by Samba Seck | 15 Dec 1996

December 1996


Samba Seck

A crisis in rice production in Northern Guinea-Bissau, resulting from the drought and the salinisation of rice paddies, led local people and NGOs on a search for solutions. This search culminated in a highly successful transfer of skills and knowledge from one group of rice farmers to another, which has restored the paddies and made food self-sufficiency viable once more in the region.


For several years Guinea-Bissau, and especially its northern province of Oio, has experienced climatic change and disruptions to its ecological balance. Rainfall reached its lowest level for at least ten years, which has had a serious impact on the livelihoods and food security of many farming people. The drop in rainfall was partly due to uncontrolled forest exploitation in the northern region, and partly to the natural drought cycle that Sahelian countries have been experiencing for more than 20 years. In Oio, the most serious impacts of these climatic disruptions were:

* a rise in salt concentrations and inexorable advance of salt water into inland rice paddies

* a loss of several hundreds of hectares of paddy fields due to salinisation

* a decrease in rice production leading to food shortages and food insecurity in the northern region.

In recent years, an NGO involved in self-help and community development, called RADI/KAFO, has made some bold attempts to help solve the problems faced by rice farmers by looking for solutions locally. RADI/KAFO has been working the Oio region for seven years on a programme to promote food self sufficiency and better standards of living. It has more than 3000 members, the majority being Mandingues people. Other member groups include the Peul and Foulas peoples.

The progressive salination and loss of their paddy fields was increasingly preoccupying farmers of the Oio region, who saw their autonomy and self-sufficiency in food production being eroded year by year. Although the Mandingues have a long tradition of rice cultivation in upland areas, they were unable to cope with the problem of salinity since they lacked the appropriate knowledge and techniques for dealing with irrigated rice cultivation. Other ethnic groups of the Oio region, like the Peul, couldn't help either. The Peul mainly cultivate other grains, such as millet, maize and sorghum, and learned rice cultivation only through RADI/KAFO programmes. After considerable deliberation, the people of the region finally came up with a solution: to initiate an interethnic exchange of knowledge with the Ballantes, another well known group in Guinea Bissau. The Ballantes are not only experts in recovering saline rice fields but also in improving and enriching regained plots and making them viable again.

Rice cultivation is the cultural heart of the Ballante and all traditional values centre around it. Techniques and know-how are inherited from generation to generation. Rice is considered sacred as well as constituting the basic food crop. It is important to recognise that the Mandingues also have a long tradition of upland rice culture with highly developed techniques and know-how of their own, but that their experience did not extend to rehabilitating salinised rice paddies. The Ballantes, meanwhile, have developed a several stage approach to paddy recovery. Over recent years, this has been shared not only with the Mandingues, but also with the Peuls and other members of KAFO in the Oio region.

One important characteristic of Ballente recovery techniques is their ability to adapt to prevailing environmental conditions. They also recognise the importance of mangroves for successful rice cultivation - in terms of their valuable contributions to compost and in salinity control. An integral component of Ballente strategies is the conservation and protection of existing vegetation and ecology.

In 1994, an inter-ethnic exchange programme was initiated, and has been characterised by four distinct phases.


Introducing the Ballentes to the Oio region

The Ballentes stayed in Oio for 15 days to study the situation, analyse problems, determine what equipment would be required, and work out the logistics of moving a 30-strong team of Ballentes for a 30-day stay in the region.

1st stage of rice paddy recovery: In this phase, the actions identified in the first phase were put into place. This involved the fabrication and application of traditional equipment, new terraces, studying the chemical composition of salinised soils, and building new paddy dikes. During this 30-day phase, 8ha of rice paddy was recovered.

2nd stage of paddy recovery: In this 10-day phase, each recovered paddy was provided with new systems of dikes and drainage, primary and secondary irrigation channels, and pumps or dams where necessary.

3rd stage of paddy recovery: The Ballentes had brought with them several locally-adapted varieties of rice, which had been conserved over generations through traditional seed banks. These were tested in the new conditions in the experimental plots over a period of 45 days, overseen by three Ballente women experts. The follow-up is now being undertaken.

This case demonstrates how traditional values have been used profitably for sustainable development in a rural peasant society in Guinea-Bissau. Knowledge and know-how have been shared through the integration of Ballente experts into the Oio culture. Different cultural groups have been drawn together through their beliefs and their practical survival and subsistence methods. Today, both Mandingues and Peuls are capable of making equipment for recovering salinised rice paddies, and regaining their ability to be self-sufficient in food production.

Samba Seck works for an NGO called RADI/KAFO and for SWISSAID in Guinea Bissau. He can be contacted (in French or Portuguese) at the following address: SWISSAID, C.P. 33, Bissau, República da Guinè-Bissau, Fax: (+245) 20 18 15

Author: Samba Seck