Thanks to Caritas this year, Jean Baptiste Kinda is preparing to harvest his tomatoes, aubergines and other vegetables, and sell them in the local market to buy some of the things his family have waited for throughout the lean season. Credit: Alistair Dutton/Caritas 2012

By Alistair Dutton, Caritas Internationalis Humanitaian Director

After what has been a very trying and anxious time for the people of Burkina Faso this year, it is a great pleasure to be with them at harvest time. The rains have been much better than recent years and the country is buzzing with life; the ponds, lakes and reservoirs are full with copious water lilies in bloom; the land is lush and verdant, the animals are healthy and lively; the crops, those that haven’t been harvested yet at least, are tall and heavy with grain. The roads are full of motorbikes loaded up with crates of vegetables being taken to market, while lorries from Ghana trawl the villages to buy grain and vegetables to take down to the markets of Tamale, Kumasi and Accra.

Thanks to Caritas this year, Jean Baptiste Kinda is preparing to harvest his tomatoes, aubergines and other vegetables, and sell them in the local market in Fada to buy some of the things his family have waited for throughout the lean season. With Caritas help Jean Baptiste was able to double the amount of land he farmed this year and, with well chosen seeds and appropriate fertilisers, he looks forward to a bumper harvest. Meanwhile Florence and Veronique are pounding the corn that they have harvested.

Looks can be misleading and exploring beyond first impressions reveals a more complicated story. While the early rains were good and the seeds germinated and grew well, the final rains finished early, preventing the plants from maturing fully. While the animals have recovered now, it is only a few months since they were very weak and sickly; many died and many were sold for pitiful prices, greatly reducing people’s already scarce assets.

Much more needs to be done to improve people’s resilience in the face of the increasingly hostile and erratic climate and enable them to develop more sustainable and durable livelihoods.

Most of the agriculture in Burkina Faso and the Sahel region still relies on direct rainfall to water the crops. There are many simple techniques to catch the rain, raise the water table and increase the water available to the crops. These methods extend the agricultural season and enable crops to germinate and mature, even when the rains themselves are too short. Similarly, much can be done to improve the fertility of the soil and select seed varieties which are better suited to the climate.

People face a perennial problem that they have to sell their crops as soon as they are harvested, both to repay the debts the have incurred during the lean season and because they don’t have adequate storage facilities. At a time of such high supply the prices are necessarily lower and so people receive less for their produce than if the stored it and sold it in subsequent months. Credit facilities enable people to borrow money and save their crops until they can get a higher price. Similarly, granaries and other stores enable to keep their crops in good condition until such time as they chose to sell them.

Animal husbandry is precarious during the dry season. Techniques for managing watering points and animal feed can greatly improve the availability of both. Culturally conveying social status, animals are rarely sold even if they are weak and sick, or doing so would release much-needed money to provide for the family or the rest of the herd.

Working with pastoralists and agro-pastoralists can, over time, help people to see their animals as economic assets and use them accordingly, particularly in times of crisis Caritas has worked in close collaboration with communities of all ethnicities and religions to provide for people’s immediate needs, inculcate new techniques and develop the people’s skills and assets, and will continue to do so. In cooperation with the government, Caritas has helped link farmers – arable and livestock alike – to technical services which provide knowledge, skills and materials.

At the same time, Caritas members throughout the world report that it is becoming increasingly difficult to raise money, notably government funding, for international cooperation, particularly for longer-term development activities. The global financial crisis, austerity policies and greater linking of development objectives and funding with national (donors’) interests are eroding international commitment. Government commitments to the Millennium Development Goals have all but evaporated and, with few exceptions, international development assistance of 0.7 percent of GDP seems a distant memory.

If, as Cardinal Michael Mahony among others has observed “any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members: the last, the least, the littlest”, I fear that at the international level the people of this age may not be judged well.

Meanwhile, life in Burkina goes on, and the energy and hope is palpable. With the good harvest the people are enjoying now they will be able to recover some of the losses they incurred in bad years and they are bouncing back. Caritas will be with them as they do.