Rice cultivation in the Sahel Africa Ba and Crousse 1985 Halstead and OShea 1989 Park 1992 Mcintosh 1993 Zeng 2003

Since the late 1960s, the Sahel, a semi-arid region in West Africa between the Sahara Desert and the Guinea coast rain forest, has experienced a drought of unprecedented severity that is leading to desertification. The drought has been caused, in part, by overgrazing and conversion of woodland to agriculture. Both of these processes tend to increase albedo (reflectivity of the earth's surface), thereby reducing moisture supply to the atmosphere. As a result, there is less precipitation and even less favorable conditions for vegetation (Zeng 2003).

Agricultural expansion has been one of the goals of development projects in the Sahel region. It has been driven by the need to increase the national market economy through production of rice. The development programs usually required cultivators to plant the Asian variety of rice, Oryza sativa, which is more marketable and has a higher yield than indigenous varieties. However, construction of dikes was required in order to ensure a steady supply of irrigation water required by the Asian rice.

Indigenous varieties of rice have been cultivated for centuries by the Marka, a local ethnic group. They make complex and sophisticated decisions about when to plant and what varieties to plant. Their decisions are influenced by environmental clues - different varieties of rice have differ ent vegetative periods, different adaptations to various flood depths, flood timing, pH tolerance, and resistances to fish predation. Different varieties are sown at different time intervals on different soil types. The knowledge that the Marka possessed about rice and its cultivation was secret and had been developed over a long period of time. It was a means of maintaining a specific ethnic identity. Social relations with other groups were instituted as buffering mechanisms against potential bad times, allowing trade to occur without the necessity of immediate equal compensation. This buffering was useful, for example, with the Bozo fishermen, who reciprocated labor, goods, and services with the Marka. The buffering was beneficial to both groups, because weather that favored one group disfavored another.

Another important aspect of the Marka system of sustainable rice production was prioritized tenure on property held in common with the entire ethnic group. A hierarchical system prioritized access to land and the rules regulating access to common property were encoded in Islamic law. Prioritized access ensured that those with the specialized knowledge were those that made decisions on varieties of rice to be planted as well as on the timing of the planting.

Ensuring sustainability of rice production required a considerable understanding of the social system and its deep ties to the environment through culturally mediated and specialized relationships. Knowledge of the physical needs of a particular crop was not enough to produce consistent quantities in a sustainable manner. Social needs were also important. Farmers made decisions based on variables that seemed unscientific because the farmers were considering these variables from a different temporal and spatial scale than normally understood in the developed world. To understand the farmers' decisions, one had to understand the evolutionary nature of secret knowledge and inter-group relations which functioned together as part of a subsistence system and which buffered the system against environmental and political variability.

As a result of development projects, prioritized tenure on commonly held lands was eliminated in many areas and equal access was gained by those without the secret environmental and social knowledge. The traditional allocation system, built on the recognition of natural variables, was replaced by a system organized to suit the demands of a market economy.

Adoption of commercial systems of rice production has resulted in ecological deterioration. In Senegal, 40,000 ha put under irrigation for rice is now degraded, as inexperienced people quickly erected poorly built irrigation structures in order to satisfy government requirements for establishing tenure. Polders (diked areas) constructed to control water flow were not flexible enough in times of drought. Polders also affect fishing, as changes in the flow of the river and the displacement of water through polders affected fish breeding and feeding. The transition to a market economy ignored the na ture of the Sahelian climate and soils and deprived traditional Marka groups of their ability to flexibly respond to environmental variation.

As a result of development, both the Marka and Bozo have formed relationships with the state government and development agencies. As individuals are drawn into the market economy and group identity becomes less important, myths have been changed or are no longer told at all. Traditional knowledge of cultivation and fishing is almost lost. Rice production increased in the short term due to artificial subsidies. While this resulted in great profits for groups well integrated in the national and international economy, it has done little for the betterment of the local people. Long-term sustainability of rice production is lost as native species and the knowledge of their cultivation is abandoned.

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