Seeds are the building blocks of farming. In the unity of land and water, the seed contains the life that sprouts from the ground.
Seeds are also profoundly important to our partners like We Are the Solution (WAS) and their communities’ self-determination. Agroecology, which combines traditional knowledge, sustainable farming methods and experience with local food systems, depends on native, non-genetically-modified seeds to allow communities to plant and grow what they want.
Culturally, seeds also signify youth, a new generation. Our communities and movements depend on children to sprout, to grow, and to take our places. This is especially true in rural villages, where farmers have often cultivated lands for generations, passing on their knowledge and experience to their daughters and sons.
But in West Africa where We Are the Solution organizes, both forms of seeds have faced existential threats. On the one hand, agribusiness has sought to push genetically modified seeds onto smallholding farmers, ban commercial seed reuse, and shackle farmers into a cycle of debt. This is their “Green Revolution.”
On the other hand, the region is facing a migration crisis. Hundreds of thousands of young people, the seeds of the next generation, have left their family homes in recent years. Some have ended their journey in neighboring African countries. Others have tried the perilous and often deadly journey to Europe. Young people pay smugglers what little they have for a spot on a rubber dinghy, all in the hope of making it across the Mediterranean Sea alive.
A generation lost
West Africa is not simply losing its next generation of farmers to opportunities elsewhere. West Africa is losing its next generation’s very lives.
Between 2015 and 2017, some 12,000 people have lost their lives on the journey to Europe. It’s getting deadlier too. The death rate has crept from 37 deaths per 100,000 crossings in 2015 to 180 deaths per 100,000 crossings in 2017.
War and conflict have driven the refugee crisis, but so have youth unemployment and poverty. According to the UN’s World Food Program, 46.7 percent of Senegal lives below the poverty line. In Guinea, 55 percent of people are in similar dire straits.
While the UN’s International Labor Organization only provides statistics for the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, some 70 percent of youth in the region are working in extreme to moderate poverty. Another ILO publication states West African young workers are relegated to the informal economy.
Mariam Kalifa Traoré, a Malian leader in WAS, has seen the crisis first hand. In January of this year, 48 Malians had drowned on a failed trip across the Mediterranean.
“There’s a community in Mali where almost every member of the community has lost someone on those boats,” Traoré said at a recent WAS strategy meeting. “As women, we can’t continue losing our children like this. We must find a solution to such high unemployment.”
For WAS, that solution means protecting the seeds and land, and providing people with the opportunity and training to stay.
“If it’s economic [factors driving migration], and we know farming can employ so many people, then why aren’t we creating the proper conditions for them to be able to remain in their country and farm and feed the population?” — Mina Remy, Grassroots International
Europe’s false solutions
Europe has witnessed the crisis too. But motivated by right-wing, anti-migrant politics, European states and their European Union government have only offered even deadlier solutions. Their militaries have turned boats away on the Mediterranean. They have also given money to Niger and Turkey in exchange for closing land routes from West Africa and the Middle East. These have only pushed people to take even more perilous routes.
At the same time it has sought to keep African people at arm’s length, Europe has embraced investment in African lands. Its governments have especially salivated at agribusiness opportunities on the continent. Surveying conditions, a 2013 European Commission report stated, “the situation is conducive to the development of a nascent African agri-food sector that can deliver significant returns on investment.”
With Africa holding a quarter of the world’s fertile lands and offering little multinational competition, European agribusiness took the EC’s appeal to heart. In 2014, Groupe Limagrain, the largest seed and plant breeding corporation in the European Union, bought a significant stake in SeedCo, one of Africa’s largest home-grown seed companies. Likewise, German corporation Bayer has marketed its GM cotton, maize and rice “products” to farmers in Ghana and elsewhere.
The Green Revolution promises to raise up Africa, but reality has exposed these claims as false. Profit-making for agribusiness has meant poverty for small farmers. Just look at what Monsanto did to cotton farmers in Burkina Faso.
So even as Europe has inhumanely militarized its coastal and land borders, European agribusiness will help drive more people off their land and often into deadly waters to the north.
“We Are the Solution”
The real solutions instead come from Africa itself. Europe and its agricorps have helped to scuttle both the plant and human seeds needed for a new generation of sustainable agriculture. WAS, on the other hand, recognizes the importance of protecting and cultivating them.
First, We Are the Solution has campaigned for food sovereignty and agroecology. They have advocated for government policies to support smallholding farmers. They have held seed fairs so farmers can exchange materials and knowledge. They have also cultivated demonstration farms to show the alternative to agribusiness’s “Green Revolution.”
“It’s much easier to convince people if they have proof, and that’s what they’ve been able to do through implementing agroecology on the ground,” said Mina Remy, Solidarity Program Officer for West Africa and Haiti for Grassroots International. She attended a recent WAS strategy meeting in the region.
Second, We Are the Solution is deliberately seeking to cultivate youth leadership and an infrastructure that can sustain Africa’s next generation of farmers.
“There’s been discussion that, if this is a movement, who are you passing the baton to?” Mina said. “If you intend on passing the baton, you need to recruit the next relay right now so that you’re training them, they’re accompanying you, they’re learning from you so they won’t have a gap in knowledge.”
“Right now agriculture is the last resort for someone who fails out of school. It’s not the first choice.”
As economic despair drives youth on boats to Europe, WAS knows the youth need more than a culture shift. As Mina said, “If it’s economic [factors], and we know farming can employ so many people, then why aren’t we creating the proper conditions for them to be able to remain in their country and farm and feed the population?”
For a longtime WAS has focused on getting land access for women. 70% of African agriculture is done by women, but many still lack the power and independence that comes from owning one’s own land. That work includes both local education and government advocacy.
To promote youth in agriculture, they are using a similar strategy.
“You have to create a whole infrastructure. No one just becomes a doctor. There’s an entire infrastructure around you that enables you to become a doctor,” Mina said. Creating something similar for farmers means addressing education, land access, and control over seeds. “You need to create the systems so that they can stay on the land.”
The seeds for future generations, both plant and human life, must be protected. Movements like WAS are showing the way.
As Mina reflected on her trip to West Africa, “It’s about women and youth together creating the solution for Africa, based in food sovereignty and agroecology.”