“When you starve, you become tired and faint, yet you cannot sleep because you lie awake and wonder whether you will eat the next day.”
Text: Tormod Nuland Photos: Caritas Norway and Catholic Relief Services
55-year-old Eliasu explains how hunger affects him and his children, about their daily life of waking up hungry and going to bed hungry. The father of eight comes from the village of Gazilla, 250 km east of Niamey, the capital of Niger. Here he has lived through three food crises, so he knows what he is talking about:
“As a father, it’s my responsibility to look for food, not just for myself, but primarily for my children. When my family starve, I have to look for things that can qualify as food. Sometimes we have had to eat the leaves from trees, or grain husks and nutshells. We do that because it fills the stomach, but it’s not very good for the stomach. Afterwards we become tired, because it isn’t very nutritious.”
Eliasu is not the only person suffering from starvation in Niger. The country is second to last on UN’s development ranking (Human Development Index 2016). There is a general food deficit in the country and more than two million people lack food, while 4.5 million are at risk of food shortage.
Climate change and colflict
Eliasu lives in a part of Africa that is rife with challenges. Niger and neighbouring Mali are situated in the Sahel region, which is affected by prolonged droughts. These have become increasingly frequent over the past 40 years, as climate change has set in. In both countries, about 80 percent of the population rely on agriculture-based livelihoods, and these are the ones primarily affected when crops fail. Eliasu chose to stay put and tried to find alternatives to the usual diet. Many do not have this option, because the place they live is exposed to conflicts and armed groups. This is a major problem in other countries in the Sahel region and in the Lake Chad area. After Muammar Gaddafi was defeated, Islamist and separatist rebels armed with weapons from his army occupied Northern Mali. Since 2012, the conflict has spread to Niger and other areas in the region. Equally serious is the situation in eastern Niger, where many have fled from the Islamist group Boko Haram. From its seat in northeastern Nigeria, the rebel group has committed acts of terror in the neighbouring countries Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
The ravaging by Boko Haram hit hard. People do not get a chance to produce food nor earn a liveable income. Previously, the great Lake Chad was a ‘pantry’ full of fish for consumption and sale. In other parts of the region it was possible to grow pepper, which is also a popular sales product.
Escaped Boko Haram
Haoua Abdoulay (40) from Nigeria knows the consequences of the rebels’ brutal behaviour. During an attack on the village, her family of seven had to flee. After five days they reached Kaya, the village where they live now.
“The village welcomed me and people have helped us build our house. I feel safer, but when it comes to food, we were better off at home,” says Haoua. In the future, the situation for Haoua and her family will improve. Caritas and local partners in the area are increasing the food security of the 1.000 most vulnerable households. People receive seed and fishing equipment, and a market is held where those most in need can buy local products with food vouchers. Haoua will be working at the food market.
“Everyone has a choice, and I hope this will change my situation,” says Haoua.
Flight is not a choice
When climate change and conflict strike, Haoua and Eliasu have no social protection to help them survive difficult times, like social welfare services can help people in Norway in a crisis situation. Therefore, they travel away from a crisis, whether the threat is lack of food or violence and war. Some choose to stay in their own country; they might go to areas where they can seek shelter with relatives, where it is more peaceful, or where food is still available. Others have to travel further afield, across borders to live in refugee camps. Migration is a major challenge today, globally and especially in Mali and Niger. Caritas strives to better understand the situation of migrants to enable us to support them and help them become less vulnerable. Caritas’ work also employs a long-term perspective to improve the conditions for agriculture so that people are more resilient in the face of droughts.
Fight over arable land
Land rights are also part of the explanation of the challenges for agricultural livelihoods. In many countries, the laws are unclear or the authorities fail to follow the rules. When the population grows and children grow up to become youths in need of employment as well as access to cultivable land, the scarcity of this land leads to difficulties. This is what researcher Morten Bøås writes in the report ‘Food, War and Peace: Fragile States and Food Production’, which he has written on behalf of the Development Fund.
Eliasu is aware of why this is a problem:
“It used to be easier to find fields where our livestock could graze. Now we are many more people, and what used to be pastureland must now be cultivated. A patch of land that was previously cultivated by a single family must now be divided into three, so that all families can have a share. Land ownership rights is a difficult issue, and we need planning and development for the future,” says Eliasu. According to Bøås, not much of the arable land is used for agriculture. In Mali, only seven percent is used; in Niger, 12 percent of the land is cultivated. Additionally, climate change has changed the rainfall patterns; in many places it rains more seldom, but when it finally rains, it is a massive rainfall. This way rain becomes an enemy that destroys the crop and washes away the soil.
Farmers need ways to survive, new and more efficient farming methods, such as seeds that give a high yield despite unpredictable rain patterns, and new methods for ploughing the fields. All states must put in place laws for upholding property rights and the management of land and natural resources. In several African countries, the local population’s situation becomes more vulnerable when people from the outside come to cut trees for charcoal production, or when livestock owners move their herds to new water sources and pastures without establishing the statutory rights to those areas. The lack of regulation of scarce resources contributes to conflicts, and as armed groups are already present in the area, their recruitment is easier among people who are dissatisfied. They can then use the conflicts to gain more influence.
Caritas Norway works with its partners in Africa, Asia and Latin America to provide solutions to people in vulnerable areas in order to improve their food security, reduce conflict, and ensure fair access to resources. These are part of Caritas’ efforts for the world community to attain UN sustainable development goal number 2 – ending hunger by 2030. Eliasu and Hauoa are just two of 815 million people starving in the world today, according to the UN report ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017’. A world without hunger is possible! But it requires that the international community, national authorities, civil society, businesses and every one of us contribute. Because hunger does not go away on its own.
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