Caritas Australia is currently supporting a resilience project in the Tillaberi region of Niger in West Africa. The project is called ‘Bonbatu’ which means resilience in Zarma, the literal translation being to ‘protect myself’ or ‘I become stronger’ which is what this project aims to do for families vulnerable to food insecurity.
The Caritas network has worked in the Tillaberi region for years, providing emergency assistance when needed. Most recently, this was urgently required during 2012 when millions of men, women and children across the Sahel, in West Africa were at risk of chronic food insecurity. Fortunately due to emergency relief interventions and the subsequent arrival of good rains, the crisis has been reduced and the region has been able to produce a good harvest for 2012. However this does not mean that problems of food insecurity will not re-emerge. Cycles of drought, extreme flooding, poor soil and locust invasions are common challenges for farmers in Niger, particularly in the Tillaberi region.
Caritas Australia is therefore working with farmers to enable them to build resilience and reduce their vulnerability in the face of these inevitable future challenges. How?
Many households employ short-term strategies to cope in times of food insecurity. These strategies include taking out credit on the value of their future harvest to pay off debts, as well as selling assets such as animals and jewellery, with the expectation that the future harvest will deliver a good crop. While these strategies help families meet short term needs they expose households to risk, particularly if the anticipated harvest is poor in which case it plunges them into further cycles of vulnerability.
Therefore, despite a good harvest in 2012, a common reality for many families in Niger right now is that they owe money to those they borrowed from during the lean season. If families sell their crops now at a low cost to pay off the debt, they will not only make less from their harvest, but they will also be selling the food supplies which are meant to see them through until the next harvest. Therefore despite the fact many families have had a good harvest, their food security is still threatened.
For such families Caritas has identified an effective way to help. Caritas Australia is assisting households to pay off their debts now through a cash-for-work scheme. By earning extra cash these households won’t need to sell their crops at low prices to pay back their loans. This way, they will also be able to keep sufficient food in stock until the next harvest, thereby ensuring food security in the long term.
The cash-for-work activities are also beneficial to the community as they provide important opportunities for Natural Resource Management (NRM). NRM activities include supporting natural regeneration of forest and pasture by planting trees in half-moons which collect rainwater to foster the trees’ growth. These NRM activities are essential in Tillaberi, an area where 90% of the land is degraded or eroded and rainfall is low.
Caritas will work closely with local officials and regional government departments to deliver this project in order to ensure its sustainability. They will also work with the local village management committees (composed of equal representation of women and men) to support project implementation.
According to national studies Tillaberi is the most vulnerable of the eight regions of Niger. Therefore although emergency relief activities are important and essential, sustainable development program such as Bonbatu are also vital to build the long-term resilience of farmers, and to empower them to ‘become stronger’.
The West Africa food crisis has affected more than 18 million people across the Sahel region. Tillaberi in Niger is just one of the districts Caritas has been working in, and there is still great need in across the whole region.