Ziguinchor — Reduced harvests in 2013-2014 have driven up food insecurity in Senegal's southern Casamance Region, where a protracted insurgency and underinvestment have stifled agricultural output.
Casamance, Senegal's richest agricultural region, has the highest levels of hunger of the 10 regions in the country considered to be at risk in terms of food security. Thirty-seven percent of households in Casamance, home to some 1.8 million people or 14 percent of Senegal's population of 13 million, are facing food shortages. Ten percent of households are experiencing severe food insecurity, according to a recent food security assessment.
The legacy of the low-intensity rebellion by the Casamance Democratic Forces Movement (MFDC) that began in 1982 has restricted access to farms due to landmines. The most affected areas are in Sindian in northern Casamance and in the south near the border with Guinea-Bissau. Abandoned fields have been salinized by sea water, although it is difficult to estimate the exact amount of abandoned farmlands due to mines and insecurity, local officials say.
Agricultural production is also restrained by the lack of large-scale mechanization and inadequate inputs.
"Casamance was once Senegal's breadbasket, but the conflict, changing climate and economic degradation have brought this difficult situation," said Mamadou Konté, regional rural development director for Casamance. "If people have consistent revenue, development can overcome the conflict. We hope to be able to quickly develop agriculture and regain the previous levels of harvests."
All three Casamance districts (Kolda, Sédhiou and Ziguinchor) are facing food shortages, aid groups say. Cereal production in Senegal dropped by 12 percent last season compared to the 2012-2013 season, according to the food security assessment.
"Our harvests last only four months. We face enormous problems to make it through the rest of the year," said Daouda Diédhou, secretary-general of a farmers' association in the Kabiline 2 area of Casamance.
"Farms are smaller because soils have been salinized. We don't receive enough fertilizer from the government and our traditional implements are discouraging young people from engaging in agriculture," he explained.
Hunger levels were already high in Casamance despite relatively good harvests in the 2012-2013 season. A June 2013 food and nutrition assessment by the government and UN agencies revealed that 67.6 percent of households were food insecure in Ziguinchor District, 66.9 percent in Sédhiou and 50 percent in Kolda. Food shortages in Casamance are aggravated by the rebellion that has hampered transport, trade and other socio-economic activities.
The government has set up a joint plan with the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization to distribute food and agricultural inputs to assist those facing food scarcity.
"The situation in Casamance presents the humanitarian community with a real dilemma. On the one hand there are very real needs here, particularly food insecurity. On the other hand, we also need to recognize that this is a well-endowed part of Senegal that should not have a humanitarian operation," said Robert Piper, UN humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel.
"It's not a natural thing for us to mount a humanitarian operation in a place as rich and well-endowed as Casamance. The solutions lie elsewhere," he said, referring to the government's efforts to negotiate a peaceful end to the rebellion.
Although the MFDC insurgency remains low-scale, with gunmen mainly engaged in banditry and other acts of violence, insecurity remains a significant worry. Last year, demining activities were halted in the region after the rebels kidnapped a dozen deminers. More than half of the mined land in Casamance had been cleared.
In addition to the insurgency, Casamance is geographically isolated from the rest of the country. The most direct road to the region from the capital Dakar is through the Gambia, where the ferry crossing the River Gambia is not always efficient.
There are few regular flights to Ziguinchor, Casamance's capital, and by-passing the Gambia to reach Casamance by sea or road adds about 12 hours to journey times.
Transporting produce through the Gambia, which implies crossing two international borders, to reach the capital Dakar is costly. Cargo trucks are often delayed at the ferry crossing, even for days, according to some Casamance residents.
Meanwhile, a US$1billion government plan to attain food sufficiency by 2017 will focus on the production of rice, groundnuts and onions - deemed the most strategic for the population and the economy. The strategy is to produce 1.6 million tons of rice, 1 million tons of groundnuts and 265,000 tons of onions in the next three years mainly through the reform of agricultural institutions, agricultural financing and training, which are already ongoing.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]