Each Thursday I run a graduate seminar on Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change. Yesterday's topic was desertification and we had read some of my favourite authors in preparation: Donald Worster (The Dust Bowl) and Piers Blaikie & Harold Brookfield (Land Degradation and Society). Both readings were written in the 1980s when, if my recollection of my undergraduate days is accurate, concerns about soil erosion and desertification tended to get greater attention both within the academic community and beyond. Perhaps it was because of the images of famine in east Africa, which spurred the Band Aid/Live Aid phenomenon, perhaps it was because climate change science was still developing and concerns about global warming had yet to dominate popular media coverage of environmental issues.
Whatever the case, soil erosion and land degradation continue to be ongoing challenges in many parts of the world today. The student leading yesterday's seminar showed us a CBC News video taken recently in Kenya, where drought in that country's southeastern region has caused widespread crop failure. Farmers are being forced to leave the land in search of work, and there are reports that speculators and corrupt government officials are driving up food prices, with the potential outcome that many may start to go hungry.
During the video, one of the other students remarked "Why is that farmer growing corn, anyhow?" Why indeed. Corn is not native to Africa. It's not a particularly drought-tolerant crop: in the Canadian context, corn is well suited for southern Ontario's hot and humid summers, but not southern Saskatchewan's hot and dry ones. The corn field was not intended for subsistence production. Its owner, his spouse and some of their ten children are shown breaking rocks to earn money with which to buy food.
The situation portrayed in the video corresponds very closely with the dynamics described in Blaikie and Brookfield: the "land manager" (as B&B describe the farmer) makes decisions about land use within a complex system of interaction processes, forces and agents at various scales, from the local to the global, over which s/he has little influence. Another student pointed out that, until this year, global corn prices had been rising as new markets for corn-based fuels appeared in North America. Since a farmer's ultimate and logical aim is to maximize income per unit of land, it's not surprising a Kenyan farmer with ten kids would be planting corn, even if there was a chance of crop failure. Crops better suited to dryland conditions, such as millet, cowpeas and sorghum tend to have low market prices, and so even a good harvest does not necessarily mean the farmer can pay all the bills at the end of the season.
One of the things that I would have liked to know about the farmer in the video is whether the family has a vegetable patch. In my own research into historical droughts on North America's Great Plains (which include the "Dust Bowl" Worster analyzes), the ability to maintain a vegetable garden was often a critical factor in helping families survive until the next growing season. In Oklahoma, farmers who remembered the 1930s talked about eating a lot of whippoorwill peas (vigna unguiculata), a type of cowpea/lentil that likely came to the southern US from Africa during the era of the slave trade. Whippoorwill peas, I am told, weren't terribly tasty, but they would grow when nothing else could, and would fill you up and keep you going. As in many parts of the world, "drought foods" like the whippoorwill pea tend to get shunned once the drought has passed, and I am willing to bet only a small percentage of Oklahomans alive today know what one is, let alone tasted one.
I wonder if the farm family shown in the video have access to their own home-grown supply of the local equivalent of whippoorwill peas. I certainly hope so. I should note I have ordered a package of whippoorwill peas and plan to grow them myself this summer to see what they are like. I'll let you know in the fall.