperate people, and the actions they sometimes take, or embrace, to feed themselves and their families erode the fabric of civilization, just as erosion saps soil quality.

In your chapter, “Biotechnology: Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem—or Both?” you make the point that developed nations should use biotechnology to better understand “the linkages between indigenous resources and knowledge and agricultural production and farm family well being.” Can you elaborate on this statement?

Some people are convinced that breakthroughs in plant breeding in Africa depend on access to, and use of a set of genes, markers and molecular technologies discovered and now used in the U.S. and Europe by plant biotech companies. I doubt it. I just don’t see Roundup Ready or Bt GE crops making much of a difference on most of the African continent.

Instead, I think that the modern tools of molecular biology should be deployed to understand and better utilize the genetic diversity that exists on the African continent. These tools are also extremely valuable in rooting out the subtle interactions between soil microbes, plants, pests, and the environment that can make or break a crop, and turn a nutritionally deficient diet into one that is both rich in nutrients and robust across seasons and circumstances.

There are many ways to work toward this goal that fully exploit cutting-edge science and technology. We need to find the pathways that will deliver tangible results more quickly and cost-effectively than creating a new food like Golden rice, which remains after many years and millions of dollars an intriguing technical challenge, but not a sound investment if the goal is to promote food security where it is currently lacking.

Can biotechnology be used to improve sustainable agriculture and farming in the developing world?

Sure, but the biotechnology applications will be very different than the GE crops now planted around the world.

In the publication, “The Impacts of Yield on Nutritional Quality: Lessons from Organic Farming,” you conclude that organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally produced fruits and vegetables. Can you give a few examples of why organic produce is more nutritious and how this knowledge can help farmers in the United States and Europe, as well as the developing world?

In the U.S. and Europe, there has been a steady decline over 40-plus years in the nutrient density of conventionally grown foods, driven largely by incrementally higher nitrogen fertilizer levels and crop yields. Agronomists call this essentially unavoidable relationship between yields and nutrient density the “dilution effect.” Organic farmers do not have access to the cheap sources of readily available nitrogen that serve as the fuel driving the dilution effect.

On average across most plant-based foods, organically managed crops mature a bit more slowly and produce fruit and vegetables that are somewhat smaller. But in terms of nutrient content per ounce or gram of apple, lettuce, carrot, or grapes, smaller is better.

There is also convincing evidence supporting the conclusion that in some years for some organic crops, a higher level of pest pressure, coupled with the lack of conventional pesticide applications, forces plants to divert energy from growth to defense mechanisms, which typically entail increased biosynthesis of plant secondary metabolites. Many of these are potent antioxidants and account for a significant slice of the unique health-promoting benefits – and flavors – of fruits and vegetables.

Supporters of biotechnology often make the argument GE crops are necessary to fight food insecurity as climate change and population growth put increased pressure on the food system. Can you give your thoughts on why or why not biotechnology can feed the world?

Today’s commercially significant GE crops are herbicide-tolerant corn, soybeans, and cotton, and Bt corn and cotton. These crops are designed to simplify weed and insect pest management and are planted, for the most part, in specialized, chemical-intensive systems. Alternative technology exists to produce the same amount of crops per acre, and likely a bit more at lower cost to the farmer. Based on these realities, I conclude that today’s commercial GE crops are making no unique contribution to world food security needs.

An argument could be made, in addition, that today’s GE crop technology has actually undermined progress toward increasing production and meeting global food security needs. The discovery and commercialization of today’s GE crops have totally dominated public and private plant breeding investments for nearly 30 years in three major crops, slowing the pace of progress in other areas of plant genetic improvement that would likely be of more direct benefit to a wider range of farmers around the world.

No one technology or farming system will emerge as universally optimal. Progress toward global food security will be accelerated by systemic efforts to promote diversity in farming systems and technologies. A healthy measure of experimentation is desirable in searching for optimal cropping patterns and production practices in a given region.

We must resist the enticing prospect that science and technology will deliver a magic bullet, or even a magic arsenal, that will miraculously optimize yields, stop pests in their tracks, always build soil quality, and thrive despite climate change. A sober reading of history suggests strongly that this is a pipedream.

Those arguing that global food security will be assured if we just unleash the powers of biotechnology are doing the world’s poor a grave disservice. I know that many biotech promoters feel the same way about people like me who feel just as strongly that the most rapid and sustained progress will come from agricultural development programs and investments grounded in the principles of organic farming and agroecology.

One would hope and expect that the World Bank, FAO, CGIAR, foundations, and development assistance programs will insist that fair and unbiased assessments are made of the net returns to alternative paths to development in the years to come, but thus far I see little evidence of this happening on the ground. The “Nourishing the Planet” project should do all it can to encourage the major funders and development organizations to sponsor credible, independent assessments. May the best approach emerge, and let’s hope that funders have the courage and political freedom to put the dollars behind the best system, in the hope of accelerating progress toward a goal shared by all.

Thank you for reading! As you may already know, Danielle Nierenberg is traveling across sub-Saharan Africa visiting organizations and projects that provide environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty. She has already traveled to over 18 countries and visited 130 projects highlighting stories of hope and success in the region. She will be in Togo next, so stay tuned for more writing, photos and video from her travels.

If you enjoy reading this diary, we blog daily on Nourishing the Planet, where you can also sign up for our newsletter to receive weekly blog and travel updates. Please don't hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Posted by BorderJump 07:45 Comments (0)

Beating the Heat to Reduce Post-Harvest Waste

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

Zeer Pot (Photo Credit: Practical Action)

Zeer Pot (Photo Credit: Practical Action)


For a farmer in a hot country like Sudan, a big harvest can end up being just a big waste. A fresh tomato off the vine will only last about 2 days in the stifling heat, while carrots and okra might last only 4 days. Despite being perfectly capable of producing abundant harvests, without any means to store and preserve crops, farmers in Sudan are at risk for hunger and starvation. They are also losing money that could be made by selling surplus produce at markets if they had a way to keep vegetables longer.

The organization, Practical Action—a development non-profit that uses technology to help people gain access to basic services like clean water, and sanitation and to improve food production and incomes— provides a simple solution to this problem in the form of homemade clay refrigerators. Practical Action’s clay refrigerators are called zeer pots and can be made out of mud, clay, water, and sand. To make one a farmer uses molds made out of mud to create two pots of different sizes. Once dry, the small pot is fitted into the larger pot and the space between them is filled with sand. By placing this structure on an iron stand so that air can flow underneath and all around, and by adding water to the sand between the pots daily, a farmer can use evaporation to keep the pots—and whatever is inside—cool.

In a zeer pot, tomatoes and carrots can last up to twenty days while okra will last for seventeen days. And this can make a huge difference for a small scale farmer who is trying to feed her family. One farmer, Hawa Abbas, featured in a Practical Action case study, used to regularly expect to lose half her crop to the inescapable heat. But now, “[zeer pots] keep our vegetables fresh for 3-4 weeks, depending on the type of crop,” she said. “They are very good in a hot climate such as ours where fruit and vegetables get spoiled in one day.”

Practical Action provides trainings and demonstrations to teach small scale farmers how to make and use the pots in developing countries like Sudan and Darfur. And an instruction manual about how to make the pots can be found on its website.

To read more about innovations that reduce crop waste to alleviate hunger and improve livelihoods see: It’s All About the Process, Reducing Food Waste, Investing in Better Food Storage, and In a World of Abundance, Food Waste is a Crime.

Thank you for reading! As you may already know, Danielle Nierenberg is traveling across sub-Saharan Africa visiting organizations and projects that provide environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty. She has already traveled to over 18 countries and visited is a 130 projects highlighting stories of hope and success in the region. She will be in Togo next, so stay tuned for more writing, photos and video from her travels.

If you enjoy reading this diary, we blog daily on Nourishing the Planet, where you can also sign up for our newsletter to receive weekly blog and travel updates. Please don’t hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Posted by BorderJump 11:16 Comments (0)

Turning the Catch of the Day into Improved Livelihoods

Turning the Catch of the Day into Improved Livelihoods for the Whole Community

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet and written by Christi Zaleski.

Harvesters process oysters for sale by boiling, shucking, and sorting meat. At some landing sites, such as here at Lamin Lodge, the women have become a tourist attraction with tours of the area including an explanation of the women's work.

Harvesters process oysters for sale by boiling, shucking, and sorting meat. At some landing sites, such as here at Lamin Lodge, the women have become a tourist attraction with tours of the area including an explanation of the women's work.

Leaving Gambia’s capital city, Banjul, you’ll find a group of women standing road side offering up oysters for 15 dalasis a cup, or about 55 cents for approximately 75 pieces of oyster meat. These women in the community have been harvesting oysters from the extensive mangrove wetlands of Gambia for decades. Much of the harvesting is concentrated in Tanbi National Park, a Ramsar site, or wetland of international importance. Surprisingly, the mangroves themselves have undergone little change during the last thirty years, even as the population of the country, increasingly concentrated around Tanbi in the Greater Banjul Area, more than doubled during that period.

Although the mangroves remain healthy, the oyster harvesters have witnessed the effects of increased pressure on the oyster population first hand. The women report that oysters today are smaller and harder to find than thirty years ago or even ten years ago. Even with the increased effort required to harvest, more women are harvesting today than in the past. These women rely on oysters for their livelihoods and contribute to food security in a country that is heavily dependent on seafood for protein.In 2007 a group of oyster harvesters organized themselves into a producer association called TRY Women’s Oyster Harvesting Association. The first members decided to call the organization TRY, because it was an effort to do just that - try to improve the situation for oyster harvesters without much certainty that their efforts would pay off. After some initial success fund raising to buy boats, membership in TRY grew rapidly from fourteen women in just one village to 500 oyster harvesters from fifteen communities across the Greater Banjul Area today. This growth was no small feat. Although the women are all Jola, a minority ethnic group in Gambia, they are divided into different sects with distinct languages and heritages. Through TRY, the harvesters have been able to put aside these differences and work as a cohesive community making decisions by consensus and collectively prioritizing needs.

Harvesters shuck oysters at landing sites with the help of family members. Women can also enlist the help of retired harvesters to help shuck for the price of breakfast, three cups of oyster meat, and about a dollar a day. (Photo credit: Christi Zaleski)

Harvesters shuck oysters at landing sites with the help of family members. Women can also enlist the help of retired harvesters to help shuck for the price of breakfast, three cups of oyster meat, and about a dollar a day. (Photo credit: Christi Zaleski)

Two years later in fall 2009, TRY became linked with the USAID funded Sustainable Fisheries Project, Ba Nafaa. Ba Nafaa has helped TRY expand the scope of its mission and has worked to create a sustainable co-management plan for the oyster fishery that respects the needs of harvesters, consumers, and the environment.

In their short time together TRY and Ba Nafaa have already made some important strides in working toward improved livelihoods and fisheries practices. The women have collectively agreed to practices that may be difficult in the short run, but pay off over time. Traditionally, oysters are harvested during the dry season, with the wet months of July through December closed for harvesting. This year, the communities agreed to extend the closed season until March. When harvesting resumed in the spring, the women saw the benefits of the extended closure immediately, noticing a marked increase in the size of oysters for harvest. Additionally, each community agreed to close one bolong, or tributary, in their territory for the entire year to encourage regeneration of the oyster population there.

The women are also adopting practices to ensure that Tanbi remains a healthy mangrove ecosystem. Harvesters are learning about the ecological importance of mangroves and how destructive practices like cutting roots with machetes to collect the attached oysters damages the capacity of the ecosystem to support oyster populations and fish nurseries. They are sharing these lessons with one another and the Gambian public through short plays demonstrating proper harvesting techniques and sharing information about mangrove ecology. In a country stretched for resources, the oyster harvesters are also helping the Department of Parks and Wildlife Management police the wetlands by reporting observations of illegal fuel wood harvesting to local officials. The women are experimenting with shellfish aquaculture to help relieve pressure on wild stocks and limit the harm to mangroves.

Shellfish aquaculture can help reduce pressure on wild oyster stocks and protect mangrove roots from destructive harvesting practices. (Photo credit: Christi Zaleski)

Shellfish aquaculture can help reduce pressure on wild oyster stocks and protect mangrove roots from destructive harvesting practices. (Photo credit: Christi Zaleski)

One of the first accomplishments of TRY was to raise the price of oysters from ten dalasis per cup to fifteen. Customers have been willing to pay the new price, a partial acknowledgment of the value of these harvesters’ effort. One of the big goals for Ba Nafaa and TRY, however, is to see that number grow exponentially by opening up new markets in the high end retail outlets serving tourists. This would be greatly aided by establishing a permanent market for harvesters who now must rely on customers stopping by the side of the road or at temporary markets in the major cities in the Greater Banjul Area. Eventually, the harvesters could develop an export market to the United States or European Union, which could yield prices high enough to create living wages for harvesters. In the meantime the oyster harvesters will continue to be found selling their catch along the road outside of Banjul, and working together to try to improve their situation.

Christi Zaleski is concentrating in environmental studies at Brown University and is spending the summer in Gambia working with the Gambia-Senegal Sustainable Fisheries Project Ba Nafaa.

Thank you for reading! As you may already know, Danielle Nierenberg is traveling across sub-Saharan Africa visiting organizations and projects that provide environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty. She has already traveled to over 18 countries and visited 130 projects highlighting stories of hope and success in the region. She will be in Burkina Faso next, so stay tuned for more writing, photos and video from her travels.

If you enjoy reading this diary, we blog daily on Nourishing the Planet, where you can also sign up for our newsletter to receive weekly blog and travel updates. Please don’t hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Posted by BorderJump 07:16 Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 124) Page [1] 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 .. »