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Sudan: sowing seeds of hope

16-02-2009 Feature

In Sudan’s Northern Darfur region, all eyes are on the coming planting season as the ICRC prepares to distribute seeds to civilians. A successful harvest will feed for several months over 130,000 people in dire straits. The ICRC's Tamara Al Rifai reports.

  © ICRC/P. Dutilleul/v-p-sd-e-02286    
  ICRC trucks wind their way through Jebel Marra, in Northern Darfur, to deliver seeds and food to villagers.    
  © ICRC/P. Dutilleul/v-p-sd-e-02295    
  Northern Darfur. ICRC distributing seeds and food to civilians in the Jebel Marra region.    
  © ICRC/P. Dutilleul/v-p-sd-e-02290   
  Jebel Marra region, Northern Darfur. An ICRC employee helps a woman gather her goods following a food and seed distribution.    

Al-Fasher's marketplace is a boisterous and dusty open area where the city bursts to life in splindid colours. Piles of ripe red tomatoes, buckets of bright orange carrots, heaps of yellow lemons and stacks of long green okras are all neatly on display on big sheets on the ground, awaiting buyers.

" We are lucky to get a variety of fruits and vegetables now, " Soaade, my colleague, tells me as we make our way amid shopkeepers, and try to dodge groups of children bent on selling us plastic bags for our groceries. " There were weeks when we lived on tomatoes and eggplant. Very few fruits and other vegetables were available " , she says as I marvel at the colour and size of oranges. When it comes to fruit and vegetables, it is always feast or famine here, depending on the season.

 Getting the seasons right  

Speaking of seasons, at the ICRC sub-delegation in Al-Fashir, the capital of Northern Darfur, preparations are in full swing ahead of season's biggest activity: seed distribution. This is something revered by all. The months ahead are crucial for most of the Darfuri population living in Jebel Marra and Jebel Si: it is the time when they must plant their crops if they hope to harvest by the end of the year. " Seeds must be sown by the middle of June, before the onset of rains, otherwise the season is lost " , explains Philippe, who is in charge of what the ICRC calls economic security. 

This year, the ICRC will distribute seeds and food to people who have been forced by the conflict to leave their land and flee to the mountains. " When they felt endangered, these people fled to the mountains and have since shared the land and food of the families who took them in " , adds Philippe. 

However the land in the mountains is not as fertile as lower lands, which is why the ICRC decided to step in and help. The organization establishes whether people affected by a new situation – in this case conflict and displacement – have the economic means to cope with it. If they do not, it determines the level of support they need to achieve a minimum level of sustainable household economy. This is why the ICRC generally refers to support it provides in this sort of situation as economic security.

" We have looked at the way the conflict is affecting people in the area and confirmed that, having moved from their land, they no longer have a livelihood. They are reduced to sharing the already meagre resources of their hosts,” Philippe continues.

Throughout the coming weeks, residents of Jebel Marra and Jebel Si will receive seeds from the ICRC to plant their crops. To tide them over until the next harvest, the organization also delivers food rations to them. As Philippe puts it, this is " mainly to help them gain strength for the arduous job ahead. It is also to ensure that they do not run out of food and resort to eating the seeds " . 

If successful, the harvest should yield eight months'worth of food for over 130,000 people that the ICRC considers in dire need of assistance.

 Everyone chips in  

In cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture and agricultural research centres affiliated with the ministry, the ICRC will also support farmers around the city of Al-Fashir by providing them with training, tools and technical as sistance to enable them to produce seeds of local millet varieties in 2009. The ICRC will then buy a share of the harvest and redistribute it to farmers in Jebel Marra and Jebel Si, thereby helping increase crop production. 

The main challenge for the ICRC and the various players is to respect the strict calendar of the region's seasons. Everything must be planned and executed in a timely manner, including an evaluation of the harvest that will determine whether anything should be done differently the following year. 

So in this area of Darfur, the ICRC works along the seasons. Overcoming the obstacles posed by difficult road conditions and a harsh environment, it plants little seeds of hope in the hearts of people who, for a while, felt desolate in their mountainous refuge.