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
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
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
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
| 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
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
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
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
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?”