Subsistence Culture

While the world plunges into crises, subsistence farming in Africa holds the key to sustainable agriculture production, not only for the region but also other parts of the world.

By Tewolde B. G. Egziabher, Director General of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia, and co-founder of the Institute for Sustainable Development.

I am from Africa, and you also came from Africa, albeit generations before me. I bring you all masses of love from your original mother, Africa.

It is usual for the young, especially in Europe, to look at the old, including their parents, as if they are past it; as if they are ready to be buried and forgotten. Therefore, it is not surprising to me that other continents think of Mother Africa as hopeless and view Africans as permanently hungry.

Yes, there are hungry people in Africa. But there are also hungry people in Europe, and in every other continent, for that matter. And, yes, the proportion of hungry people is probably the greatest in Africa, but I want to tell you why.

Africa is where all humans came from. Therefore, Africa is the continent that has fed humanity the longest. Our lore regarding food and feeding is massive in Africa. Nevertheless, thanks to the centuries of colonial and neocolonial plunder of resources and people, Africa is the least populated of continents. So Africa, of all continents, has the greatest potential to feed her resident people. Why, then, does the image of hunger in Africa persist?

To answer this question, I want to take you back to the 1850s when the industrialisation of agriculture started in the violently dominant countries of Europe and then America. The in-dustrialisation of agriculture requires, among other things, a high population density. This is because of its need for both a large market and a well developed transportation and marketing infrastructure.

The low population density of Africa meant that, because of its less well-developed transportation and marketing infrastructure, small quantities of subsidised food “dumped” on Africa by Europe and America easily disabled its internal small food markets. Africa’s non-mechanised agriculture thus remained at a subsistence level and never developed intensive agricultural production.

Now, the industrial agriculture of Europe and America, and recently that of Asia, is increasingly in crisis. It is polluting the land, the water and the air such that agricultural land is degrading fast, water is becoming unsafe for humans and for most of other forms of life, and polluted air is trapping the sun’s radiation to the extent that the whole biosphere is warming up. Global food production risks failing to adapt to the changing climate.

This risk is growing in spite of the lure of “quick fixes” for all agricultural problems claimed by genetic engineers. Fossil fuels, on which the industrial culture, including industrial agriculture, depends, are running out. The rich banks of Europe and America are collapsing and governments have had to buy up some of their assets. The agreements of the World Trade Organization, which encouraged the dumping of subsidised foods in Africa’s urban centres, now, hold little authority. Indeed, negotiations on these agreements have been stuck since the Ministerial Conference in Seattle failed in 1999. I would not be surprised if the World Trade Organization were now to simply fade away.

But we must, all the time, have food to subsist on, and the subsistence farming of Africa is now the most intact of all agricultural systems precisely because industrial agriculture has bypassed it. So, the more-or-less intact African subsistence agriculture can become a reference point from which to base sustainable global food production, whilst ensuring it is compatible with the health of the entire biosphere.

For a start, subsidised food dumping in Africa must cease. The dependence it creates by destabilising Indigenous agriculture is the main reason why the proportion of hungry people in Africa is now so high. But it will take only a few growing seasons for the rurally intact subsistence food production systems in Africa to fill in the gap created by the cessation of food dumping.

A new form of sustainable agricultural intensification is already taking place in Africa. This started in four local communities in the badly degraded north-eastern highlands of Ethiopia. Members of each local community met and analysed their environmental and agricultural problems. They then developed their byelaws to determine what each community would do, and elected their own leadership to oversee the implementation. They built terraces and bunds to prevent soil erosion; they restricted their animals to specific areas and fed them crop residues so as to allow grass, shrubs and trees to maximise growth in the rainy season, and vegetation cover improved dramatically in just one rainy season. They could then harvest the grass and add hay to the crop residues to feed their animals sufficiently.

The increased availability of animal dung and biomass waste made it possible for them to make and apply compost on their respective fields. Soil fertility improved and so did crop harvests. Rainwater percolated through he improved soil structure and began recharging the water table more fully. Springs and streams began to flow again and strengthen, allowing irrigation in the dry season, which increased food production further. Trees that had disappeared owing to land degradation began returning in subsequent rainy seasons. Farmers enriched the resurgent tree cover with the species of their choice, usually fruit trees and leguminous trees for both fodder and soil enrichment.

Starting from just these four communities, the practice is now expanding throughout Ethiopia. In November 2008, the African Union organised a conference in Addis Ababa, preceded by field visits, to extend these innovative and sustainable practices to the rest of Eastern and Southern Africa.

Of course, I am not implying that the corporations that have plunged the world into unsustainability will simply give up. They will not, but Africa’s subsistence agriculture could be the basis for the much needed intensification of sustainable food production, not only in Africa, but throughout the world.

The time has come to learn from the wisdom and practical knowledge of the people whose continent gave birth to humanity. We will then be able to incorporate the globally resynthesised industrial culture of its most impetuous species, Homo sapiens, into a more healthy form of development that will sustain life robustly to the end of time.


With thanks to Third World Network Features. The above article is reproduced from Resurgence, No. 254 May/June 2009. It is based on a speech given at the opening ceremony of Terra Madre, Turin, Italy, October 2008.


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