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Posts Tagged ‘Savings for Change Plus Agriculture’

Gliricidia sepium tree in Mali, West Africa

Gliricidia trees can be used to improve soil fertility, as living fences, and for shade, construction, and firewood.

In August 2010, Groundswell launched a three year program – Saving for Change Plus Agriculture (SfC Plus Ag) – in partnership with Oxfam America. It responds to requests for agriculture training by many of the 350,000 women in Oxfam’s Saving for Change community finance groups across Mali. They wanted to learn how to solve their other most pressing problems: low agricultural production (caused mostly by rapidly deteriorating soils) and water scarcity (both for domestic use and agriculture). Through SfC Plus Ag, 26,000 women living 200 rural villages in Mali are learning to sustainably improve their agricultural production by introducing simple technologies to improve soil fertility (using nitrogen fixing trees and cover crops), seed quality (short cycle seeds), and water management.

Below are excerpts from Groundswell’s Mali program coordinator’s, Roland Bunch, third progress report covering May 2011 – July 2011.

“In the last report, I mentioned that “we are on the road to…surpassing our objective for improving soil fertility, but only because we have had to spend a lot of extra time and effort to overcome a series of last-minute problems that could have derailed the whole effort.”  This entire sentence still describes the situation of the Program very well.

First of all, our worries about the experienced nurserymen’s ability to produce good seedlings have turned out to be entirely unfounded.  In all the nurseries, the young trees had grown exceptionally well and with no traces of damage from either disease, termites or grazing animals. In Lassine’s nursery, which wound up producing about 7,000 seedlings, or well over half the seedlings we would use, the trees had almost uniformly reached nearly a meter in height.  Thus, even though the nurseries had been planted late because of our last-minute need to have Gliricidia trees for the Program, these seedlings had more than made up in unprecedentedly vigorous growth for the late planting.  If anything, they were a little larger than they should be for planting out into the fields.

As soon as I reached Mali, we hired two trucks and began transporting seedlings.  The rains had started even a little earlier than expected, so we had to contend with trucks getting stuck in the mud (twice), but in spite of several such obstacles, in one week we were able to transport all the nearly 11,000 seedlings to the NGO offices responsible for the various villages in the SfC-Plus Ag Program, as follows:

  • Kolokani: 1,870 seedlings
  • Koulikoro: 2,600
  • Kati: 1,800
  • Bougouni: 1,600
  • Sikasso: 2,800
  • Bamako: 300

We then began the transport of the seedlings to the women’s groups in the villages.  In each case, we had to take the seedlings to the village, measure out the exact half-hectare of land that the village elders had granted to the women, establish the exact spot where each of the seedlings would be planted, remind the women what the advantages of the trees were, do a demonstration of how to plant the seedlings adequately, and then actually plant the seedlings.  Once planted, in each case the women made a shelter for each tree out of thorn bushes to keep the animals away from the seedlings until the villages’ food crops were planted in a week or two, at which time the animals would be tied up.

Gliricidia sepium can be used to feed goats

Gliricidia leaves can also be used as high protein supplement for goats and other livestock.

In most of the villages, we also allowed the women to decide how far apart the seedlings would be planted (that is, the seeding density).  We did this sort of thing on purpose so the women would be making as many decisions as possible, giving them a sense of ownership over the trees, and expanding their sense of empowerment.  In every single case, the women chose the highest density among the various ones we recommended, thereby showing that they are very interested in the trees and want as many as they can get, even though we had explained that the pruning of the trees would require more work later on if the densities were fairly high.  This was one more piece of palpable evidence that the women are very interested in the project.

In every village, the men had willingly agreed to give the women a half hectare of land in order to experiment with the trees and with various cropping patterns once the trees were doing their job.  We had had doubts as to whether the village leaders would be willing to agree to this totally unprecedented turn-over of land to women (in none of these villages—or any other villages nearby, as far as we know—had the men of a village ever turned over land to women except for planting vegetables.  That they did so in this case for planting field crops was something totally new).  And they did so in spite of the fact that population pressure on the land, and therefore the need for every scrap of land one can get, has become more intense than any time in history.  Furthermore, the land was to be given to the women for as long as they continued to experiment with the land (ie maintain it as a “village agricultural school”).  We explained that in most cases, that would be ten to twelve years.

One sign of the pressure on the land was that we had said the women would need something between one half a hectare and one whole hectare.  In not a single case did the men grant the women more than the minimum: one half a hectare.  On the other hand, the men usually did not give the women the worst land in the village.  They apparently are hoping, as fervently as are the women, that these experiments will be successful, and given this example, they will gradually be able to rehabilitate their own worn-out land.  In fact, that the men gave the women any land at all is testimony to the fact that the men are also highly motivated: they very much want the Program to be a success.

To be perfectly honest, no agreement of this kind, whether it is written down on paper or just agreed to verbally, can be absolutely and totally trustworthy.  Land “ownership,” as we know it in the West, is a foreign concept in West African villages.  Nevertheless, a chief or village founder (whoever it is that controls the land in a given village) would have to have a tremendous provocation to go back on a promise made publicly to half the village’s adults.  In effect, the women have as strong an assurance that this land will be under their control for ten or twelve years as does about anyone, man or woman, in almost any West African village.

Once we had planted the seedlings, we also planted, in rows between the seedlings, the tefrosia seeds I had brought from Kenya. In this case, too, we did a demonstration for each group of women, and then they planted the seeds.  The reason for the tefrosia is, of course, that the Gliricidia trees will take at least four to six years before they grow large enough to have an appreciable impact on the soil’s fertility.  On the other hand, the tefrosia bushes will grow much more quickly, providing large amounts of biomass within one year.  Thus, the impact of the tefrosia should be significant after just 15 months.  The tefrosia will die after about four years, but by that time, the Gliricidia will start having a major impact.  Furthermore, even though the tefrosia is only a bush, and won’t grow out of the reach of the animals, it has a poisonous substance in the leaves, such that grazing animals will not eat it.  Therefore, it should be able to maintain the villagers’ enthusiasm about fertilizing the soil with leaves until the trees themselves can take over that function.  In other words, the tefrosia will provide the “rapid recognizable success” for the project that the Gliricidia cannot provide by itself.

This next twelve months will be the critical stage of the project.  This is the time when the trees are most susceptible to attacks from termites, goats, cattle and wild animals.  By and large, the first six months are not too critical because the crops are in the fields and the goats and cattle are kept away from the fields, so November through next July will be the most critical time.  When the rains start next year in June or July, the young trees will once again be protected from the grazing animals, and by November 2012, when the crops are harvested, the trees will be large enough that the goats will not hurt them, the cattle may eat a lot of the leaves but will not kill the trees, and the termites will not bother them.  Furthermore, the tefrosia should be ready to provide a good shot of fertility to the soil.  At that time—a year from now—if things go well, we will be able to say, without exaggerating, that we have a successful program on our hands.”

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