Interview – Gathuru Mburu

Alliance magazine

‘Failure to recognize the need for biodiversity in family farming in Africa is the cause of the food problems most African countries face today.’

In just a few decades, a green revolution radically increased global food production by relying on chemical fertilizers and pesticides and boosting single crop productivity. Today, these innovations seem to be backfiring as fertile soil is increasingly eroded and the loss of diversity is dramatically reducing the resilience of farmland to changes in the weather. The African Biodiversity Network (ABN) sees the continent’s future potential in its past: preserving its soils by traditional means and looking to indigenous seeds and small-scale agriculture derived from Africa’s own biodiversity to ensure the resilience needed to feed a growing population. Gathuru Mburu, ABN coordinator, tells Caroline Hartnell why and explains what funders can do to support this.

First, let me ask what you mean by resilience?

We mean the capacity of the communities we are working with and the ecosystems that support their livelihoods to withstand the effects of climate change, and other internal or external stresses.

What are the main challenges to that resilience?

Instead of looking at our own resources and fostering indigenous species, we have tended to look for solutions from outside, often sponsored by business, which does not necessarily have the interests of Africa’s peoples and biodiversity at heart. What’s more, African governments have failed us, for example permitting the importation of genetically modified material when the risks are not fully understood, and facilitating the takeover of community land for investments in agrofuels and food crops.

We look at resilience holistically. We encourage people to use indigenous seeds, to revive their soil in a natural way. New technologies can be beneficial but some can also be extremely destructive. People need to rejuvenate their local knowledge and their local ecosystems.

How can philanthropists or social investors support this?

They need to work out a programme with the beneficiary community. That will create buy-in, and right from the beginning there will be a dialogue on equal and very clear terms.

It’s not hard for donors to reach the right people. People are well organized. They have community leaders and opinion leaders and small marketing organizations; there are government representatives at local level and local governance structures.

That sounds like an intensive process, consuming a lot of time and resources. Is there a way of retaining that bottom-up input but scaling programmes so that scarce money goes further?

I understand the scale of need, but it’s good to do one thing right rather than spread yourself thin and do it wrong. Climate change and the food crisis are obviously intensifying but they have been there for a long time. I think taking time to discuss and plan with beneficiary communities will be worth it. The most important thing is not imposing yourself on a community because that’s where things have gone wrong in the past. With the best intentions, we have left communities worse off rather than improving their lives. That’s a good reason for taking some costly steps so that you do things right.

Is there a way a small-scale intervention could be used as a model for other communities, using that intensive initial work to wider effect?

Exactly. If you do it right in one area then you’ll have the confidence to move to other areas. We are calling this the potency principle. You go into a community and you work with them until you both agree that you have made it, and then that community becomes a learning centre for other communities nearby. Then, later, they go out and replicate. That ability to attract others to learn and to replicate is critical for us.

So this is grant funding. Is there the potential for social investment where a project has the capacity to generate revenue?

With energy projects, the process needs to be sustained, with the customers paying something back, and maybe the income generated can also be used to pay back the source of the money. However, for me the most important thing is that investments do not support emissions. We have to try as much as possible to cut emissions.

So you’re against the idea of carbon trading?

I do not support it at all. I’m saying don’t emit, look for better ways of doing it. People argue that clean development mechanisms can be more costly than what we are doing today, but we cannot save the world without feeling the pinch. We have destroyed so much of the world that now we are getting the backlash. So I don’t support carbon credits where you give a little money to some community somewhere to buy your emissions so that you can continue emitting. If investments can pay back money, well and good, but we should avoid carbon credits and the like.

In terms of resilience, are there development initiatives you think are doing the wrong thing?

Yes, especially where food is concerned. People are lobbying for favourable bio-safety laws so that they can feed Africa with untested GMOs – that’s not right. There are people talking about using chemicals to rejuvenate the land and they are actually the same people who brought in the chemicals, the herbicides, which did the damage in the first place. People are talking about a new green revolution in Africa. Africa has already had a green revolution: since colonial times, Africa has been using huge amounts of chemicals.

What about AGRA?

The AGRA [Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa] programme is simply aggravating the problem. Africa needs to heal her soil so that people can get enough food, but when the soils are dead, you can’t rejuvenate them by using more of the chemicals that killed them in the first place. We need programmes that rejuvenate the soil and use seeds that are suited to that soil. AGRA is promoting hybrid seeds and the use of chemicals; it is encouraging banks to offer credit to local farmers, which puts them in debt. When they lose their crop owing to unfavourable weather, the farmers default and the bank claims whatever they gave as security for the loan.

We need to rethink all these solutions that are being promoted as saving Africa from the current crisis. It’s a crisis that is being crafted from outside and the solutions are being brought from outside, so it’s really exploiting Africa.

Perhaps the most important global challenge of the century will be to feed 9 to 10 billion people. We need to double food production by 2050. If the green revolution can’t deliver this, what is the alternative? And how will it deliver on the scale that is required?

This takes us straight into the politics of food. ‘Resilience investing’ must be careful not to break the resilience of the majority poor in Africa and other developing countries while assuring bounty for the investing countries. The same selfish motivations that led to the scramble for Africa over a decade ago are re-emerging, and Africa is once more targeted to feed the 9 to 10 billion people because there is ‘idle’ land, the most scarce resource for growing food.

To take an example, the Qatar government convinced the Kenyan government to give it close to 40,000 hectares of the Tana river delta to grow food. In return the Qatar government would construct the port of Lamu and a railway linking it to Tana delta. The Qatar government would then grow food in the Tana delta and transport it to Lamu by train, from where it would be shipped to Qatar. So these investments are about Qatar, not Kenya. Thousands of Kenyans will lose their land and fishing areas, just as happened during colonization.

But surely AGRA is about growing food for Africa, on the scale that is needed?

As I said earlier, AGRA is simply aggravating the problem. The hybrid seeds and chemicals it offers are too expensive for small-scale farmers, and you cannot revive soils killed by chemicals by adding more of the same. Basically, AGRA is a solution to the market problems of the chemical manufacturing and hybrid seed development companies, promoted as a solution to the problems of food in Africa. It is totally counter to the principle of food sovereignty, where people decide what to eat and how and where to grow it.

That is why ABN promotes holistic ecosystems restoration so as to ‘detoxify’ the soil, protect water sources, indigenous crops and wild biodiversity, and ensure that knowledge about all this is preserved. Failure to recognize the need for biodiversity in family farming in Africa is the cause of the food problems most African countries face today. Maize and rice will not end hunger and famine in Africa, but a wide variety of crops will.

Gathuru Mburu is coordinator of the African Biodiversity Network. Email;

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