Jean B. Faye

Environmental Sciences, Studies, and Policy

Award Information

2016 IDRF Program

Environmental Sciences, Studies, and PolicyUniversity of Oregon

Farming and Meaning at the Desert’s Edge: Can Serer (Senegal) Indigenous Agricultural and Cultural Systems Co-Evolve towards Sustainability?

Indigenous agroecosystems (IAES), or the intentional use of trees and livestock in farms, have a long history in the West African Sahel. In many locales, they have long contributed to food security and climate change resilience. But a century or more of cash cropping and use of modern farm inputs has meant that no IAES remain intact, and many are extinct. In Senegal, the Serer historic mixed farming and pastoral strategies provided resilience to droughts and colonial-era agricultural and economic change, but are now neither intact nor extinct. This study examines the current state of Serer agroecosystems, considering who uses what elements of the old systems who has introduced what elements of nonindigenous farming systems and whether this combination of local and imported farming systems is a coherent and sustainable fusion, or an incoherent pastiche on a path toward agrarian collapse. I argue that, depending on how farmers integrate new models with the technical and cultural elements of the old system, a coherent fusion may result, with positive implications for sustainability, climate change adaptation, soil fertility, and livelihood resilience. This mixed-methods study draws on literature from cultural-political ecology, agroforestry, socio-ecological resilience, and history to listen to farmers' accounts of changing agrarian practices. The study links these ethnographic results to empirical analysis of soil conditions, paleoecological, and remote sensing data on land use change. With these tools, my study will shed light on the evolving role of local knowledge in the struggle to maintain productivity as Sahelian are confronted with soil fertility depletion, food insecurity, and climate change. Farming communities in the Sahel can strengthen their resilience if they update elements of the well-adapted IAES, make room for new techniques, and in the process forge coherent farming systems that makes cultural sense to and enjoy buy-in from farmers themselves.