Canadian Jesuit favors oxen over tractors in helping Zambian farmers

A Zambian woman poses for a photo holding produce cultivated on the Jesuit-run Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre. The center promotes organic, ecologically sustainable, no-till farming for small-scale farmers. (CNS photo courtesy Canadian Jesuits International)

Nineteenth-century missionaries arrived in Africa with a Bible in one hand and a plough in the other. Jesuit Brother Paul Desmarais still has a Bible, but he's given up on the plough.

For 40 years, Desmarais has run the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre in Zambia. But over the past 20 years he has rethought almost every aspect of conventional Western agriculture and how it's applied in Africa.

Ploughs, tractors, chemical fertilizers, commercial herbicides were once all part of Desmarais' gospel of modern agriculture, but no more. The Canadian Jesuit now promotes organic, ecologically sustainable, no-till farming for small-scale farmers.

No-till farming means exactly what it says. Rather than running a plough through the land before seeding, no-till farmers go directly to seeding – leaving undisturbed the microbes and worms that make the soil rich. Unploughed land absorbs more carbon, retains more water and needs less fertilizer.

In May, Kasisi was chosen as one of 25 outstanding sustainable development initiatives around the globe by the U.N. Development Program. The UNDP's Equator Initiative singled out Kasisi for its practical steps to preserve Zambia's rural environment by training more than 10,000 small-scale farmers in sustainable farming techniques.

The Jesuit center also has gained the confidence of Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. In 2011, the development wing of the department awarded more than $743,000 to Kasisi. But to get that money, Desmarais has to raise one-quarter of the total on his own. He visited Canada over the summer, hoping to collect $155,000 through Canadian Jesuits International.

For more than a century, modern, Western farming techniques were held out as the key to African development – first by missionaries and later by development agencies and the foreign aid budgets of Western governments.

Desmarais did not willingly abandon the conventional wisdom. But for years, the Kasisi Agricultural Training Center made loans to farmers so they could fertilize and mechanize their farms, then apply the herbicides that would keep down the weeds. More years than not a slight delay in the rains or some unforeseen infestation would leave these farmers unable to pay back their loans.

Chemical farming left the land hard and dry. Tractors sat rusting for the lack of parts. Despite years of trying, yields were still way below European and North American standards, and farm families seemed to be eating less and less.

"The reason we went into organic agriculture was that I could see the conventional way of farming was not sustainable," Desmarais told The Catholic Register, Canadian weekly.

Brother Desmarais grew up on a farm near Chatham, Ontario, not far from where one of his brothers still tills the land using all the modern technology of Canadian farms. But he found that trying to export Canadian agricultural technology to sub-Saharan Africa was foolish when traditional farming techniques, informed by the science behind modern organic farming, were demonstrably more productive and profitable.

"In Zambia, within one year you can double your output using resources you have on your own farm," Desmarais said. "We're promoting it from the point of view that it makes economic sense."

Investing in draught animals, such as oxen, simply makes more sense than any scheme to share a tractor among multiple small farmers. Oxen are more reliable, cheaper to run, provide a certain amount of fertilizer and available for a wider variety of tasks.

When Desmarais began talking about sustainable eco-agriculture and organic methods in the early 1990s, not everybody was buying it. From farmers to government agricultural extension workers, everyone thought the Jesuit was trying to drag them back into the past. Zambians craved exactly the kind of success they saw North American farmers enjoying using a full range of chemicals and technology.

After 20 years, the Jesuit does not have to persuade farmers that organic works.

"They've seen it. They can produce more," he said. "They're more food secure. The farmers that are doing organic farming well are able to improve their houses. They're able to send their children to school. They have money for health care."

About two-thirds of the farmers who take courses at Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre are women. Statistics show that when African women are successful in farming their children are better fed and better educated, and their families move out of poverty.

All aspects of what the Kasisi center does fit into the Jesuit way of doing things. Since 1974 the Jesuits have officially tried to integrate social justice into everything they do. By 1995 the worldwide Jesuit order had decided women's rights had to be part of social justice. And at the General Congregation of Jesuits from around the world in 2008, ecology became a priority of the church's largest order of religious men.

"Social justice very much has to include justice for the environment," said Brother Desmarais. "Within that, there has to be a concern for women's rights. It's all part of it."

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