Even the rebels need to grow food
Our research in biodiversity must continue even though a war is going on. Otherwise Sierra Leone may lose its important genetic resources forever. This was the main message from Paul Richards, Professor of the WAU's Technical Agrarian Education (TAO) chair group, who has longtime links with the country. Together with Sierra Leonean plant breeders Malcolm Jusu and Robert Chakanda, Richards is determined to keep working on the Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation (CBDC) programme: I am confident that people always find ways to preserve seeds.
Even without a war, genetic erosion happens rapidly, begins Robert Chakanda, studying in Wageningen for an MSc. Because of mismanagement, and narrowing of the genetic base through the introduction of modern seeds, for example. But when your country is at war, the loss of locally-adapted seed varieties is likely to be even more rapid. Combatting this loss gained greater urgency over the last month as the conflict in Sierra Leone between rebel and government-backed forces spilled over into the capital city of Freetown for the first time in the war's eight-year history
Sierra Leone is one of five focus countries in Africa chosen by the CBDC. This international initiative based at Wageningen's Dutch Gene Bank supports the survival of locally-adapted seed varieties. The small West African country is known for its high rice diversity, ranging from old adapted dry rice material to varieties from the coastal mangrove wetlands
According to Paul Richards, who has conducted research in Sierra Leone since the early 1980s, the easternmost part of the country is one of the areas of richest biodiversity of adapted dryland rice cultivars in Africa. This region, however, has been under continuous occupation by the rebel RUF (Revolutionary United Front) forces since 1991. Terrorised by the rebels, most of the population, including the family of Malcolm Jusu, was forced to flee. Two-thirds of the country is now inaccessible, and Richards fears that regions in the east will suffer the worst genetic erosion
The CBDC project focuses on the relatively peaceful northwestern area bordering on Guinea (see shaded area on map). At the Sierra Leone National Rice Research Station, where both Chakanda and Jusu conduct research, work has had to keep shifting according to shifts in rebel movements. Jusu, now completing his PhD study on rice at the WAU, explains how the research has been affected: We used to have seedbanks full of the locally-adapted rice varieties, but all the buildings are now standing empty because there is no electricity.
However, the Research Station has archives of genetic material dating back to 1934, with details on characteristics, names of villages, and even of the farmers from whom they were collected. So the work continues. Jusu: What we now want to do is to assess the extent of genetic erosion which has taken place by re-collecting the materials that were carefully detailed in the archives.
Robert Chakanda's research has a different element to it. His focus is on sorghum, the country's second most important grain after rice. Records for sorghum have only been maintained for the last five years. Richards comments: Robert is one of the country's first sorghum researchers. A high biodiversity could exist for this grain as well, but we still don't know what is out there.
All three researchers are determined to continue monitoring genetic losses, regardless of the war. Storage of the collected germplasm nevertheless remains a problem. Electricity has been cut off in most of the country, which means that seedbanks cannot function. Sending the seeds out of the country is a complicated procedure that has been abandoned. As Chakanda states: 225225No place can be totally protected in a wartime situation. We have to hope that seeds are being maintained in farmers fields. Richards adds: You would expect that a war causes great damage to agriculture, but people still have to keep farming. Even the rebels need to grow some food. I am confident that people always find ways to preserve seeds. Just think of the African rice that came to the New World because slaves had brought seeds over in their hair.
Richards describes Sierra Leone's war as one of long-term low-intensity. He hopes that this means that the overall genetic losses will not be too high, though this is impossible to predict at present. We need to figure out how to make the most of the present situation, he emphasises. Attracting the attention of international agencies who are willing to fund genetic resource programmes in more stable areas, for instance. Eventually, states Richards, Sierra Leone has to return to peace. In the meantime, we must keep track of what is lost, and rescue what we can. Even refugees can participate in seed rehabilitation programmes. Just one seed can multiply significantly within six months. Am.S