Returning a crop to organic cultivation restores soil productivity, traditional flavors and local livelihoods
“We cultivated like this for centuries, then you vasà* came and told us that it wasn’t good, that we should use your products. Now you’d like to tell us that you’ve changed your mind, and we were right?” That was the initial laughing reaction of the elders of the Madagascan village of Antanafisaka when Sandra Pazzaglia first suggested that after decades of the “Green Revolution,” they switch back to organic cultivation for their entire crop of red rice.
“Antanafisaka is a very poor village, with no running water or electricity,” explains the Italian activist, who for
years has been overseeing an economic development project in the village for an Italian philanthropist, supported by the Granello di Senape association and Slow Food. “Red rice, an endemic, flavorful and nutritious variety, represents not only the staple of every meal for the producers, who belong to the Terra Madre network, but also the only trading currency they have for buying essentials at the market.” It took two long years of micro-experiments on tiny plots, but eventually Sandra was able to earn the trust of the community, whose members now diligently attend her eco-agriculture courses. “Everyone can realize that in spite of the false promises of the big corporations, organic cultivation on a small scale, if practiced to modern standards, means not only a better product, but also an increased yield (from 20 to 60% higher) as early as the second year.”
As she speaks, she strokes the head of a boy sitting next to her, who looks at her with empty eyes. “He’s more than two years old, he doesn’t speak and he doesn’t walk. He didn’t get enough to eat during a famine. He might not make it.” While some might be tempted to give in to a feeling of impotence when confronted with the boy’s tragedy, Sandra is instead animated by the conviction that in no other part of the world is it possible to do so much with so little as in Africa. This is why she has started a “revolving fund,” a form of microcredit which can fund small agricultural projects. “It takes only a few euros to fund the purchase of a tool, a pair of animals, new seeds, and so make all the difference to a farmer’s business.”
The fund’s main objective, she explains, is to convince farmers to cultivate more land. “If they haven’t done so yet, it’s not because they don’t have the plots or the desire to work, but because they can’t afford to buy the laborato-ry-produced hybrid seeds sold by big companies, the fertilizers and the pesticides. For decades they’ve been the slaves of industrial agriculture. It’s time they freed themselves from this yoke.” The red hills around the village, for example, contrasting beautifully with the bright green of the lower-lying paddy fields, are not cultivated
Sandra has plans to refertilize the soil, which has long been washed away and impoverished by the rain, by introducing nitrogen-fixing species like legumes, and to bring the technique of cultivating in terraces to Antanafisaka. While common south of Antananarivo, terraces are rarely used east of the capital. “The cultivation of these lands would allow the community to cope with the difficult soudure period, the transition from one agricultural year to the next, when the old harvest is starting to run out and the new one is not yet ready.” To help deal with this gap one farmer suggested using the revolving fund to build a granary. And, judging from how her eyes light up, for Sandra it was an immense gift, the reward for years of work. “See, for the first time the idea came from them. That means that I’ve managed to ignite in their hearts at least a faint light of hope that change, even here in Antanafisaka, is possible.”
* The colloquial name used in Madagascar for white people.
by Michele Fossi
Slow Food Almanac argues that something valuable has been lost in this era of fast food and instant gratification. Humanity needs the pleasure meals made with love and attention, and from locally grown ingredients.