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Revolution’s bitter harvest / Famine in Africa

1985 October 14
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by Paul Vallely

The crop is five foot high in the fields around Bogoya, yet the translucent-ribbed cattle graze in it, trampling the millet underfoot. By the side of the road and outside their mud dwellings dispirited local peasants sit and watch. They make no attempt to shoo the beasts away.

This year’s harvest had at first looked like a godsend, coming as it did after a drought which last year was compared with that of 1920 by the handful of old men who could recall that terrible year.

The rains were good in July and August in most of Burkina Faso. But in September farmers gazed vainly at the skies for rain-bearing clouds. By last week they accepted that the vital rains were not to come. The plants had grown well, had been fully pollinated, and had formed seeds; but the tiny black kernels, dry grains of sand, had not ripened.

The crop is fit only as cattle fodder. The story is the same in a thousand villages throughout the four northern provinces.

The famine is over in Burkina Faso, or so the statistics say. This year experts predict a net surplus throughout the country. In celebration of its popular revolution one year ago, Burkina Faso changed its name from Upper Volta to one which means the country of the incorruptible men. But it still remains one of the poorer countries, with no money to transport the anticipated surplus from the south to the north where more than one million people live beyond the reach of modern roads.

The cultural revolution which followed the coup by Captain Thomas Sankara here in August 1983 has proved a mixed blessing.

Local aid workers at all levels testify to the efficacy of the Comites de la Defense de la Revolution (CDRs), set up at village level to help to organize the relief effort. But it also robbed entre preneurial classes of incentive and led to the doctrinaire rejection of some aid packages from both the US and the Soviet Government.

The new system has many advantages. Senior medical experts who visited Burkina recently were astonished at the ease with which the CDRs innoculated 2.8 million children in only 15 days against measles, meningitis and yellow fewer.

Labour-intensive projects such as small dams and other water gathering and anti-erosion schemes have been built by peasant committees all over the country.

The foreign policy of the regime denies it capital intensive works such as an effective road network with Burkino Faso desperately needs to reach the victims in the north. The Government is also short of funds to buy the grain surplus in the south for distribution in the north, and it has, through its people’s courts, started a purge on grain speculators who do have the resources to do it.

Among 30 people recently sentenced to jail and given heavy fines are a group of individuals who mishandled US funds for the purchase of food.

The policy has one undoubted long-term benefit. Because it is short of cash the Government does not give out food aid but, through the CDRs, sells it in the form of loans with interest. This is strictly against the rules under which US grain is given to the country, but local US aid officials turn a blind eye as it is quite clearly diminishing the possibility of growing aid dependency and further encourages a population already by nature hard working.

Aid workers here are optimistic that if Captain Sankara, who has balanced austerity measures in the capital with expansion in the countryside, is not overthrown within the next decade, then Burkina Faso could turn itself into a Third World model of how even the poorest nations can attain self-sufficiency.

But with the rains still short-changing these efforts, it will be a long, hard battle.

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