West African rice farmers explore alternatives to cheap, dangerous insecticides
Farmer-to-farmer training and on-farm research grow local adapted knowledge of biologically based integrated pest management that embraces biodiversity, careful observation and beneficial insects.

By Timothy J. Krupnik


Photos by Tim Krupnik

September 14, 2007: At 58 years of age, most farmers in West Africa would prefer to spend their hard-earned free time downing sugary cups of mint tea in the shade of an Acacia tree. But this is not the case with Boureima Sawadogo, one of more than a thousand irrigated-rice farmers in the village of Bama in southwestern Burkina Faso. His land-locked nation is west of Niger, separated from the Atlantic Ocean to the south by the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Benin.

Standing barefoot in the slimy mud of his rice paddies, Sawadogo reaches out with his bare hands and skillfully snatches up a 1.5-centimeter long, orange-black insect buzzing through the thick, humid air. Sawadogo can usually be found tending to his fields throughout the day, and is known by local farmers as an expert in l’agriculture durable, or sustainable agriculture.

Gingerly holding his catch by its fragile wings, he explains in a mix of French, Dioula (his native tongue) and scientific Latin, that the insect he has caught is actually a particular species of fly called Diopsis longicornis. The fly bears its eyes on long stalks that protrude laterally from its tiny head. During its larval stage, Diopsis is a potentially severe rice pest that chews its way into the stems of rice plants to pupate, terminating the plant’s ability to form grain. Along with other stem borers, particularly moths from the genera Chilo and Sesamia, these pests cause constant headaches for farmers.

“Not to worry,” explains Sawadogo. “This pest can be easily controlled without insecticides. Farmers can transplant their rice early to avoid large populations of pests. They can also rely on ‘les amis des paysans’,” or farmers’ friends, which are present throughout their fields. As an example Sawadogo points to one of the minute, furry, grayish spiders swimming across the surface water of his rice paddy in what looks like a careful, yet quick breaststroke.

“Over there, that’s a Lycosidae spider (Wolf Spider),” says the farmer. “It moves from plant to plant and climbs up to eat Diopsis eggs on the rice leaves. He is always hungry.”

Rice, irrigation, famine and sustainability

Although most people associate West Africa with grain crops like sorghum and millet, rice is also extremely important for food security. In the past 30 years, demand for rice has skyrocketed, growing faster than any other grain. Today, it is the preferred food in West Africa’s rapidly expanding cities, and in many rural areas it is a staple crop.

The devastating famines of the 1970s and '80s that swept across West Africa prompted large governmental investments into irrigation schemes intended to assure food security during droughts. Once tapped, irrigation makes the potential productivity of rice grown in these schemes very high—the alluvial sediments deposited by countless years of annual floods, heavy clay soils and high rates of sunshine make West Africa’s river valleys, or les bas-fonds, ideally suited to rice culture.

Nonetheless, the architects of West Africa’s irrigation schemes were all too willing to sacrifice sustainability in favor of productivity alone. Following the Green Revolution model of agricultural development that was popularized in Asia, “modern” farming techniques based largely on the use of agrochemicals were promoted as the key to the cultivation of Africa’s bas-fond areas.

While there is little doubt these irrigation schemes benefited food security and increased the production of rice, these advancements have not come without environmental and human health costs.

Sawadogo explains how pesticides are used in his community. “Up to three times a season, farmers will drench their fields with Endosulfan. This can be very dangerous.” This insecticide can be easily purchased at rock-bottom prices in Africa’s prominent and thriving pesticide black market. “In this area,” he says, “it is the cheapest chemical we have, so farmers buy it all up.”

Chemicals persist, build up over time

According to the World Health Organization, Endosulfan is an organochlorine. It is under investigation in Europe to determine its suspected status as a persistent organic pollutant, or POP. This category includes chemicals that bioaccumulate in the food chain. When a POP is applied to insects in a rice field, which are then eaten in quantity by the fish that regularly swim irrigation systems looking for a meal, the chemical accumulates over time and its concentration grows by orders of magnitude in the fatty cells of the fish’s body.

The same thing happens when that fish is caught by the children of rice farmers—children who regularly search the irrigation canals to supplement their family’s otherwise grain-based diets with protein. Further, many women in Bama collect water from the irrigation canals to use for drinking and cooking.

"Rice farmers get Endosulfan from the cotton farmers. they usually apply this and other pesticides by hand while walking through their fields barefoot. Poisonings are plenty common here. It’s sad, as you really don’t even need to use these chemicals on your rice."

These cascading negative health impacts can be drastic—POPs are commonly detected in mothers’ breast milk. Endosulfan also has highly toxic impacts on aquatic biodiversity: in Bama, mats of dead frogs can be found floating in the corners of rice fields after it is applied.

“Rice farmers get Endosulfan from the cotton farmers,” explains Sawadogo. The chemical is supplied at subsidized rates to cotton farmers in Burkina Faso by government-funded efforts to prop up the textile industry. Because enormous volumes of the insecticide are doled out on an annual basis, most cotton farmers sell their excess into the black market. From there, it makes its way into the hands of rice farmers.

But Bama’s farmers cannot afford protective gear. Gesturing to a shirtless man carrying a pesticide pump sprayer on his bare back, Sawadogo noted “they usually apply this and other pesticides by hand while walking through their fields barefoot. Poisonings are plenty common here. It’s sad, as you really don’t even need to use these chemicals on your rice.”

Mali pioneers farmer-based IPM

Similar problems abound in rice schemes throughout Francophone West Africa. In response, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Global Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Facility established IPM farmer field schools in the region in 1999, beginning with Mali. Rather than employing foreign consultants to organize and train farmers, the FAO encouraged farmers to meet weekly to discuss their problems and take time to observe their fields with farmer-facilitators who have been trained in locally relevant IPM methods. These trainers are usually selected because they are particularly innovative or experienced farmers.

Today, the region boasts hundreds of IPM trainers like Sawadogo. By combining their extensive practical experience in agriculture with the basics of crop ecology and entomology, their efforts are bringing about a fundamental change in how farmers view and manage their lands.

After years of unsuccessful state-sponsored spraying of pesticides by helicopter over farmers’ rice fields to combat the brown plant hopper (Nilaparvata lugens), Indonesian researchers became convinced that plant hopper problems were actually self-inflected wounds.

Farmer field schools were based on similar efforts that took place in Asia during the late 1980s, and specifically in Indonesia. After years of unsuccessful state-sponsored spraying of pesticides by helicopter over farmers’ rice fields to combat the brown plant hopper (Nilaparvata lugens), Indonesian researchers became convinced that plant hopper problems were actually self-inflected wounds. Because the insecticides used killed both the pest and its predators alike, the natural cycle of pest regulation by predatory insects was disrupted. This caused explosive epidemics and severe pest damage.

In an unprecedented move, the government admitted this was a serious mistake and banned 57 classes of insecticides in a single day. IPM was declared public policy, and millions of dollars of agrochemical subsidies were diverted towards sustainable agriculture programs. Further research determined that farmers learned best how to reduce pesticide use by participating in exploratory learning seminars rather than simply by being instructed by extension agents in “correct” farming methods. The Indonesian government then invited the FAO to develop these seminars and to help promote IPM, and the farmer field school approach was born.

No more top-down approach

Although this deviation from the usual, top-down approach to agricultural extension in favor of a participatory, education-based model was drastic, it generated highly promising results. More than 500,000 rice farmers took part in field schools in Indonesia throughout the 1990s. A staggering 60 percent reduction in chemical use was recorded. Across all of Asia, more than 3 million rice farmers have learned about IPM through field schools. After these successes, similar projects were initiated throughout the Middle East, Latin America and eventually in Africa.

In 2001, IPM farmer field schools were initiated in Burkina Faso, albeit with one small change. Rather than focusing solely on crop protection, the schools also focused attention on soil fertility, crop production and accounting basics, thereby providing a more complete agricultural training curriculum.

“We try to show farmers that yield is not the only thing of importance,” explained Dr. Souleymane Nacro, Burkina Faso’s FAO Farmer Field School coordinator. “When farmers learn basic cost-benefit accounting, they can see that the economic cost of pesticides often outweighs the yield gain they receive from their use. Knowledge is more important than access to chemicals. Knowing how to use IPM, farmers can benefit much more.”

Learning by Doing: Experimenting with IPM

Near Mr. Sawadogo’s rice field, a group of farmers gathers to discuss the use of a sarclure rotative, or rotary hoeing tool. This inexpensive device has been promoted by farmers throughout Asia and is now gaining popularity in Africa. It is one of the technologies that farmers in the field schools are testing and modifying to better suit local conditions. Consisting of a long handle and a metal body with two circular rows rotating of teeth, farmers push the sarclure between lines of transplanted rice much like a suburban American might pilot a lawnmower. The farmers are enthusiastic about the push weeder. Sawadogo noted that “it saves us hours of work and it uses no chemicals at all.”

In the adjacent field, several small plots of rice are sectioned off with long sticks driven into the ground like miniature fence posts. “Those are the parcels set aside for experiments. In that one we cut off leaves of rice plants to show farmers that even if there are pests, the plant can withstand damage without reduced yields.”

Inside the fence line, rows of rice stand adjacent to each other, each with different proportions of leaves precisely removed. “This amazes farmers, because they would normally not think of or risk damaging their own plants. But here we can experiment with these techniques.

Learning to live with a few bugs

“We have learned that we could cut about half the leaves of a rice plant off during its vegetative stage without losing a single grain at harvest because the plant compensates and grows back,” Sawadogo explains. “That helps farmers to realize that they don’t need to waste their money on insecticides. Even when they have a few insects eating their rice, their yield will be the same.”

Nearby, another parcel is roped off. Several of the bushy rice plants inside are draped with mosquito netting, the bottom of which is dug deep into the soil. “That is the insect zoo,” says Sawadogo. “We encourage farmers to catch insects in their fields and then we discuss which insect might be a pest or a friend of the farmer. When there is disagreement about the insects, we put them inside the mosquito netting with a rice plant and keep them there.”

Inside the netting, several beetles and other kinds of bugs crawled about. “In that zoo, one farmer thought the beetles were pests and wanted to spray them in his field.” Sawadogo continued “…but when we put the insects inside he learned that it didn’t want to eat the rice. Instead, the insect actually ate other insects!

“If I had just told him it was not a pest the farmer would not have believed me,” Sawadogo claims. “But now he knows to conserve the beetles because he learned by experimenting with the insects and seeing the results himself.

“Who says that experiments are only for agronomists?”