In drought-stricken Cabo Verde, UN chief finds hope for creating sustainable oasis
The Secretary-General spent Sunday travelling through the diverse and varied landscapes of Santo Antão, where, after five years of intense drought, several development projects supported by the United Nations are helping to transform the agricultural sector of this westernmost island of Cabo Verde.
In Cabo Verde, the climate crisis has led to severe drought and agricultural losses.
On Sunday, I visited projects supported by the @UN helping implement sustainable agricultural practices & safeguard food security. https://t.co/asqNS0SDNEantonioguterres
For hours, António Guterres’ car had moved along a sinuous road, which opened against an arid landscape, but then one last curve, and a few hundred feet up a hill, the view outside his window bursts into myriad shades of green, as small terraces supported by stone walls filled with banana trees, palms and sugar cane, came into view, with silvery water streams flickering in the distance.
The lush Paúl Valley can be found in the mountainous island of Santo Antão, the westernmost island of Cabo Verde, and represents an oasis in an archipelago where only 10 per cent of the land is arable. Of that already small area, close to 18 per cent was lost between the years 2000 and 2020.
As Mr. Guterres visited one of the terraces, on the second day of his visit to the country, he was welcomed by a group of farmers. With them, an expert from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Katya Neves, explained that they were in the middle of an experimental garden, where men and women are trying out new plant varieties and learning about sustainable techniques.
“Muitos Parabéns,” or “great work”, the Secretary-General congratulated the group in Portuguese, pointing to a colorful table overflowing with coffee beans, cabbage, tomatoes, yams, cassava and other products. The locally grown bounty is a rarity in a country that needs to import 80 per cent of the food it needs to feed its population.
The UN chief was told how some of the plants growing in the garden are a new type of cassava, that experts are hoping will prove to be more resilient to the drought that has affected the country for the last five years. He also heard about how the farmers have learned new ways to irrigate or fertilize their land.
The initiative is benefiting around 285 farmers and is part of a large number of projects led by UN agencies and other partners that hope to transform agriculture in the country to feed more people and be more sustainable for the planet as a whole.
Managing water amidst drought
‘Gota a gota’ is one of the initiatives, and it has been making drip irrigation more accessible to hundreds of farmers. “Only 3,000 hectares spread across the islands are irrigated, but studies show that this number could increase to 5,000,” explained Mrs. Neves, Assistant Representative at FAO.
Angela Silva, who lives nearby, also met the Secretary-General. She is one of the beneficiaries that hopes to start installing the drip system soon.
“I was born in a family of farmers, my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents. But until I got separated from my husband he took care of the land,” she explained.
Two years ago, the full-time teacher decided to start working the plots of land she had inherited.
“I’m still learning, but I want to learn more and be able to turn this into a way to earn money,” she said. “My dream is to transform it into a forest of food, that can be enjoyed by my kids and grandkids.”
Her land was mostly taken over by sugar cane production, a crop that is not very profitable or sustainable, so she has started to replace it with banana and papaya trees and a variety of other vegetables. This was one of the lessons she learned in a training course supported by the UN.
With the new irrigation system, she hopes to avoid some of the worst consequences of the drought and make better use of the water during an average year. Studies show that, even when it rains in Cabo Verde, approximately 20 per cent of the water is lost through surface runoff, 13 per cent infiltrates, while 67 per cent evaporates.
This is one of the challenges for Dairson da Cruz Duarte, the young local farmer that brought the coffee that surprised the Secretary-General – he didn’t know the island produced it.
Pointing towards the bottom of the valley, near a creek filled with yams, the farmer explained that the beans are grown all the way up in Santa Isabel, a locality at the top of the highest mountain the eye can see, a ragged edge where the green of the land meets the blue of the sky.
You can only access this 100-person town on foot, and all agriculture is rainfed. That has made the last five years of drought especially hard on the population.
When the rains stopped, the young people were the first to leave.
“I don’t know if 10 young people live there right now,” Mr. Cruz Duarte explained. “The other ones all left for other places, because of the lack of jobs, rain, drought. Sometimes, even if you have livestock, you don’t have enough forage to feed them. There is no other livelihood, so they left to look for a better life.”
Spike in food insecurity
After years of unrelenting drought, the production was zero for the farming season of 2021-2022. By then, climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and socio-economic fallout from the war in Ukraine had all combined to create a perfect storm for the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), and the Cabo Verde Government was forced to make a difficult decision. In June of last year, the executive authorities declared a social and economic national emergency.
Until very recently, the archipelago, which sits in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of West Africa, could have been considered a champion in poverty reduction efforts among Sub-Saharan countries. Estimates from the World Bank show that poverty rates declined by six percentage points between 2015 and 2019, from 41 per cent to 35 per cent.
But by last June, the number of people affected by food insecurity was set to spike, according to data from UN World Food Programme (WFP). More than 46,000 women, men and children – almost 10 per cent of the overall population of Cabo Verde – were facing an acute deterioration in food security between June and August.
This represents a threat to the country’s hard-won development gains in recent years. Cabo Verde has committed to eliminating extreme poverty until 2026, and on Saturday, the Prime Minister of the country reassured the Secretary-General that the country is sticking to that goal. But, he admitted, the last few years have made it much more difficult.
Echoing that sentiment, the Secretary-General said at the same event: “I know that for Cabo Verde – just like other Small Island Developing States – which are a priority in the partnership and action of the United Nations – faces major challenges, such as the consequences of the pandemic and, above all, the increase in the cost of living, which always has a devastating impact on the population.”
The UN chief added, that “sea level rise and biodiversity and ecosystem loss pose existential threats to this archipelago, like to many other archipelagos.”
Katya Neves, the expert from FAO, tells UN News that last year’s crisis has given a new sense of urgency to the efforts by the UN and its agencies. “We can achieve these goals, and we can do this by improving the way agriculture is done.”
Back in the valley, Mr. Cruz Duarte is also not giving up. Even after seeing most of his friends leave his little town, he did the opposite – after years in a neighboring island, São Vicente, the farmer returned to work the land of his ancestors. “Agriculture is my calling,” he says.
He has two kids, who had to stay on the other island, because the remote locality closed its school a few years, but he’s been able to provide for them since then. He’s proud to list all the crops he grows – sweet potatoes, beans, pumpkins, the coffee that is sold in other islands for a high price – and how they change with the seasons. “I now know how to do it. I can keep it up,” he says.
That is no easy task in these islands. But even after a successful crop, there is still a long road ahead.
From farm to school cafeteria
For Amilcar Vera Cruz, “the biggest difficulty is to sell it,” he says of the crops se grows.
Sara Estrela, a Sustainable Development Assistant at the UN Development Programme (UNDP), explains that, historically, farmers are not usually organized in associations or cooperatives in Cabo Verde.
“With the rule being subsistence farming or small family businesses, it becomes hard when the moment to sell for a fair price comes,” she said.
One of the projects the UN system has supported is the formation of an Association of Producers in this valley. The agencies have also supported the construction of two commercial warehouses where the crops can be gathered, washed and prepared for sale.
For Mrs. Estrela, the “bigger goal is targeting the whole sector and trying to organize the whole chain, from putting the seed on the floor to putting the food on the plate.”
“We are empowering the producers with knowledge and equipment,” she added.
Mr. Vera Cruz has received this support and, after decades of struggling with the sale of his crops, he hopes “the association is a way to open new horizons in terms of markets.”
“We have other difficulties, but that’s what has delayed the agricultural development, the selling of the products, the changes in prices. Sometimes you don’t make enough to cover the production costs,” he said.
The farmer has thought about this day for a long time. He has big dreams, that see his produce travelling well beyond the big town on the island, Porto Novo, to far countries, when the word about the quality of these products gets out. A combination of government and UN sponsored projects, he says, might help turn this into a reality.
For many years after the country’s independence, in 1975, WFP was responsible for the meals for all students in Cabo Verde. But the country graduated out of the UN’s Least Developed Country category to a lower middle-income country in 2007 and, a few years later, the government took over that task. One of the decisions it made was that 25 per cent of all food in schools used should be bought locally.
With that decision came the first big test for the recently formed Association of Producers of Vale do Paúl. For the whole school year of 2021-2022, these producers sold all the bananas that were consumed in the schools of the islands of Santo Antão and São Vicente. The initiative reached 20,000 students.
Now, the association is gearing up and, later this month, will hold its first assembly. Later in March, a final test will arrive.
The food grown by these farmers, the same as the Secretary-General tried today, will be washed and packaged in the new warehouses, loaded into boats, and eventually reach children in other islands. At the same time, the project will be replicated in other municipalities. Soon, the example of Paúl could help feed around 90,000 students, almost 20 per cent of the country’s population.