Echo Conference Highlights

Happy New Year! Here are some highlights from ECHO‘s 2011 Tropical Agriculture Conference:

Dr. Hamado Sawadogo of Burkina Faso spoke about innovations in semi-arid farming, including zai holes, half-moons and rock walls. These sort of techniques are designed to conserve water and lengthen the period in which water is available to plant roots.

Roland Bunch, development hero and author of Two Ears of Corn, introduced what may be the most troubling problem facing sub-saharan Africa today: pervasive loss of soil fertility across the Sahel region. He predicted that another major famine would strike the Sahel within three years, and this time it could extend much further and last longer if soil conservation is not pursued vigorously. In response to this crisis-in-the-making, Mr. Bunch promotes an approach called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration, or FMNR. This is a technique for identifying trees which have been cut down, but whose roots are still alive, then working with farmers to preserve the new shoots within their fields, instead of cutting them down. This new tree growth provides dispersed shade and helps prevent erosion. Combined with cover crops it could produce enough organic matter to restore the soil.

Ravi Jayakaran, the Senior Director of Global Programs for MAP International, presented MAP’s Total Health Village approach to development. This approach grew out of MAP’s gradual realization that supplying medicine was only fixing one symptom of a village’s deeper need for transformational development. So instead of simply bringing medicine, MAP began a more holistic approach, treating poverty as a complex series of broken relationships a la Bryant Myers, with whom Dr. Jayakaran has collaborated on the recent book, Working with the Poor.

Roy Danforth, a long-time missionary and development worker in the Central African Republic, shared his experience from 30 years of agricultural development work, both in CAR and the Democratic Republic of Congo. His first-hand insights into work on the field were incredibly valuable, as was the humility with which he shared the mistakes he made. The central lesson I took from his presentation was the need to seek the empowerment of local people. He is currently working to develop a Small Farm Research Development Project in CAR, which he hopes will put information in the hands of small farmers so they can improve their own lives.

Dusty Reynolds, of Sababu Conscious Clothing, presented his rational for–and personal experience with–replacing aid with trade. He established a factory in Mali with local partners and now contracts with them to produce t-shirts. His presentation raised a lot of questions in my mind, so I went to a “meet the speaker” event later in the day. I found him to be very respectful of his Malian partners, who now run the entire operation in Mali, and concerned that his business consider its employees as whole people. With that in mind they are establishing literacy and health classes as a part of their employees’ benefits. I would definitely encourage anyone to support Sababu’s business.

The final plenary presentation on the last day of conference came from David Evans, the president of Food for the Hungry US. His title was Recovering the Eden Mandate: A Christian response to climate change, food price crises and other challenges. This was more related to public policy than any of the other presentations. He encouraged the audience as Christians and voters to consider the way public policy effects global hunger. And a big part of that could be climate change, as rising temperatures make marginal farmland even more vulnerable. Mr. Evans spent some time addressing global warming skepticism, including referencing the research done by Richard Muller and the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project, which was an independent survey confirming that temperatures have in fact risen over the past century. Evans also covered food price fluctuations, which have wreaked havoc on grain-importing nations over the past few years. The only way to prevent these fluctuations from hurting the poor is to help these nations, and the farmers in them, to become more food self-sufficient. Over all, Evans was more cerebral and policy-focused than others in the line-up, but I thought he brought an important reminder of the macro realities facing agricultural development.

That’s just a sampling of some of the heavy hitters at the conference. Other highlights included learning about community needs assessment from Robert Sanou, who will be leading the ECHO West Africa Impact Center, a talk on underutilized food species by botanical explorer Joseph Simcox and a post-conference workshop with Dr. Martin Price, ECHO’s founder, on the challenges of growing food in the tropics.




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