Hunger in a land of plenty

Domingos Embana, a rice farmer in front to his harvest, ready to start thrashing the rice  between the towns of Bafata and Bissau, Guinea Bissau, 26 January 2007
Domingos Embana, a rice farmer in front to his harvest, ready to start thrashing the rice between the towns of Bafata and Bissau, Guinea Bissau, 26 January 2007 (David Hecht/IRIN)

Driving through lush farmlands, forests and mangrove swamps south from Guinea-Bissau’s coastal town of Buba, it is hard to believe that the roughly 100,000 people who live and farm here could not find a way to feed themselves last year.

View slideshow

But the fact is that malnutrition shot up to beyond what the United Nations World Health Organisation (WHO) calls the ‘emergency threshold’ and relief agencies shipped in over 1,000 tonnes of food aid in 2006.

And although the crisis is over for now, next time it could be far worse.

“We have a disaster waiting to happen,” said World Food Programme (WFP) representative José Pita-Grós. “The root causes of the problem aren’t being addressed and the population is more and more at risk.”

The 2006 crisis occurred mostly in Guinea-Bissau’s Quinara and Tombali regions, which are normally the breadbasket of the country. For generations, people here have grown local varieties of rice, which scholars say existed before Europeans arrived.

Agroscientists say people in the area have developed complex farming techniques. “Southern Guinea-Bissau can be considered a reservoir of both rice genetic diversity and farmers’ germplasm management skills,” according to agronomist Marina Padrão Temudo at Lisbon’s Institute of Tropical Scientific Research.

The soil and climate are also ideal for growing cashews and in recent years Guinea-Bissau has become the world’s sixth largest producer. Cashews account for 85 percent of the country's export earning.

Best of all, almost everyone in the nation benefits as almost every family owns cashew trees.

Photo: David Hecht/IRIN
Local and imported rice is now readily available in Babu market but experts say food security is fragile and hunger could return. (Buba, capital of Quinara Region in southern Guinea Bissau, 26 Jan 2007)

From July to October, before the new rice is harvested, people sell cashews to traders, who mostly come from India. For years the traders had been buying a kilo of cashews for 250 CFA (about US 50 cents) which is the same price as a kilo of imported Asian rice, and locals were happy to barter.

“We like to eat rice but it’s easy to grow cashews,” said Fatou Nasamha, a women farming roadside near the village of Bedanda. “We just have to pick them off the tree.”

So what went wrong?

Experts focus on two main problems:

First, in September 2005, high tides spilled seawater over the banks of the traditional system of dykes, flooding the rice fields around the mangroves and destroying thousands of tonnes of rice.

At this point people had enough to eat but farmers had lost the rice seeds they would need for the next season, said Rui Jorge Fonseca, programme officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisaion (FAO) in Guinea-Bissau.

“The worst part was there was no system of alert; no one started preparing ahead of time for the crisis,” he said.

The government only made a request to FAO for seeds in May 2006, about the time the seeds should have been planted, Fonseca said.

The FAO immediately started the process of importing 400 tonnes of seeds but they didn’t arrive before August when the rainy season started setting in. “Much of it came too late,” said Fonseca. “One seed variety spoiled because of humidity and farmers couldn’t get the seedlings to grow."

Paulo Sambu, a farmer in the southern town of Buba, told IRIN he gave up and started eating the seeds. “There was nothing else we could do,” he said.

Disaster by decree

Photo: David Hecht/IRIN
With cashew buyers not buying Guinea Bissau’s 2006 crop, tens of thousands of tons sit piled up in warehouses and much of the harvest is now rotting. (Buba, capital of Quinara Region in southern Guinea Bissau, 26 Jan 2007)

At the same time a separate crisis started brewing, this one around cashews.

It had nothing to do with natural forces. In fact the cashew harvest for 2006 was one of Guinea-Bissau’s best ever.

But 2006 was also an election year and the government wanted to please voters. It decided that farmers could raise the price they sold their cashews from 250 CFA a kilo to 350 CFA.

The Indian traders refused to pay.

The government told the farmers to hold out and the Indians would eventually come around. Instead, the traders just went elsewhere.

Rice became scarcer; the price of cashews started dropping and then it crashed below 50 CFA.

Pretty soon farmers couldn’t sell their cashews at that price. Tens of thousands of tonnes just rotted.

People became desperate. “We invented a kind of soup made from cashews and cassava but nobody wanted to eat it,” the chief of Bedanda village, Nhinna na N’tchama, said. “So to get rice we sold our tools, our clothes and all our domestic animals.”

And the price of rice started to rise.

By July the FAO had issued a report stating that "the majority" of the population was facing chronic food insecurity.

By August malnutrition in five out of nine regions of the country reached levels of 10.9 percent, according to a WFP survey.

Ten percent and above is considered ‘acute’.

WFP set up nutrition centres with various partners and brought in over 1,000 tonnes of food aid.

“It was logistical nightmare,” Pita-Gros of WFP said. “The rainy season had already started and our big 30-tonne trucks were getting stuck. Even smaller trucks couldn’t get through to some areas. We had to do some of the distribution by canoe.”

“We were all taken by surprise,” he said. “We just weren’t expecting to see these kinds of problems in a country with such abundant natural resources.”


Who to blame depends on who is speaking. International aid officials say the government’s policy on cashew pricing was the leading cause of the crisis. Government officials and local relief workers say the crisis could have been averted if the international organisations had responded faster and more effectively.

But what everyone agrees on is that the problem can really only be solved if farmers diversify what they produce and people vary their diet.

“Guinea-Bissau is capable of producing plenty of sweet potatoes and cassava but people here don’t like to eat them,” said the FAO’s Fonseca.

Depending on just one cash crop - cashews - is like playing Russian roulette, he said. “The world price could collapse or traders could decide to go do business somewhere else and we could have a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.

Already Indian traders are saying they may not return to Guinea-Bissau this year because the government has created new rules forcing them to buy cashews through local middle men rather than directly from farmers.

“I just hope that people will see what happened last year as a sign that they have to be prepared for what could go wrong in the future,” Pita-Gros said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

Share this article
Join the discussion

Support our work

Donate now