Seeking regeneration where water and hope are scarce
Farmers interact during a workshop in southern Mauritania.

By Amadou Makhtar Diop

September 15, 2006: Because seeing is believing, the Regenerative Agriculture Resource Center (RARC) model developed by The Rodale Institute has inspired many people in Africa. Its featured idea is to concentrate locally adapted examples of sustainable farming techniques in a single place for demonstration and research.

In 2004, Peter Hudson, executive director of Rainbow Development in Africa (RDA), a UK-registered charitable organization, approached the Institute to send three staff members to its project being implemented in Mauritania, West Africa– a nation located immediately above Senegal on northern Africa’s Atlantic Coast. (Click here for a map.)

RDA has an interest in farmer training; regenerative farming research, experimentation and dissemination; resource provision and service delivery; food processing; small-scale solar powered irrigation; pastoral water sources; seed banks; fruit tree nurseries; and organizational capacity building.

Early this year, I led a five-day workshop and assessment as a foundation for establishing a RARC in the Mid-Gorgol region of Mauritania. This agricultural region is centered on the town of Leqceiba, 30 kilometers east of the regional town of Kaedi.

The area has experienced extreme poverty as a result of poor national governance and continuing conflict and discrimination between the dominant Moor ethnic caste and the Bantu Africans. Further, the area has suffered from adverse climatic conditions including desertification, drought and locust invasions; dramatic socioeconomic shifts among the agro-pastoral peoples; and marginal agricultural profitability stemming from poor markets and the ever-rising costs of agricultural inputs.

The latest survey of living conditions (1996) showed that poverty, as measured by the percentage of individuals living below the poverty threshold, affected 50 percent of the population. The most affected regions have a rate of poverty of around 80 percent or higher. Statistics show poor social infrastructure, poor health care, poor education, and little or no agricultural extension. Political and economic marginalization of this region has led to a massive exodus of people to the cities and a break down of local community cohesion.

Founded in 2001, RDA focuses exclusively on working with local communities in the Senegal River Valley regions of southern Mauritania and northern Senegal. The organization developed as a result of Peter Hudson’s personal experience in the south of Mauritania where he had been involved in privately funded agricultural projects for 10 years. During that time he developed a strong relationship with local people and agreed to partner with them to build economic opportunities suited to local situations.

My workshop was part of this effort. It took place in the village of Leqceiba, in the southern part of the country close to the border with Senegal. Participating were farmers from the region and members of RDA’s local partner organization, ADMAPE (Assistance pour le Développement et la Modernisation de l’Agriculture et la Protection de l’Environnement). The RDA project also includes a village in Senegal, on the other side of the Senegal River.

I helped to explain the principles of regenerative agriculture and discussed them on the first day of the workshop. At the end of one session, a farmer raised his hand and said, “I will never use chemicals in this life again.” Practical descriptions of combining organic matter from manure and fodder through composting methods to achieve soil health, livestock integration with crops, vegetable production and soil conservation gave the farmers new confidence that they could develop more productive and sustainable farms.

To initiate farmer-to-farmer exchange between the communities represented, we formed three working groups to conduct participatory diagnostic sessions. To allow an active participation from women, they formed their own disuccsion group. Each group reported to the plenary session on the topics discussed: a) The need for a RARC; b) Exisiting experiences and best practices; c) Management of natural resources. Few farmers use compost to stabilize nutrients and build soil, while others have just used animal manure. The 74 participants (including 29 women) represented 13 civil society groups such as farmer unions, cooperatives and village organizations. There was lots of opportunity for learning because many people contributed their best ideas from many communities.

RDA is working this year with:

  • A large land area project, where it has helped to rehabilitate 7,050 acres of land to benefit 21 villages and constructed water harvesting barrages for four communities (Futa).
  • A small beginning project with 18 acres, designed to involve 329 women who will develop market gardening, agroforestry and small businesses using regenerative agriculture methods.

At the end of the workshop, we agreed on the elements of a concept note to be developed by RDA and TRI. It calls for a community project, building on the existing resource center, to add applied research, training and demonstration of regenerative agriculture concepts. RDA worked with The Rodale Institute to develop a five-year plan for this RARC effort, and the two groups are now jointly seeking funding to bring new opportunities to the Mid-Gorgol Valley.