An author and educator, Pierre Rabhi was born in the Sahara and has been farming in the Ardeche region of France since 1960.
The desert survival skills of Pierre Rabhi led him to apply organic farming methods based on compost to regenerate the poor soils of his farm in France. But above and beyond such techniques, it is the renewal of ancient relationships between farmers and the land that he proposes as the best tool for good husbandry. It is also another way for extension workers to get their messages across to farmers.
All farmers throughout the world speak the same "language of the land", even if they often need interpreters to speak to one another.
Whether they are farming the high lands of Latin America, the rice paddies of Asia, the African plains, the Scandinavian taiga or the bad lands of France herself, they all share the same experience of direct communication with the land. Given this common base, farmers cannot help but understand each other.
So it is not as an "expert" but as a farmer that I speak to my counterparts. I talk only about things that I have experienced myself during almost 20 years of organic farming. This kind of agriculture represents not only a technique but an approach to the land that other farmers can adopt. My predecessors and I in this movement have shown that even the most exhausted soil can be rehabilitated with organic farming techniques.
When I started farming in the Ardeche -- known as the "Third World of France" -- my soil was shallow, hard to work and had very low fertility levels. Without using any chemical fertilizer or pesticide, it was regenerated solely by the use of high quality compost.
Produced by aerobic decomposition, compost is a living product. It enables the liberation and uptake of fertilizing elements in the soil and facilitates the infiltration of air and water by improving the soil structure. Farmers who use compost are part of a vast movement dedicated to the restoration and conservation of productive land: each generation tries to leave the next with soil in better shape than when it was inherited. This is hardly the case of those who practise "scorched earth" techniques. From the Ardeche to the Sahel, the task is the same: degraded soils must be restored if these areas are to prosper. This has been obvious to me ever since my first visit to Burkina Faso.
Organic farming, which implies working in harmony not only with nature but with people, can ensure the regeneration of both soil and environment as well as the improvement of local living conditions. This is because organic farming contributes to local and national autonomy by reducing the dependence of farmers on outside supplies. This, in turn, helps relieve the balance of payments deficit by reducing fertilizer imports.
Farmers in Africa still have deep bonds with the land and living things, both plants and animals. To have a meaningful discussion with such people, one must adapt to their way of seeing things. It would be a mistake to use language that is purely technical or scientific. To get technical messages across, one must use a symbolic language because many farmers in Africa and elsewhere also associate the visible with the invisible. For them, the invisible has almost the same reality as the visible.
If, for example, I want to explain aerobic fermentation to farmers in the Sahel, I would not talk about oxidation or reduction. I would talk instead about two different forms of energy: a living energy, which breathes life into the soil through compost and a dead energy, which suffocates and makes things rot. To get the point across that the soil, plants, animals and people are all necessary for the transformation of wastes into fertile compost, I explain that these elements all depend on one another in the same way as the beams of a hut. To build a solid, round roof, each rafter is indispenable. Such symbolic language, based on everyday things, is the only way to have a real discussion with such farmers.
The technical approach adopted by most development officials too often neglects this universal mentality of "people of the land". It is well known, however, that farmers tend to listen and to trust only people who also know the land and speak its language.
Following the advice of Pierre Rabhi, Burkina Faso has officially adopted organic agriculture as part of its action programme for agricultural development. A centre on ecological agriculture has been established in Gorom Gorom in order to train farmers in such techniques, notably composting. Pierre Rabhi has also created a similar centre on his farm to train people in organic farming and has written Du Sahara aux Cevennes published by Candide (ISBN 2 904877 01 0) and available in French only at 70 FFR from:
Candide Lavilledieu 07170 Bayssac France
For further details, contact:
Pierre Rabhi Montchamp 07230 Lablachere France
This article is based on an interview conducted by Radio France International and does not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of CTA.