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Agroecology is a Project for Society – An Interview with Mariam Sow


Thanks to Mariam Sow of the NGO ENDA PRONAT and her civil society partners in Senegal, agroecology has become a priority in the country. With the global project Knowledge Centre for Organic Agriculture in Africa run by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, she is helping to gather farmer knowledge and to link it with scientific research in the pursuit of agroecology and organic farming. This is vital if sceptics are to be convinced. And to show young people an alternative, as they are increasingly turning away from agriculture.

Mariam Sow (68) was born into a farming family. After completing her schooling, she joined ENDA Thiers Monde, the umbrella organisation of ENDA Pronat. She is now the Managing Director. She campaigned to raise awareness of the dangers of pesticides, following sustainable farming methods used by female farmers. In 2001, she founded the Réseau National des Femmes Rurales du Sénégal (RNFR), which now encompasses around 100 organisations and some 36,000 women farmers across the country. Here’s what she has to say.


What is your vision of agroecology for Senegal?

The land is bare, even more so now, due to the uncontrolled abuse of pesticides and herbicides, which are affecting human health, animal health and environmental health through their use, consumption and lack of means of control.

“We in the Sahelian countries, and Senegal in particular, are obliged to change our paradigm, to adopt a different approach that brings life back to the land.”

So, in view of all this, and in view of climate change, we in the Sahelian countries, and Senegal in particular, are obliged to change our paradigm, to adopt another approach that brings life back to the land, that restores the environment to its former state, that reconciles agriculture with livestock farming, that brings the tree back to its place in peasant life. This is the kind of peasant agriculture we need to promote, based on the values and know-how of the peasant farmers, but also with scientific support. Agroecology is a different way of life, a new kind of social project that we have to embrace.


You describe agroecology as a “societal project,” and you have said that the agroecology movement emerged within civil society and then reached the government level. How do you see this as a success?

We started talking about it in the early 80s and said: “Stop, be careful!” People found it hard to believe us when we said: “Africa is hungry, we need fertilisers, we need pesticides”. It was difficult, but we had to break through. We provided information, we raised awareness, but we were always told that it was impossible. And yet, 60 years after independence, by using these fertilisers and pesticides, we continue to bump up against the problem of food sovereignty. Little by little we have seen a proliferation of sensitive farmers’ organisations. The National Federation for Organic Farming (FENAB) is an example.

We have engaged farmer organisations, research organisations, and local authorities. From 2020 onwards, we created a group of all these players. All this momentum has come together to form what we call DYTAEL, in English the “Dynamics for Agroecological Transition”. The current president said in 2019 that he would make agroecology a priority of his five-year term, in the face of climate change. This dynamic has set up “caravans” in all the ecological regions of Senegal, which have identified the initiatives that are in place, the difficulties that exist, and culminated in a contribution document that we have submitted to the Senegalese government. We have sought to establish a political dialogue between ourselves and the Ministry of Agriculture. These are the key elements of change.


Are you satisfied with the current situation?

It’s not easy, but we’re making progress. Since last year, the Ministry of Agriculture has started to subsidise organic fertilisers for producers. We’ve set up other structures at the local level,, because we’re convinced that it’s also the grassroots that needs to change. The aim of the DYTAEL initiative is to enable local communities to negotiate with local policy makers to bring about change. This dialogue between the State and DYTAEL must also be strengthened at the level of international policy, because, in part, everything depends on it.


Can Senegal serve as an example for other African countries?

Our agroecological approach, civil society engagement, and what we are doing with the government and the ministries are all major levers. We also organise agroecological days with other countries. We are members of other alliances, such as 3AO (Alliance pour l’Agroécologie en Afrique de l’Ouest) at the sub-regional level. We’re also seeking to engage in dialogue with sub-regional institutions, such as ECOWAS, to ensure that these institutions also support our position and carry our message forward.


You are working with the GIZ project “Knowledge Centre for Organic Agriculture in Africa”.

Yes, we have considerable support from GIZ with three organisations in Senegal (ENDA PRONAT, FENAB and AGROECOL Afrique), but also with other countries and regions on knowledge management. The work is going well and we are currently working on indigenous knowledge, which means highlighting farmers’ values and scientific knowledge. We run training courses with FENAB, for example for multiplier trainers at the national level, and we work with IFOAM in Central Africa and the Maghreb on knowledge exchange and dissemination. When negotiating with the government on the issue of food sovereignty, we say that our agricultural policy must be based on agroecology. The government tells us to “show us the proof” so we’re also trying to ensure that the knowledge we’ve gathered is used in the implementation of DYTAEL, and in some countries by other farmer organisations, to produce results.


Does it work?

We’re not there yet. It is quite obvious. But farmers are also going to say: here are our granaries, we’re self-sufficient, we can feed ourselves, we can process and sell. And that’s how we’re going to change, that’s how we’re going to be on an equal footing at the negotiating table. I still say, and I’ll say it again, that Africa, with all its wealth, its land, its young people who are looking for something, we must move towards common policies. We need to turn ecological agriculture, livestock farming and fishing into job-creating activities along the entire chain. Some will produce, others will process, some will sell. It’s a project with a new vision.


How do you motivate young people to return to farming?

For our part, we follow what we call the village approach. We’re out in the field, with teams all over the place, in the communities, and we’re trying to gather a global view of the field. We don’t just limit ourselves to theorizing, we also practice. If we apply the village approach, we can see young people who have stayed, as well as women. We’re making improvements.

“What we fear is that our young people, who have been so discouraged and told time and time again that farming is not profitable, will want to leave.”

And we also need to see how we can compensate the work of ecological farming, because if we say we’re going to stop using herbicides on rice, because weed control is hard, we need to scientifically prove that other alternatives can work. We need to find tools to reduce weed control so that agroecology is not a harsh form of agriculture that young people reject.  And what we fear is that our young people, who have been so discouraged, and told time and time again that agriculture is not profitable, will want to leave. At the same time, we’re told that the population is going to increase, that we need to produce more. There’s a risk that the multinationals will come back and try – they’ve already tried, but there’s been resistance – to take over the land, they’ll try to grow bigger, have bigger crops, pollute our water, use fertilisers. Poverty will increase further, people will become even poorer, and become the workforce on their own land. That’s what we’re trying to avoid too.


Claudia Jordan

Saskia Stark-Ewing
Author: Saskia Stark-Ewing

KCOA Intern at GIZ in Eschborn



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