The food on
your table starts with a seed. Everyone knows that. But as the depth of the
COVID-19 crisis settles in, there is not enough attention being paid to the
basic questions: Who puts the seed in the ground? What help do they need to get
there? What can the world do to ensure that we don’t miss planting season and
spread a global food crisis on top of COVID-19?
The food on
your table also starts with women. Women till the soil, sow the seed, feed the
children, and take care of the sick. Women produce 70% of Africa’s food.
pandemic spreads, the risks to their health – and their family’s health – and
the burden placed on these women will increase dramatically. Ebola and other
public health emergencies have shown clearly how outbreaks threaten the foundation
of our food chain. If the women or their families are ill, they cannot plant.
If farmers cannot use migrant workers – who plant the wheat in Canada, the
onions in California, and the cocoa in Cameroon – they cannot plant. If
cross-border trade dries up, farmers cannot get the supplies they need to get
those seeds in the ground.
Business is slow at Dori’s spectacular weekly livestock market. The crowds of turbaned Fulani nomads and bejewelled Bella and Tuareg are as dense and colourful as ever, but although a few goats and sheep change hands, trade in cattle – for so long the stars of the show – has ground to a halt. Huge herds of powerful horned beasts led in from across the Burkinabe Sahel stand uninspected, undisturbed, unsold. Admiring Fula, whose love for cattle can be as intense as their love for their wives, look on wistfully from a distance, not daring to get involved.
‘It’s very hard to sell cows these days because people no longer have the confidence to herd them,’ says a young Fula who is trying in vain to offload some of his ten-strong brood. ‘There’s not enough rain and boreholes are drying out, so keeping a large herd is difficult. Sometimes you have to travel for three or four days to find water. Some animals don’t make it. So it’s risky to buy cattle, for both economic and emotional reasons: you don’t want to see the animals suffer.’
It is not only business that is under pressure. Hunger stalks the towns and villages of northern Burkina Faso. In 2005, a million people needed emergency food relief as the prices of maize and millet doubled. In 2008, riots protesting the high cost of food rocked the country. Poverty in Dori is Dickensian – large gangs of scrawny kids forage for food; toddlers’ stomachs are bloated by kwashiorkor. In the villages, theft from granaries has increased as the contest for food intensifies. ‘Famine has become cyclical,’ says a nurse, adding that last year’s shorter than usual rainy season has left many thousands vulnerable in the coming months as their stocks of grain run out.
Fula and Tuareg cattle herders are especially exposed – they have no tradition of growing crops as they must spend all their time finding pasture for their livestock. To obtain essential carbohydrates, they must buy them, and when crop prices rise in a drought many starve.
The main cause of food insecurity here is population growth. The population of the Dori district has tripled in the past forty years. As well as meaning that water and pasture have to be shared more thinly, this increase has also hastened deforestation and desertification. Wood is the only source of fuel, so more people means fewer trees and a clearer path for the encroaching desert. The Sahara is advancing into the Burkinabe Sahel at a rate of 10cm per year, reducing the land and water available for herding and farming. Periodic conflict breaks out between roaming herders and settled agriculturalists over access to these precious resources.
Climate change, which everyone here blames on the West (‘you caused it, we’re suffering from it,’ is a common and irrefutable accusation) could be the final nail in the coffin of the nomadic herding lifestyle. This year, the harmattan wind which deposits huge clouds of sand from the desert is still blowing, over a month after it normally stops. Rainy seasons are starting later and finishing earlier. The Sahel is expected to be one of the world regions hardest hit by climate change: rainfall could decrease by a quarter in the next eighty years.
Adapting to the increasingly challenging conditions will not be easy. As an older Fula man in the oasis village of Oursi (whose large lake has virtually dried out) explains, ‘People here don’t know how to do commerce, they only know herding.’ He himself used to have forty head of cattle, taking them north to Mali in the dry season and returning to Burkina for the rains, but many died through lack of pasture and water and he is now left with just ten cows. He has been forced to take up a menial job at a campsite to make ends meet, and spends hours sitting and staring into space, dreaming of cattle and long journeys. His peers are moving to the cities, quitting their quiet wanderings for a grim life spent hawking the roaring streets of Ouagadougou.
Back at the market in Dori, the young herder is reluctant to accept the new reality. ‘People are keeping their money in their pocket in the hope that the climate will improve,’ he says, desperation cracking his voice. It is likely to be a long wait.