In the 1960s and 70s, the world heralded the coming of the Green Revolution. This so called “revolution”  was made by exporting the technology of industrial agriculture and the “scientific” knowledge of industrial scientists to the Third World. Industrial scientists developed ways to dispose of the chemicals produced in industrial and weapons manufacturing by converting them into chemical fertilizers. Combining these chemicals with genetically modified seeds, scientists produced crops that they believed could solve food crises worldwide.

In many places the Green Revolution did solve immediate crises in the production of food, but the long term consequences of the Revolution have been destructive. The Green Revolution shifted the focus of farmers away from solutions that take local ecology and local communities into account towards technological solutions imported from the global agricultural marketplace. These solutions killed the soil and left land barren after only a few years of intense chemical use.

In the Southern Niger, industrial agriculture left the land with almost no water or plant life. Trees, which held the soil together, controlled the temperature, and regulated soil moisture, were systematically chopped down by farmers because the trees got in the way of large machinery. After only a few years, the land risked being swallowed by the Sahara Desert.

On Wednesday of last week, UN Drylands Ambassador Dennis Garrity stated in the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development that the degradation of land is a global problem that must be solved as part of the Millennium Goal for Sustainable Development. Ambassador Garrity also highlighted the fact that in spite of the problem of encroaching deserts lands in Niger, local farmers have independently revitalized the land by encouraging the growth of trees. Instead of cutting saplings, local farmers encouraged their growth by plowing around them, and between the mid-1980s and 2007 local farmers planted over 7 million trees.

In response to environmental degradation, these farmers rejected the methods of industrial agriculture in favor of practices that took into account local ecology and local knowledge.  As the trees grew taller and stronger, farmers planted traditional crops that thrive in partially forested areas like millet, sorghum, peanuts, and beans. They also selected trees that grew well with these plants. Farmers had planted these crops long before the Green Revolution replaced them with genetically modified cash crops, and the farmers knew which plants and trees would thrive together.

The experience of farmers in Southern Niger demonstrates the importance of local knowledge and skills in solving agricultural problems. Farmers live in close relationship to the land, and over time they develop an intimate knowledge of it. They too are the people who will be its stewards in the future. If there is any chance that the UN Millennium Goals for Sustainable Development will be met, it will only be with the cooperation and equal participation of local people.

For more information, follow this link to Ambassador Garrity’s speech which begins at minute 19:00: http://webtv.un.org/watch/2nd-meeting-open-working-group-on-sustainable-development-goals-third-session/2402695822001/

Also see this brief New York Times article on Niger from 2007: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/11/world/africa/11niger.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0