Dakar Diary

The first edition of Dakar Agricole was held in Dakar on 4 and 5 February. This international forum on agriculture aimed to explore new perspectives and ways of bridging the “world agricultural divide” between developed and developing countries. There were 6 African heads of state present, the French president Jacques Chirac and the Director General of the FAO, Jacques Diouf. The rest of the 500 participants represented political, economic, scientific and small farmer interests. Though mostly institutions, and not the “real” small farmers we saw at Terra Madre, it was nonetheless an excellent opportunity to hear African viewpoints on what development models were appropriate.

The forum concluded that there were six key areas for narrowing the “divide”: research, finance, land ownership and management, the market and food sovereignty. These six points prompted a range of justified demands from the participants, from integrating the most disadvantaged countries into the global market to greater awareness by institutions and banks of the financial problems faced by these regions. The main issue, food sovereignty and the right to work in accordance with traditions and local biodiversity, was perhaps insufficiently emphasized because, partly due to the higher profile presentations, there was greater attention on research and technology. This could be a risky policy.

Dr. Diouf’s address, which was what received the most media coverage, completely focused on the role of science. After acknowledging the fact that I always like to bring to the attention of those claiming that GMOs will save us from world hunger, i.e. that world food production is more than sufficient to feed the world’s population, the Director General only spoke about science and technology.

Considering that only 7% of cultivable land in Africa is irrigated and that only 4% of renewable resources are used, there is no questioning the importance of science, but it could be a very mixed blessing if we try to sell the Western model of development to Africa. Science and technology can do an enormous amount for basic infrastructure and improving production, but can also be a lever for selling off polluting systems which profoundly alter environmental, social and economic balances. I do not want to go through the usual arguments about how pointless GMOs are, but exporting our agro-industrial models to Africa is something we should avoid.

It is not enough to establish research priorities according to political agendas, you have to also specify what kind of research and what kind of science you want to apply to agricultural systems which might in fact have the potential to be sufficiently productive without being radically changed. Remember that I am not the only one saying this, it is also what the African communities were saying at Terra Madre last October.
These communities now have close relationships with the Piedmontese people who gave them hospitality during the event. I have heard that a lot of our small farmers are going to visit them, that their links are not just of friendship but also involve mutual exchange and aid. This is a great way of encouraging development and we should acknowledge the efforts of Coldiretti (the Italian National Farmers’ Federation) — who gave so much help in accommodating the Terra Madre communities — for fully seizing this opportunity.

Coldiretti also distinguished themselves at the Dakar meeting. While some politicians were delivering their addresses in support of modernity, at the fringes of the forum the Italian Farmers’ association was entering into agreements with Roppa, the network of agricultural organizations of Western Africa (which represents over 35 million African farmers) to “share common visions and develop a dialog” and to attempt to find a common response to the global situation we are experiencing. “Respect, dialog, solidarity and knowledge are the best ways for achieving sustainable and viable development, irrespective of cultural differences”. Yes, there is certainly need for research, financing and appropriate technology, but I have to say that of all the words expressed at Dakar, this declaration made by Coldiretti, followed by action, is what impressed me the most.

First printed in La Stampa on February 13 2005

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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