Nouakchott — "The palm tree is a means of survival," said Tahya Mint Mohamed, a 44-year-old Mauritanian farmer and mother of three children. "We eat its dates; we make mats, beds and chairs from palms; the leaves are also used to make baskets and to feed our livestock."
Mint Mohamed is the regional president of the associations for participatory management of oases in the Two Hodhs region of southwestern Mauritania (hodh means "basin" in Arabic) - an unusual position for a woman to hold in a traditionally male-dominated activity.
She was delighted to take IPS on a tour of her palm plantation, which is alive with activity during the date harvesting period between June and August.
"The plantation is my most precious investment. I maintain it carefully and water it with the help of my shadoof (a traditional irrigation system using a bucket and counterweight to draw water from a well)," she told IPS.
Her output depends heavily on rainfall and successfully fighting off the attentions of locusts, birds and animals, but she estimates her harvest this year will come in somewhere between 500 and 1,000 kilos of dates.
Mauritania has over 10,000 productive hectares of date palms, taking into account mature, productive palms as well as young trees that have not yet begun to bear fruit, and male palms - essential for pollination - according to Mohamed Ould Ahmed Banane, who oversees monitoring and evaluation for the Oases Sustainable Development Programme (PDDO).
Banane said nearly 20,000 people across the country depend on dates for their livelihood in five oasis regions: Adrar in the north, Tagant in the Centre, and Assaba and the two Hodhs in the southeast.
He estimates Mauritania's annual production of dates at 60,000 tonnes, to which is added a small amount of imports - 1,000 tonnes from Algeria and 500 tonnes from Tunisia. Around 60 percent of dates are eaten between June and August, during the Guetna (the Arabic name for the season when dates are harvested). The rest is dried for consumption throughout the year.
Nutritionist Mohamed Baro said dates are rich in micronutrients like iron and calcium and are an excellent source of energy.
Hademine Ould Saleck, the imam of Nouakchott's main mosque, said that there is a baraka (a blessing in Arabic) in dates, explaining that it is often the first thing eaten to break the fast during Ramadan, especially in date-producing countries.
But Mauritania's oases have been badly affected by drought, suffering from siltation, a lack of water and declining soil fertility, said Banane.
"In Adrar, date production was clearly lower this year because of climatic threats, such as poor rainfall, dust and wind, which held back the harvest," said Sid'Ahmed Ould Hmoymed, the mayor of Atar, the principal town of the Adrar region.
Mohamed Ould Haj, an experienced farmer, provided a gloomy summary of the situation in the region. "This year, we had nothing at all: no dates, no wheat, no barley, no vegetables and no watermelons because of the drought."
But Cheikh Ould Moustapha, regional coordinator for PDDO in Adrar, told IPS that while it has been a challenging year, Ould Haj's income from all sources will come to between 2,500 and 3,000 dollars.
Besides the drought, tourist activity in all of the country's oases zones has been frozen since the 2007 murder of six French tourists in the country by the Islamist group Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
The government established PDDO in 2002 to preserve the fragile but valuable oasis ecosystems and stem a rural exodus that had begun gathering pace. The International Fund for Agricultural Development contributed around 37 million dollars, according to Alioun Demba, head of international cooperation at the Ministry for Rural Development.
"The programme has focused on organising farmers around the oases to support the emergence of a civil society that can sustain oasis participatory management associations (AGPOs) and make collective investments," Banane told IPS.
The project calls for AGPOs to manage projects financed by PDDO and a contribution from the farmers themselves. Local smallholders elect association officials, set their own priorities, and control any income. Several AGPOs have already received grants from PDDO for amounts ranging from 46,000 to 92,000 dollars.
To demonstrate sustainable land management techniques, PDDO has also created small field schools (measuring just 10 by 10 metres) and a plantation with fruit trees and vegetables interspersed with the date palms.
"This creates three levels of protection against soil erosion and allows good conservation, efficient irrigation, and a diversification of sources of income for the farmers," said Banane.
In the Adrar region, where nearly half of the country's palm plantations are found, smallholders have proved reluctant to apply modern techniques, said Cheikh Ould Moustapha, regional coordinator for PDDO.
The recommendations call for well-spaced plantations, pollination, drip or tube irrigation and the use of organic fertiliser. In Adrar, the wealthier farmers use solar-powered pumps to draw water for both these systems of irrigation.
In terms of marketing, PDDO has helped to set up a group in Adrar to work together to make transporting dates to the capital, Nouakchott, more profitable, Moustapha told IPS.
The date palm and the camel - the two pillars of their economy - are well adapted to the climate of the Sahara and the Sahel and remain important assets, Moustapha stressed.