In the strongest message yet delivered to the world, Zambia's Minister of Agriculture, reaffirms his country's rejection of GM food, and spells out his ambitious plans to make Zambia self-sufficient. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports on an exclusive interview.
A tall stately man with a fine head of closely cropped white hair greeted us in a very congenial manner. The Hon. Mundia Sikatana, Zambia's Minister of Agriculture, had invited four of us to meet with him: Amadou Kanoute, Director of Consumer International for the African Region, Muyunda Ililonga, Executive Secretary of Zambia Consumer Association, Michael Hansen, Senior Research Associate of Consumers Union, USA, and myself from I-SIS.
He listened attentively and made frequent notes, alerting his scientific advisor, Dr. P.G. Singyangwe sitting beside him to special points of significance. Just as we thought it was time to take our leave an hour later, he launched into an extraordinary impromptu session on how he intends to take Zambia out of crisis to a self-sufficient future.
"I am the first to admit that there is a crisis," he said. "But a lot of false rumours have been spread."
Back in June, the government held an open meeting that included Zambia's vice-president, a major supporter of GM. Without consulting the government, the World Food Programme (WFP) brought ten tribal chiefs to the conference, thinking they would surely oppose the president. The chiefs were welcomed and told to feel free to express their views. They listened very carefully to what the scientists and farmers, religious and other organisations had to say before giving their verdict.
"They warned us that there was hunger, and were brazing themselves for a tough time," Sikatana recalled, "But they would abide by the decision of the conference." In the event, the conference overwhelmingly rejected GMOs.
Since then, Zambia came under heavy pressure to change its mind. ""Beggars can't be choosers", we were told", he said. "The Americans asked for our scientists to visit the United States." They even paid for the whole 'fact-finding' mission, which, to their dismay, only served to strengthen Zambia's resolve (see " African consumer leaders support Zambia ", ).
But rumours started immediately. What irked the Agriculture Minister most was watching American TV news (CNN) showing emaciated Africans and claiming that some people have already died of hunger in Zambia. It turns out those Africans weren't Zambians at all, but Ethiopians and Somalians from some old film clips.
"Show me a single person that has died," Sikatana declared. "Hunger is real, but it is not worth the risk to eat GMOs."
"We have rich natural resources, and we work hard. There is no excuse, we can produce more than we require."
"We must tackle the causes of hunger", he said, referring first to deforestation, which has been occurring at an alarming rate. "This causes the water table to collapse and is ultimately to be blamed for the present drought."
Villagers now routinely chop down trees for firewood. But in his days, people would never think of chopping down a tree. They collected dead wood, dried twigs and seedpods. To make his point, he took out some dried pods from a plastic bag and held one in each hand.
Another cause of hunger is the lack of cultivation of indigenous plants, which he intends to encourage. The situation is so bad that "not one indigenous fruit is being propagated."
"I was practicing law, but always liked to research in my spare-time," he said. In a project funded by the United Nations to research vegetable oil, Sikatana found two indigenous fruit-bearing plants that were superior to soya bean and sunflower: mungongo and mubule. He reached into the same plastic bag for some dried specimens of each and placed them on the table. Mungongo looked like an almond with a thick shell, while mubule is round, with a dark brown skin over a layer of brown pulp enclosing a large stone.
Mongongo is 57% oil, and when the oil is extracted, the protein content in the residue is 72%. "We used to eat it as children, and make cakes out of it," he told us. He is commissioning a crusher to shell the tough nut, and to start studies on it in universities.
The oil content of mubule is even higher, at 63%. "We had millions of tonnes of these, but we pulled them down to make room for soya and sunflower."
The third cause of hunger Sikatana identified was the lack of diversification of crops. "We have lots of Cassava, but WFP will never buy anything local! We are now buying Cassava and growing Cassava".
The government has just given 10 billion Kwacha (approx. US $2 million) to the Programme Against Malnutrition to buy Cassava from the Northern Province to distribute in the Southern and Eastern provinces. According to Bernadette Lubozhya, researcher for Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, US$20 million is needed to purchase and distribute 175 000 tonnes of Cassava, which can all be sourced within Zambia itself.
The government will also promote cultivation of Cassava, millet, sorghum and sweet potatoes in the south. Cassava in particular is well known as a drought-resistant crop. Farmers in the south who have planted Cassava are suffering much less than others who have planted only maize.
There are also massive lakes with fish in Zambia. But fish are becoming extinct from over-fishing. People use nets that are too fine-meshed, as well as chemicals and explosives. And that has got to stop.
As an aside, Sikatana recalled digging up vines during the Second World War, which, after soaking in water, can be beaten into 'rubber' mats. There is so much indigenous diversity of plants that can be used for every conceivable purpose.
Irrigation is high priority. Zambia is rich in surface water. "We have 42% of all southern Africa's surface water," Sikatana said with some pride. 'Drip irrigation' is the method of choice. Apparently, villagers don't think of taking water from the river or lake to water their plants. They think only rain-fed crops are legitimately theirs. "Irrigated crops belong to them, the white people."
Finally, Zambia's scientists are developing sustainable agricultural methods. The latest, "conservation farming" is beating the drought. This involves creating holes through the hard 'pan' that forms underneath the top soil, that both prevents water from penetrating deep into the ground and the plants' roots from gaining access to deeper layers containing water. By planting seeds in deep holes that break through the hard pan, and by ploughing the soil with ripper to break up the hard pan, rain water can soak through and collect in the deeper layers and the roots of plants can grow and access the water.
"There have been remarkable results in drought hit areas. Crops that have used conservation farming are surviving while neighbouring fields are dried out."
"Zambia will feed herself from now on!" Sikatana said emphatically. "There is no compromise on our part."
His optimism and determination were infectious. I came away feeling happy and hopeful. We can help make this man's vision a reality, not just for Zambia, but also for all famine-stricken countries. Apart from donating money for purchasing local produce, why not cancel all their debts, with no strings attached? Zambia spends 20% of its GDP servicing its debt, compared to 2% on health and education.
Article first published 29/11/02
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