Oasis agriculture : a second chance?
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CTA. 1989. Oasis agriculture : a second chance?. Spore 22. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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To both the north and the south of the Sahara interest is reviving in oases long ago abandoned by man. As a result of this renewed interest, some 80 experts, policymakers and top officials met at Tozeur in Tunisia from November 19 to 211988, on the...
To both the north and the south of the Sahara interest is reviving in oases long ago abandoned by man. As a result of this renewed interest, some 80 experts, policymakers and top officials met at Tozeur in Tunisia from November 19 to 211988, on the initiative of CIHEM (Centre International des Hautes Etudes Agronomiques Mediterraneennes/ lnternational Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Studies), with the aid of the EC and CTA. Their aim was to explore recent developments in the Saharan agricultural systems so often virtually unknown to outsiders. The people of the Sahelian regions have long been almost self-sufficient, despite the hardship of their surroundings, thanks to the selfperpetuating intensive cultivation and the extensive stock-rearing systems. But the recent terrible drought years have forced oasis-dwellers to leave this life and join the desert nomads. Irrigation is no longer adequate, water too scarce, and so the crops grown under palm-trees - cereals and vegetables - have been abandoned. Now all that there is to be seen is palm-groves, and dates are the only crop. All over the region - in Mauritania, in Niger, in Djibouti and in Somalia - this same trend can be observed. People come back only for pollinating the palm-trees and for the date harvest. Even the palm-trees have in some cases been affected by the continuing drought and advancing sand. Those on the edge of the desert are the first to die; the microclimate peculiar to the oases is disappearing, the need for water is becoming more desperate, the sand creeps ever onwards into the palm-groves, and the desert takes over... Some of these buried oases are gone for ever and if action is not taken, soon many of the remaining palm-groves of the northern Sahel will be swallowed up by the surrounding dunes. In the south, however, new oases are forming where once agriculture was rainfed. In west and south-west Niger there are now areas suitable for palm plantations. Water which is not far below the surface can be brought up by the aid of simple techniques such as the manually operated 'shadouf' or the animal-powered 'delou'. Nomads put down roots The nomad shepherds were the fist to show an interest in this form of agriculture. When they saw their flocks being decima ted by drought and unable to feed in the High-yielding soils can lose ferfflity if the surface becomes saline. Oases, they began to cultivate land themselves. In Chad, Mauritania and Niger a sort of rudimentary agriculture is being practised. While some members of the family grow cereal crops and animal fodder among the palm-groves, others still wander with their flocks. Nevertheless, the date-palm still pays best and produces most regularly. It is an undemanding sort of tree as long as it has 'its roots in water and its top in the burning sun'. Given minimal care, this king of the oases can yield five or six tonnes/ha. Dates are not much affected by seasonal variations; they keep well, and are easily freigh ted, and are a good source of income with an assured market. Dates are scarce, and sell well even when not of top quality. For some years now, therefore, the shepherds have been digging wells in order to enlarge existing palm-groves. A new 'project ' for the Sahel Organized development projects are now taking over from these spontaneous ones. In order to be viable financially, oasis farming has to be painstaking and intensive. The people, shepherds by tradition, desperately need advice and support to bring their efforts to fruition. It has to be seen as a long-term project since it takes about 20 years to produce a fully-productive palmgrove. It also takes a lot of patience to acquire the skill to do this. Governments are now starting to back these projects because resurgent oasis agriculture has several advantages, including the use of as-yet untapped resources of underground water, and the establishment of food security for people who live in considerable hardship. The survival and development of the oases are major aims in the campaign to turn back the tide of desertification. The people of these often strategic zones will survive only if those aims can be brought about. Furthermore, an increase in date production (the Saharans call it the 'bread of the desert') is obviously desirable for these countries who still have to import large quantities from Algeria for West Africa and from Iraq for the Horn of Africa. Saffron is another agricultural product which could be grown commercially in oases, and both large and small ruminants easily fit in the oasis agriculture systems. Science must now come to the aid of the oases if their renaissance, which was started spontaneously by the Sahelian peoples, is to be a lasting force for the future. The Tozeur seminar enabled specialists from the Mahgreb and the Sahel to pool their knowledge and recent research, and to map out the way ahead so that the future of the oasis can be more than a mere mirage.
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