Letter to Friends of ILRI by the DG Carlos Sere

Dear ILRI friends:

I write to update you on the drought now devastating the livelihoods of pastoral herders, as well as dryland farmers, in ILRI’s two co-hosting countries, Kenya and Ethiopia, as well as Eritrea and Somalia.

The food security situation here in the Greater Horn of Africa is acute and deteriorating. The crop harvest of the main season is about 15% lower than the historical average. This comes on the back of more than three consecutive droughts, which have decimated crop production and pasture in most arid and semi-arid areas. The World Food Programme estimates the number of affected people at more than 20 million.

We who live in the region are provided graphic daily reminders of the urgency of the agricultural sustainability work we are all involved in. Livestock herders as young as 9 years old are now at the end of months-long treks that have turned into death marches, with their animals dropping one by one onto the ground, refusing heroic efforts by the boys to get them to stand and move on. The herders keep moving to keep hope alive—hope of finding grass for their animals. They will not find it in time to save most. And still they keep moving. Asked why, they answer they have no choice. What they cannot do is stop walking; to stop walking would be to give up.

A quarter of a century ago, in the great drought that hit the Horn in 1984, nearly a million people, most of them rural farmers and herders in Ethiopia, perished. Better information systems, preparedness plans and relief coordination in the decades since mean that this current drought is unlikely to kill vast numbers of people. What it’s doing instead is sending hundreds of thousands of people, most of them pastoral livestock herders, into destitution, without the means of feeding themselves and their families and with no discernible means of recovering their traditional means of making a livelihood. And it is predicted that this drought will be followed by heavier-than-usual El Niño rains, which are likely to bring with them a greater disease threat, killing off many of the few remaining animals that manage to survive the drought.

Pastoralists in this region have been coping well with climatic shocks for at least four thousand years. But today’s changes are greater in kind and number, are increasingly globalized in nature and are coming faster, one on top of another, all of which is undermining the traditional coping mechanisms of Africa’s pastoralist peoples.

As reported two days ago by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in its publication The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2009, the global economic slowdown, following on the heels of the food crisis in 2006–08, has deprived an additional 100 million people worldwide of access to adequate food. There have been marked increases in hunger in all of the world’s major regions. More than one billion people are now undernourished, which is more hungry people than at any time since 1970. Sustainable solutions to the underlying problems causing food insecurity will by necessity rely on healthy agriculture sectors in developing countries, which in turn will rely on the critical knowledge and technological inputs of agricultural science. (Click here to see examples of livestock research addressing some of the underlying factors augmenting the pastoral crisis in the Horn.)

In the coming weeks, the need and methods for eradicating hunger will be passionately discussed at various events hosted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, including a High-Level Expert Forum on How to Feed the World in 2050 (12–13 Oct), the 32nd Session of the Committee on World Food Security (30 Oct–4 Nov), World Food Day (16 Oct) and a World Summit of Heads of State and Government on Food Security (16–18 Nov). ILRI itself is taking part in launching a multicentre CGIAR exhibit in Dublin 15–16 Oct to help educate young Irish people about the value of agricultural research for development and is hosting a conference in Addis Ababa in November on the future of food security in Ethiopia.

But for all our good intentions and works and high-level talks, we are unlikely to eradicate world hunger until we can sustain food production within viable food chains and systems. We learned much from the great drought cycles that swept Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. We learned how to protect lives. We must now learn how to help communities transform their agricultural livelihoods. This greater enterprise of course is the core business of the CGIAR and its many partners.

We may feel helpless in the face of great droughts such as the one we are now enduring in the Horn, but we are not. Our research spans the agricultural sustainability spectrum—working to enhance the resilience of pastoral and other vulnerable communities at one end and to intensify and sustain high-potential agricultural production at the other. Both are but different ends of the same continuum and should, we believe, be approached as such.

This point was vividly brought home to me in the last two weeks, as I travelled to Kenya’s western highlands, where mixed crop-and-livestock farmers are bringing in good harvests of maize and beans and praying for the good rains they have had to abate, so that their produce will not rot. Back home, I found the last cattle of the Maasai, having trekked for hundreds of kilometres from the drylands to the east, roaming the suburbs of Nairobi in search of a bit of grass to sustain them.

Such extremes, the climatologists tell us, is what we can expect more and more of in the future.  The developing world and its climate and the livelihoods of its peoples are changing fast. We in the CGIAR and its partner organizations shall have to change just as fast to stay relevant and useful to the agricultural and herding communities we work to serve.

We thank you for partnering and supporting us in this fast-evolving enterprise to help those we serve to endure; to create enduring food security for themselves, their families and their communities; and to build enduring food systems for their countries.

Yours sincerely,

Carlos Sere

Director General

International Livestock Research Institute

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