Africana Plus

No61 June 2004.3

International year 2004

Cultivating the "Gold Nugget"


  Rice is an essential element of the national culture of many countries, and some of them see the progress of their civilization as based on their improving methods of growing rice.  It is striking to note that the growing of, and the feeding on, rice vary in each human culture, and the different local traditions are parts of the world's cultural patrimony.  The International "Rice" year is an invitation to the world community to fulfill the internationally accepted objectives or the "Declaration 2000," aiming at the reduction of world poverty and the elimination of hunger.


         Close to three billion people share the culture, the traditions and the still fully unexplored potential of rice.  In little known towns of South East Asia, people call their rice "Gold Nuggets".  The modern Japanese consider rice as the center of their national culture.  In West Africa, the people living along the Senegal River welcome their visitors with huge platters of rice.  Wherever it is grown, in deltas and valleys of Asia, and on the slopes of the Himalayas, or in the arid lands of the Middle East, rice is a necessary part of daily food, of religious festivals, of wedding customs, of paintings and songs.  Even in nations that do not traditionally feed on rice, its culture has influenced customs, introduced new cooking methods and provided farmers with a new source of revenues.


When proclaiming the year 2004 the international year of rice, the F.A.O General Director, Mr. Jacques Diouf, said that rice was "the basic food of more than half the world's population, but warns that its production "meets with serious problems."   Mr. Diouf underlines the fact that the world's population continues to grow, while the supply of land and water for its growth are decreasing.  "Whilst the revolution of the 70ies has greatly decreased the risks of famine in some parts of the world, its effects are getting smaller today," said he.


Rice in the world


         The F.A.O.'s statistics prove that from now on to the year 2030 the overall demand for rice in the world will be more than 38% greater than the quantity grown between 1997 and 1999.  The demand for rice as food is the fastest growing demand in Africa, and it has an important effect on human nutrition, on the world's supply of food, and on the peace of the world.  Efficient rice cultivation systems will contribute in eradicating hunger in the world, and in fulfilling the U.N.O.'s objectives for the millennium.  Close to one billion families in Asia, Africa and America rely on the cultivation of rice; "It is the main source of employment and life," said Mr. Diouf to the United Nations delegates.  About four fifths of all the rice in the world come from small farmers and are eaten locally.  The cultivation of rice benefits many plants and animals that constitute the diet of rural people as well as their revenues.  Thus, rice is in the front line of the fight against hunger in the world." 


         This FAO campaign started with a proposal made last year by 44 United Nations countries warning that a crisis was imminent in the culture of rice.  Since the beginning of the nineties, scientists have warned that rice production was decreasing, rice fields produced less, but population has increased.  The rapid increase in rice production during the last years was one of the first causes of the improvement in the world's food security.  Nevertheless, among the 840 million people who are undernourished, more than 40% live in zones where rice supplies food, employment and revenues.  According to Mr. Diouf, "It is now time for international organizations to improve rice production, which will benefit men, women and children, and particularly the poorest ones.  Some world initiatives have been launched to improve lasting farming methods in many countries.  I see the "International Rice Year" as an important way of improving these initiatives."


African Rice


         When, two years ago, draught hit Zaguiguia, in Western Ivory Coast, only one variety of rice was grown there: the new rice for Africa: the "Nerica".  The next season all the farmers wanted Nerica seeds, but there were not enough to go around, as says Alberrtine Kpassa, a local farmer.  At Saioua, in the middle of the country, another agriculture expert, Elise Digbeu Ori, prefers the Nerica rice because it grows faster and brings quicker profits.  "This is very important," says she, "because I have six children going to school."  In Guinea, the next country, where the first varieties of Nerica have been introduced in 1997, Mamadi Douno has a field of rice at Maferenya.  "Since I started planting that rice, I no longer buy rice at the market," said that father of ten children to a local reporter.  "With Nerica, I can feed my family, pays the school fees for my children, and have food all through the year.  On a continent where it is sometimes difficult to produce enough food, and where one third of the population is undernourished, farmers of West and Central Africa now have large enough harvests not only to feed their families, but also to sell large quantities at the market.


         Nerica Rice, which was developed by researchers from the Association for the development of agriculture in West Africa, (ADRAO,) an international research center for rice, was born from the crossing of a very resistant old African kind of rice with a high yield Asian kind.  It blends the characteristics of both varieties; proof against draughts and insects, and with a higher yield even with scant irrigation or fertilizer, it has a higher protein content than the other varieties of rice.  It is in fact a "Miracle Crop" as was said to "Afrique Relance" by the General Director of ADRAO, Mr Kanayo Mwanze, at the third Tokio International Conference on African development on September 29 to October first, in which Africa played an important role.


The accelerating procedure: nepad


         In West Africa where rice is still the basic food, the local production increase has had an enormous impact.  To meet consumers' demand, that region must import every year about 3.5 million tons of rice a year, which cost nearly one billion dollars.  Increasing local production would allow Africa to save much foreign money.  This year, Guinea alone could save about 13 million dollars.  But, as Mr Nwanze said during a recent trip to Kenya, the adoption of Nerica alone on a large scale will not increase rice production and decrease imports.  "Families will also have more to eat and farmers more money.  This would then contribute to more food security and to a decrease in poverty.


         Members of the new Coalition for the Development of Africa (NEPAD), an ambitious development program adopted in 2001 by the leaders of the continent, have become aware of the power that Nerica means.  The steering Committee of NEPAD see Nerica as one of the best efforts of the Continent, and have approved its aim of developing the growing of that rice in West and Central Africa, and of introducing it in East and South Africa, for the purpose of increasing its farm products and its food supply.  "The NERICA", says Professor Richard Mkandawire, agricultural counsellor for NEPAD, "can help speed up the elimination of hunger and famine on the African Continent.


         Nowhere on earth is the struggle for food as desperate than in West Africa where live 240 million people, that is 1 in 3 or the population of the content.  More than half of them manage to survive on less than one American dollar a day.  "Keep in mind that food equals rice for many West Africans" said Dr. Kanayo F. Nwanze, Director General of the Association for the growing of rice in West Africa, (ADRAO.) based in Ivory Coast.  "It is ironical to realize that rice was seen as luxury food twenty years ago.  "Today it is the staple food."  Dr Nwanze adds, "Today, rice supplies more calories and protein than any other cereal in the wetlands of West Africa, and as many as all the root plants."  The demand for rice increases faster in that region than anywhere else in the world.  In thirty years imports of rice have multiplied eight times to reach 3 million tons a year, at the cost of close to one billion American dollars.  About 40% of the 4.1 million acres of the rice produced in West Africa are grown in dry fields, like wheat or maize.  The use of fertilizer and pesticides is hardly known, and the harvest is only around one metric ton per hectare. 


Rice is a food, but much more than a simple food.  It mirrors society, culture, politics, business, and the beauty of landscapes, nations living in communities.  In one word, rice is Life.


         This fight against hunger that UNO officials talk about, reminds us of the Chinese story:  "A mandarin was leaving one day for the next world.  He first went to hell.  He saw lots of people sitting at tables before a rice bowl, but all were starving because their chopsticks were too long, fully two meters, and they could not feed with them.  Then he went up to heaven, and there too he saw crowds sitting in front of rice bowls, and all were happy and in good health, as with their long chopsticks they were feeding the people in front of them."


         Taking part in the "International Rice Year of 2004" will enable us all to join in the struggle against hunger and poverty, to help save the environment, and to insure a better future to millions of women, children and men.



Michel Fortin, W.F.

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