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The desert locusts are back in Mali and Niger. The FAO warned the two countries of new plagues during the summer of 2012. This "curse of the rains" threatens their crops and their food security. It may also however have hitherto unidentified long-term socio-economic consequences. A team representing the IRD and its partners(
1) recently revealed the severe impact of the major plagues of 1987-89 on the education of children in Malian villages affected at the time. School enrolment rates fell by 25 % to less than 18 %. Girls were particularly affected, leaving the classrooms at an even younger age than boys. The phenomenon is ascribed to a shortage of food following the destruction of the harvests by the locusts. This affects educational achievement, results in a fall in income of parents dependent on agriculture, which may in turn lead them to withdraw their children from schools.
These results are clearly disturbing in the current context of a new threat posed by locusts in Mali and Niger. The proliferation of insects is compounded by a political conflict that hampers anti-locust measures.
Can weather forecasting help improve crop yields in West Africa? IRD scientists and their research partner( 1), bringing together their experience in studying climate, agronomy and economics, have shown recently that millet producers in Niger could increase their income by up to 30%. They do this despite the fact that they often have no option to use other varieties of that cereal. How? Simply by adjusting their strategies in line with forecasts for coming rainy seasons. Previous research investigations have highlighted the advantage of such predictions, but the true impact of climate forecasts on the agricultural economy remains to be determined.
Improvement of the accuracy of predictions and communicating them to farmers can therefore prove to be a strong boost for agricultural development, even in countries of the Sahel like Niger, where low irregular rainfall lend themselves only to crops giving low profitability. Such advances would make West African farming communities more resistant to food insecurity in the forthcoming years and also reduce the poverty of a many small-scale producers.
The desert has been nibbling away at the Sahel’s fertile land for several decades. To halt this advancing desertification, 11 African countries( 1) have come together to build a “Great Green Wall”. This immense project, initiated in 2005, aims to replant with trees a 15 km wide strip stretching 7000 km across the Africa, from Dakar to Djibouti.
A community of international specialists, including IRD researchers, has been mobilized to ensure that this wall of greenery will be as effective as possible. Their objectives are to choose the revegetation techniques and the best adapted species. These experts( 2) are focusing on a natural process which functions in most plant species: symbiosis between the plant and a fungus. Favouring this process would improve plant growth in degraded soils and increase their drought resistance. A tree with remarkable properties( 3) is one of the various recommended species that will be used: the filao tree, which can fix nitrogen from the air and hence colonize impoverished land.
It remains to be determined how the project can be integrated into an environment which is already used and how to enable the local communities to benefit from it.