Send in the farmers first!

Some time ago, I was talking with three men from a village in Sudan. One was an immensely dignified man, who had spent a number of years building peace among his family and then his neighbours and then his village. Through a skilled interpreter, he and his two colleagues had been telling me how they had done this work. After some time, I asked them to draw a map of the area we were discussing.
These villages were so small that they didn’t seem to appear on my map. So, on the flip chart on the wall, they drew the area. And each time they talked about an event, they showed me where it had happened. At some point, standing in front of that map, they explained to me that one result of peace was that they were able to start cultivating their fields again for the first time in many years.
When they began tilling their land again, and growing the staple crops of millet and sorghum, the prices of those two crops began to go down – because there was a greater supply. The fall in prices was dramatic, and was continuing. But not only did that increase the food security of local families, they saw it as offering an opportunity.
With some small resources, they could re-create a network of small local market that would attract traders from outside their area who would buy millet and sorghum – and also bring in other goods from outside. In other words, peace had brought not just increased food security but an economic possibility that they could see very clearly.
The problem was that there didn’t seem to be anyone who had money to fund a local market and thus help to restart the local economy – and by extension, benefit the region.
It was not an unusual story. Evaluations of large-scale reconstruction programs in Sudan, even those designed to build and encourage collaboration among agencies, found that they seemed unable to focus on the very small amounts of money needed for such projects. Or to take advantage of the fact that people returning from big cities had learned skills that they never would have had the chance to learn back in their villages.

The same geography
I was reminded of those visionary Sudanese men when I read an article in the New York Times about a US agriculture department program in California that aims to introduce US soldiers to the basics of Afghan farming. Apparently Central California looks a lot like Afghanistan and grows many of the same crops – pistachios, almonds, wheat, pomegranates and grapes. The program is intended to help the soldiers see with different eyes what is happening around them in the Afghan countryside, and reflects a change in approach that began in 2009 but is only starting to have an impact now. Part of this program involves sending US agricultural extension agents to Afghanistan to work with farmers.
What struck me in the article was its comment about how decades of conflict has devastated Afghani agriculture and taken away much of the agricultural knowledge and basic infrastructure. And I wondered – is that actually true? Have farmers forgotten how to grow those crops like fruits, nuts and grain that they used to cultivate before poppy cultivation began to increase? I suspect, from what I have seen in other places, that the answer is ‘no’ – that knowledge still exists. What has probably been devastated is the network of small local markets that used to exist, at which farmers traded and sold their crops.
And this seems to be true in many places around the world that experience conflict. One of the effects of conflict is to destroy the network of relationships that used to bind villages together and as a result, the local economic network as well. Rebuilding that local network starts with rebuilding those relationships, which is why so many local peacebuilders focus first on teaching conflict resolution skills and creating safe places for people to resume talking to each other.
Those skills have to be retaught because years of conflict turn people inward – to their families and closest friends. They learn to fear people from other villages – even sometimes their own sons, who learn that a gun makes it possible for them to get what they need without having to work for it. (In many ways, the headlines suggest that this is not so different from what some Americans also experience in their communities).People who must live in fear don’t cultivate land because they are afraid to go outside the safety of their village. They stop going into the forest to collect berries, and they stop going to fishing camps. Food security becomes precarious.
The external answer is often to focus on rebuilding local law and order, by building up the police and army. But to my mind, that is starting from the wrong place. One needs to start with changing how people think, and the people who do that best are local people who understand how people think, understand what they have experienced, and are able to work with family and friends to start changing that mindset.

Rebuilding relationships first
When people have created peace by rebuilding relationships and trust, small scale local economic development begins to flourish again. People begin cultivating gardens, selling surplus crops, trading with others for what they need instead of taking it at the point of a gun. They do so even when land ownership is not clear – growing crops on whatever pieces of land are available, as people did in Kinshasa with support from agricultural experts there.
But so often, external interventions don’t nourish and support those small shoots of peaceful growth because they are focused on the ‘bigger picture’ – rebuilding the infrastructure from the top down. And so those small shoots don’t get the small amounts of ‘fertilizer’ (read small amounts of money) that would help them grow into a stronger local and regional plant.
Helping American soldiers see the Afghan countryside with different eyes seems to be an attempt to change the focus, although the article speculates that this may be too little too late. It is hard for soldiers, who must worry about their security and that of their colleagues, to change their focus in this way. But programs like this one do hold out hope that the next time there is a conflict somewhere, and other countries are tempted to intervene with military force, that they will consider sending in the farmers first. Or at least sending in the farmers along with the peacekeepers.

Further reading:

Duplicating Afghanistan from the ground up, by Malia Wollan, New York Times, April 14, 2012

Processing plant creates new futures for Afghan women, Hopebuilding wiki

Urban farming project in Congo shows how burgeoning cities can improve their food security, Hopebuilding wiki