Rusted yellow Czechoslovakian tractors littered the countryside in the aftermath of the February 1966 coup that toppled Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s leader since independence from Britain in 1957. Relics of Nkrumah’s alignment with Soviet block countries, they became disabled orphans for lack of replacement parts when the National Liberation Council turned to the west for support. In my youth I thought that aid for Africa was a good thing and I still believe that this world will be a better place when we realize that we’re all in this together. However providing effective support is very complex in any situation and shipping tractors to Ghana as a quick and easy way to increase food production is naïve in the extreme, ignoring as it does basic challenges facing farmers in northern Ghana.
To grasp these challenges, begin with the geological process of leaching in which nutrients in the top level of soil are driven downward by heavy rains, especially when temperatures are high and protective vegetation has been removed. Heavy rains, high temperatures, little protective vegetation? A perfect thumbnail description of northern Ghana during the growing season from April to October. Meteorology accounts for the rain and heat; the custom of burning off dead grass at the end of the dry season in March has devastated ground cover. As a result, natural grasses and plants are so sparse that cattle, sheep and goats cannot be kept in fenced fields but must be driven over the land all day in a search for food. When animals are herded daily it is very difficult to collect manure to spread on farmers’ plots to counteract the effects of leaching. The rains continue to fall, the soil continues to deteriorate and ever skinnier grazing animals must wander farther in search of food. Throwing donated tractors onto topsoil gravel is unlikely to be very helpful.
How about passing a law against burning grass and enforcing it rigorously? At the end of the dry season when grain supplies from the previous harvest are running low burning off dead grass makes it easier for farm animals to graze on the new green shoots after the first rains. Rodents driven ahead of the advancing flames are killed for food. I’m sure subsistence farmers would welcome sustainable agriculture developed by careful implementation of sound policies over several years but their immediate responsibility is to keep themselves and their families alive for another year. Long term planning is a luxury they cannot afford. And to my knowledge nobody is stepping forward to provide the tremendous resources that would be needed to alter the conditions under which the farmers of northern Ghana must labour year in and year out.
What to do? Is aid from developed countries part of the solution of part of the problem? I will grapple with these questions in a future column. I’m no expert and readers are invited to send me their comments.