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Taking the fire out of farming in Africa

Organic methods, distinct from traditional 'slash and burn' agriculture, holds hope of curbing deforestation and boosting food security

Fertilizer: Instead of burning the stubble of old crops, Joao Jongue plants new crops between rows. Rotting stalks feed the new plants.

Stephanie Hanes

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When he started tending this field, not long after the end of his country's long civil war in 1992, Joao Jongue's neighbors thought he was foolish, even crazy.

He didn't burn the cornstalks at the end of the season, but left them on the earth to rot. He mixed tomatoes and peanuts in with the corn. When mice started eating the decomposing vegetables, rather than clear the field, he brought in cats.

"My partner, he didn't agree with this sort of farming," says Mr. Jongue, smiling in the shade of his wide-brimmed straw hat. "So I did it myself."

Now, 15 years later, the soil of Jongue's machamba (small field), is still moist brown, and the corn reaches toward the cobalt-blue sky. His neighbor's plot is dusty and red, but Jongue's yields are still large enough that he can sell half of his crop at the outdoor market in this sunny, brightly painted town. Meanwhile, representatives of international development projects are coming to visit – asking how, in this overly farmed region, he's had such success.

Jongue's plot is a model of what many local aid projects would like to repeat across this region: organic farming, African style.

For many Americans, the idea of "organic food" is connected with high-end grocery stores. But here, "organic" has a different face. A growing number of development experts, as well as local agriculturalists, see organic farming as a way to achieve food security and slow deforestation – two big challenges in rural sub-Saharan Africa.

"There are more and more people interested in it," says Anne Boor, the international project manager for the International Federation of Or­ganic Agriculture Movements. "It is the only sustainable means of production."

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