Manuel Bidan Santa and a team of two dozen men pass thick balls of clay the size of footballs in the Oio region of Guinea-Bissau. Their bodies are immersed in this muddy substance that dries quickly under the beating sun of high noon. The clay ball moves from one to the other, suspended in mid-air for a moment in the passing.
When it reaches the hands of the last person, he slaps the clay ball in place along the levee that makes up the perimeter of one of the many rice fields on the edge of the village.
Manuel and his fellow farmers are repairing the dikes that protect their rice paddies and their livelihoods. These paddies are surrounded by ocean water and mangroves. Without the dikes, saltwater seeps in ruining their crops.
“We work here during the rainy season,” explains Manuel, covered from head to toe in the slick and sticky mud. “There are other areas that also need repair, but we can only work there during the dry season.”
Repairs need to be done every year. With the ocean tides, the dikes quickly erode; it is the normal way of things. But since the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions, the barriers have fallen into disrepair and their fields have suffered.
The pandemic’s restrictive measures, such as the limitations on travel and the closure of borders and shops, had a profound effect on the livelihoods of small producers. Manuel and many fellow farmers had to give up work in the fields to look for odd jobs to support their families.
“Instead of spending time here repairing the dike, I’ve had to look for other means to feed my family. I can’t leave them hungry at home and come here all day. So, I was coming for an hour or so at a time, but that doesn’t really get me anywhere.”
This season, flooding meant they were unable to sow large areas of their fields. Manuel had been feeling like he was playing catch up to make ends meet but could never quite make it.
Since January 2023, Manuel and other rice farmers from Iungun village are being paid to repair these clay walls as part of a cash-for-work project implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and funded by the World Bank. The programme falls under the Government of Guinea-Bissau’s Emergency Food Security Programme (known by the Portuguese acronym PUSA-GB).
The dikes and other community work they are doing will enable them to prepare the land for the next farming season.
FAO is working with PUSA-GB to mitigate some of the impact that the pandemic had on the food security of many small producers in the country by providing jobs that give project participants regular income.
In addition to the paid employment programme, PUSA-GB provided unconditional direct cash transfers to 3,000 farmers in the most vulnerable situations to cover their most urgent needs.
The project also supports farmers across the country in several other ways, including the distribution of 25,000 agricultural tools (buckets, watering cans, hoes and rakes), 1,278 tonnes of seeds and 655,000 tonnes of fertilizer. It also established farmer field schools to promote best practices in agricultural production. In terms of rice production, the farmer field schools are introducing the System of Intensive Rice Cultivation methodology, designed to increase the productivity of growing rice by changing the way plants, soil, water and nutrients are used and reducing external inputs.
This will be the approach Manuel applies to his fields in the next agricultural season. For Manuel, the cash transfers go a long way in helping him get back on his feet. The cash-for-work project also means that he and others in his community don’t have to travel far from his village to earn an income. Manuel used to have to go away from his village for several weeks to pick cashews. Now he can go back to his village every night.
“With the money I receive, I can leave my family and come to work with peace of mind,” says Manuel. “I can go to work knowing that they will be able to eat and that my children will be able to go to school.”
It is estimated that 72 per cent of the population in Guinea-Bissau currently requires some form of food security support. To date, the cash-for-work project has reached 6,000 households, while an additional 3,000 households received unconditional cash transfers. More than 70,000 farmers benefitted from agricultural assistance in the form of inputs or training.
By the end of 2023, the project aims to reach a total of 11,000 households through cash-for-work and unconditional cash transfers.
Source: the FAO News and Media office, Rome
– global bihari bureau