This piece won 2nd prize in the General Public category of the 1st Terry Writing Challenge.

“Hunger is a complex crisis. To solve it we must address the interconnected challenges of agriculture; health; nutrition; adverse and unfair market conditions; weak infrastructure and environmental degradation.” – Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General

News of hunger, famine, drought and environmental destruction flickers across our television screens every day. Fighting poverty is an urgent global challenge, particularly in Africa. Women and children usually are the first victims of poverty when food reserves run out and vagaries of weather destroy chances for a successful crop. In addition, the African HIV/AIDS pandemic is creating even more devastation, particularly with women and girls increasingly becoming the primary victims.

The United Nations proclaimed 2006 as the International Year of Deserts and Desertification (IYDD). The aim is to raise worldwide awareness of the problems faced by people living in drylands. The goal is to expand the range of international solidarity with the women, men and children eking out a living in threatened ecosystems. IYDD marks the tenth anniversary of one of the UN environmental conventions that focuses specifically on Africa and connects the fight against poverty with that against environmental degradation: the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and Drought (UNCCD).

The number one Millennium Development Goal (of eight MDGs) is to reduce extreme poverty by fifty percent by the year 2015. All other MDGs must contribute in various ways to this urgent mandate to reduce poverty. Crucial to achieving the MDGs are those actions that address women’s empowerment and equality. “Attempting to achieve the MDGs without promoting gender equality will both raise the costs and decrease the likelihood of achieving the other goals” (UNDP, 2005). In Africa, little to no progress has been made in reducing the number of hungry people since the adoption of the MDGs in 2000.

Seventy to eighty percent of Africans live in rural areas, most of them as small-scale farmers or pastoralists, dependent on the land for subsistence. More than 60 percent of Africa’s lands are drylands – arid, semi-arid or sub-humid regions. As a result of climate change, population pressure and human activities, close to three quarters of Africa’s agricultural land is degraded, with the situation worsening rapidly. Land degradation takes many forms. In drylands it is referred to as “desertification”. Increased poverty is the result as the land is reduced in its ability to support growing food.

As the principal food producers in Africa, women are the most vulnerable group in many respects. Women are confronted with traditional barriers of discrimination and are disadvantaged by general socio-economic trends. Globalization and commercialization of agriculture further undermine their position. The land that provides for them is suffering depletion of soil nutrients, water scarcity, and exposure to wind erosion. Local biodiversity, vital for food security, is disappearing.

This was not always the case. Traditionally, drylands have been resilient ecosystems and people were able to maintain productivity. Over many generations women and men developed strategies for adapting to changing conditions. Women have long played a predominant role in family and community in dryland Africa. Acting as the cultural guardians of their communities, women have been rooted in these fragile ecosystems. Usually, women have been the custodians of traditional seeds, in selection, storage and usage. They can distinguish seed varieties according to performance for drought-tolerance and pest resistance. Food sources include a variety of non-cultivated plants and minor crops, adding essential nutrients to people’s diet. Women’s knowledge is based on observation, testing and practical analysis over generations of experience. Worsening land conditions has forced them to develop new strategies to sustain their families’ livelihood on an ongoing basis. In some cultures women can move freely and share their expertise with others. In others, they are restricted to information being passed from mother to daughter. In rural Africa, the saying goes that land and forest products are the women’s market place, feeding rural populations like a smorgasbord, varying with the seasons.

Under these circumstances, the definition of “agriculture” must widen. Agricultural diversity, or “agrobiodiversity”, has been an environmentally sustainable farming system for many years that was also food secure. Agrobiodiversity-based agriculture has been undervalued by many external observers and advisors. Environmental degradation, combined with the introduction of alien species into these fragile ecosystems has progressively undermined local species survival. Over time local knowledge of the preservation and management of the regional genetic resources have disappeared along with the resources. One of the key reasons is gender-specific knowledge often not being understood by extension agents, development NGOs and others. This has resulted in women’s expertise being disregarded. Even now in rural Africa, women’s views are rarely heard outside the family and local women’s groups (where they exist). In Mali, for example, small groups of women exchange news early in the morning when pounding millet. With the introduction of motorized mills, they saved time but lost these precious meetings and transfer of knowledge. Today, with much of local plant genetic diversity coveted and exploited by international companies, the local experts are excluded from any benefit or compensation. Genetic material and related pertinent information is gathered from villagers on a case-by-case basis. Women’s knowledge and experience is mostly overlooked.

The obstacles women continue to face in their struggle for equality and recognition of their knowledge and skills are enormous. Report after report, especially from the international and UN agencies, provide evidence that the need for women’s rights and equality is often promised but rarely matched by effective action. Recent studies on progress towards the MDGs criticize the continuing marginalization of women in Africa in development policies and programs.

Increasingly, observers speak of a “feminization of agriculture”. The number of female-headed households is constantly growing across Africa. Seasonal and permanent migration by men is increasing, leaving women to fend for themselves and their children in reduced circumstances. It is common to define poverty in monetary terms, describing the extreme poor as living on less than one dollar a day. However, many factors contribute to the desperate situation for rural communities in Africa and especially for women. The scarcity and fragility of natural resources, such as land, water and forests are compounded by lack of access to fundamental public services such as health care, education and credit. Insecurity of land tenure undermines the economic confidence of the rural poor and often prevents land improvement initiatives. Here again, women are most disadvantaged.

“Time poverty” is a major contributing factor to women’s poverty that is often underestimated. While this is a concern for both sexes, women are more dramatically impacted because of the time-consuming household chores, such as fetching fuel wood and water. These prevent women from conducting more productive activities or benefiting from learning opportunities.

Another integral part of women’s poverty is lack of training. In the constantly evolving environmental conditions in drylands, women’s local technologies and know-how cannot by themselves provide long-term solutions to a phenomenon like desertification. However, many women are still excluded from extension services, technology and access to important environmental data. Such access would allow for their expertise to be assessed, validated and complemented by scientific research.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic has wrought havoc to human lives and livelihoods in many parts of Africa. The long-term consequences on communities and countries are too devastating to imagine fully. In rural areas where subsistence farmers have managed to survive in unfavourable environmental conditions, the onslaught of AIDS has destroyed the fabric of families and communities and severely hampered agricultural production. Stephen Lewis, in Race Against Time, summarizes that the HIV/AIDS pandemic is compounding the premature death of thousands of productive people – particularly women – across the region, and is wrecking the livelihoods of millions more while sowing the seeds of future famines. Women are pillars of the family and community and the pandemic is threatening them in ways never experienced before. Women’s traditional local knowledge is in peril as a consequence.

Despite these distressing realities, women have been quietly working towards change. In communities across Africa, local women are initiating projects to support each other and to improve livelihoods and communities. Informal networks are passing essential information down generations and among regions. Local women leaders are spearheading the formation of women’s groups thereby creating solidarity networks, in particular in AIDS devastated communities. In the Sahel, women’s groups have adapted the traditional group savings systems assisting members in times of need. Applying literacy and numeracy skills to micro-credit systems, they integrate new understanding with traditional knowledge and coordinate market access for local produce. Cooperatively managed cereal banks provide grain supplies during lean seasons and stabilize food crops prices in local markets. “Gene banks” are being established where local seed varieties are collected, carefully documented and regularly tested.

Local knowledge of men and women farmers has been gaining in visibility thanks to innovative research-action methodologies. Increasingly, participatory planning and evaluation of community-based programs, such as the Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) system, are being applied to share best practices. Many national and international NGOs promote and support local innovation, working closely with local farmers to record and advance their experience and expertise.

A systematic recording of the multitude of successful projects linking local knowledge with innovation is an essential prerequisite to further develop environmentally sustainable agricultural systems in Africa. Research can result in local benefits as long as farmers participate directly in technology development. The participation of women is especially important, because their access to such technology has a critical effect on household food security and the well being of children.

Despite the spread of organizations and networks, the communication gap between local and international knowledge systems persists. Information technology, not widely available in Africa beyond urban centres, has facilitated the gathering and dissemination of best practices. International agencies are establishing topic-based knowledge networks or gateways to facilitate access to relevant material. Increasingly, governments, implementing international obligations, pass legislation on women’s rights and gender equality. However, enforcement remains weak. For the time being, these initiatives rely heavily on individual women and men to act as intermediaries to local communities. A serious obstacle is the lack of financial resources for upscaling local knowledge and sharing it through the various channels.

In the framework of the UN Convention on Desertification, political leaders and their governments have made strong commitments to fight poverty and desertification. The convention advocates partnership and inclusiveness. It insists on a “bottom-up” approach, explicitly giving a voice to local communities and women. The International Year on Deserts and Desertification is an urgent call to action for civil society, governments and the international community to strengthen their resolve. It will be up to the grassroots and communities in Africa and people across the world to hold them accountable.

Selected reading and reference resources

International Year of Deserts and Desertification – all materials at http://www.iydd.org

Johnson, P.M. et al. (2006) Governing Global Desertification. Linking Environmental Degradation, Poverty and Participation. Ashgate Publishing, Burlington VT. 348 pp.

Kabeer, N. (2003) Gender mainstreaming in poverty eradication and the millennium development goals: A Handbook for Policy-makers and Other Stakeholders. Commonwealth Secretariat/IDRC/CIDA. 240 pp

Lewis, S. (2005) Race Against Time. CBC Massey Lecture Series. House of Anansi Press, Toronto. 198 pp.

Task Force on Education and Gender Equality (2005) Taking Action: Achieving Gender Equality and Empowering Women. UN Millennium Project, United Nations New York http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/documents/Gender-complete.pdf

UNCCD (2005) Revitalizing Traditional Knowledge. A Compilation of
Documents and Reports from 1997 – 2003. UNCCD, Bonn, Germany. 150 pp.

Click to access traditional_knowledge.pdf

UN Convention to Combat Desertification and Drought and other UNCCD documents

UNDP (2005) En Route to Equality A Gender Review of National MDG Reports. UNDP New York http://www.undp.org/gender/docs/en-route-to-equality.pdf

WEDO (2005) Beijing Betrayed: Women worldwide report that governments have failed to turn the Platform into action. Women’s Environment and Development Organization, New York, NY http://www.wedo.org/files/gmr2005english.html

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Friederike Knabe has been involved for many years in organizations and projects concerned with human rights, international development and environment and their mutual interdependence. She now works independently to pursue her interests and commitment to these issues and related causes. She has been specializing on gender aspects and attended the Beijing International Conference on Women and Desertification in May 2006. Friederike holds an M.A. in Eastern European Studies and French. She is based in Ottawa.