Secret rain in the clouds of Cape Verde
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CTA. 1993. Secret rain in the clouds of Cape Verde. Spore 43. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/45906
In a country where it hardly ever rains, it may be better to live high in the mountain mists, even if this means that farmers have to be skilled mountaineers as well. For farmers in Cape Verde because the slopes are so steep everything the farmers...
In a country where it hardly ever rains, it may be better to live high in the mountain mists, even if this means that farmers have to be skilled mountaineers as well. For farmers in Cape Verde because the slopes are so steep everything the farmers do is at eve level or above. The gradient also means that the torrential tropical rainstorms, though few and far between, sweep both soil and plants down towards the sea. When Portuguese mariners arrived in Cape Verde five centuries ago this archipelago of nine islands, 500km off Dakar, was verdant and green and justified its name. Since then there has been continuous deforestation, drought and erosion, and nowadays the only green to be seen is at the bottom of the valleys (ribeiras). The run-off water from the mountains deposits alluvium on these small coastal plains, and forms subterranean water tables before disappearing into the Atlantic deeps. The ribeiras can therefore be irrigated and are tended all year round like botanical gardens: on the valley floors there are market-gardening plants, then cassava, and higher still pawpaw and coconut palms give shade to the lower levels. Next to them are plantations of bananas for export. In some of the islands, on the less steep slopes, sugar cane is grown for the grog mills' which make the local rum, a source of wealth for several local landowners. However these oases, above which tower plateaux of bare rock and peaks of black basalt, are the exception. Ninety-five percent of the rural population and the land of the archipelago are subject to conditions which fully justify Cape Verde's membership of CILSS (Permanent interstate committee for drought control in the Sahel). 'Secret' rain The least disadvantaged growers live 'up in the clouds'. Their dry stone houses, at altitudes between 1,000 and 2,000m, disappear into the mist for several months of the year when warm, damp air from the sea condenses on the peaks. It is this 'hidden' or 'secret' rain, as the agrometerologists call it, that ensures the survival of the crops by creating dew which halts the process of evaporation. The sowing season begins in mid-June on tiny, steeply-sloping plots, or on terraces clinging to the side of towering sheer cliffs. The soil preparation process differs for each plant: on slopes so precipitous that the farmers use their hoes more as pitons than as tools. Maize and beans go into the same hole since they are complementary. Maize stops gullying and acts as a support to the bean plants, which in return supply nitrogen to the soil. Sown and grown together, their red and yellow seeds are eaten together in cachupa, the national dish. Sweet potato and peanuts are found at the top of the hillocks which contour the high peaks. These plants are carefully protected from hungry goats and donkeys. They are first raised in nurseries near houses, where rainwater is collected on the roofs. The seedlings are then transported several kilometers away, over mountain tracks so narrow that two people can scarcely pass, to be replanted out in the open ground. On the less steep fields near settlements, vegetable gardens contain onions and cabbages. In Cape Verde, unlike the Sahelian practices of the last decade or so, there is no call for market garden produce in the urban markets and green vegetables do not yet figure in the national cuisine. The citizens of Cape Verde are currently addressing the possibility of establishing commercial networks. Perennial plants, herbaceous and oleaginous shrubs and coffee bushes are grown on the terraces which are carved into the sides of the hills. Cassava is grown in the wetter areas and, depending on the local microclimate, soil-stabilizing trees such as breadfruit, apple and citrus are also grown. Poverty is rife however, even for the 'luckier' farmers in the mountains. They have little land for cultivation, pay high rents, must tolerate a complex system of sharecropping which causes bitter arguments, and they suffer from droughts which last for years at a time, forcing farmers to eat their own seedcorn. Repairing the damage The very worst cases are to be found on the lower ground where there is no mist and less rain. The Lestada, the easterly wind which dries everything up, will even occasionally blow down a Prosopis tree. Since Independence in 1975 the government and outside aid agencies have been trying to repair the damage caused by deforestation. 45,000ha of trees have been planted on Santiago and there are similar schemes on other islands. During the dry season the women and children build hundreds of thousands of stone semi-circles where saplings can be planted out. In this way forests are already beginning to regenerate with Prosopis in the lower regions and with maritime pines at higher altitudes. These are regreening the landscape and helping to fix what remains of the soil. Many inhabitants of Cape Verde hope this will, in turn, have an effect on the climate itself. In the meantime, these projects create work for those who have not yet left the country: for this archipelago can produce only about one-tenth of the maize it consumes, and many of its 350,000 inhabitants owe their living to the 500,000 who have emigrated.