Reporting Agriculture for the 21st CenturyThe New Agriculturist

Book reviews

Unbowed: A memoirUnbowed: A memoir
By Wangari Maathai
Published by New York: Alfred A. Knopf
Available from:
2006, 272pp, ISBN 0307263487 (Hb), US$ 24.95

During Wangari Maathai's childhood, she says, hunger was virtually unknown. The rich and moist red soil offered plenty of fruits and vegetables to the people of Kenya. This is where her story begins, among previous generations, gathering water from the rural streams, and sharing stories around a log fire in the evenings. But, such times were fast disappearing. Since the colonial period, missionaries, logging, wildlife hunting and a cash based economy brought change, and these things became accepted as progress: "I was born in an old world passing away," Wangari says.

A powerful autobiography of personal and political struggle, this book is colourful and nostalgic, but with strong, underlying messages, which have shaped Maathai's political and environmental cause. Among the childhood memories, Wangari recalls new developments that have hindered 'progress' in Kenya. She recalls a fundamental change in the Kenyan culture; beautiful baskets of natural fibres used by women to carry goods, now refined to tourist markets; replaced by plastic bags, littering the streets, and killing domestic animals.

But although she mourns a loss of understanding for the natural world, "something my mother's generation seemed to grasp," such realisations prompted her to be politically active, striving to create a sustainable, harmonised culture in modern Kenya. Undernourished people, thin livestock, soil erosion - these observations prompted her to consider for the first time the "multiple costs" of colonial reign. Something had to be done. She set her sights higher than most, progressing from high school to Makerere University, where she became the first woman in East Africa to head a university department. Unafraid to speak out about the atrocities of the Moi regime, she became a fierce political opponent to the government, suffering physical and emotional injury and imprisonment.

Her conviction, and the underlying message of the book, is that democracy does not abolish poverty or stop deforestation, by itself. That requires social commitment, as well as good governance, environmental management and a just global economic system. Historically factual, yet eloquently woven, this book offers a refreshing view of African politics and development. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, Wangari's message is simple but compelling. It is up to everyone to fight political and environmental injustice. "We owe it to the present, and future generations, to rise up and walk."

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Pastoral Livestock Marketing in Eastern Africa: Research and Policy ChallengesPastoral Livestock Marketing in Eastern Africa: Research and Policy Challenges
Edited by John G. McPeak and Peter D. Little
Published by Intermediate Technology Publications
2006, 288pp, ISBN 1853396311 (Pb), £15.95

We are in the midst of a 'Livestock Revolution', or so, at least, the experts say. Over the next fifteen years, annual demand for meat in sub-Saharan Africa and western Asia is expected to increase by 60 per cent. Such a forecast has many implications for policy makers. Domestic marketing systems will have to be more efficient and consumer expectations will be on the rise, prompting an increase in regulations, standards, and sanitary requirements.

The book places future research and policy concerns in their wider context, highlighting the current crisis. For example, while the number of people living in pastoral areas has doubled in most parts of East Asia, livestock populations have remained stable or declined. The book examines economic and land use behaviour in pastoralist communities, and detailed descriptions of current market structures, actors and tactics. Focusing on the emergence of consumer oriented markets, it takes a fresh look at the issues facing pastoralists, from disciplines as varied as geography, anthropology and ecology.

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Farmers' views on the future of food and small scale producersFarmers' views on the future of food and small scale producers
Edited by Michel Pimbert et al.
Published by IIED
Available from earthprint
2006, 75pp, ISBN 1 84369 588 X (Pb), US$15

In 2005, an electronic conference on the 'Future of food and small scale producers' specifically targeted those whose voice is often excluded from 'consultation' exercises. Small scale farmers and fishermen and their organisations, from both developed and developing world contributed comments and answers to a series of questions: their understanding of sustainable food and farming; what prevents small scale producers from achieving their vision; and what needs to change to allow their vision to be realised. A central theme is that modern, large-scale agriculture fails to recognise the non-financial values inherent within food and farming. There is criticism of "a research trend that continues to invent bigger and bigger machines, more and more productive varieties of seeds, and more and more powerful chemical products; a totally contradictory approach given the current state of over-production and environmental degradation."

Governments, "unreliable and unresponsive", and "uncertain" marketing systems, are both accused of increasing the vulnerability of small scale producers. The contributors point to a dire lack of national policies that support and invest in rural producers, from education to infrastructure and environment. A contributor from Thailand comments: "I think sustainable agriculture should be embedded in farmer education and not in seeds, top-down technology and external inputs. The need for farmer research, farmer group activities, farmer discovery processes and respect for farmers' innovations and traditional farming knowledge should be primary." As well as covering many big issues, such as 'replacing globalisation with localisation', the contributors also offer practical solutions to specific problems.

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Agro-food chains and networks for developmentAgro-food chains and networks for development
Edited by Ruerd Ruben, Maja Slingerland and Hans Nijhoff
Published by Springer
2006, 241pp, ISBN 1 4020 4592 1 (Hb), £57.50 / €74.95

Whether producing crops or livestock products for local, regional or international markets, farmers are under increasing pressure to attain higher standards of food quality, safety and production. Smallholders in developing countries are not necessarily excluded from these markets, as numerous examples demonstrate, but food supply networks - from farmers through to retailers - need to constantly appraise their procedures and practices to optimise food chain functioning. This volume documents that process of appraisal and development, gathering contributions from scientists, policy makers and business people.

Opening chapters set out the background: the links between agricultural development and trade liberalisation, the participation of smallholders in international trade, and the roles of different stakeholders in agro-food chains. There are also specific chapters on the role of agribusiness in developing trade, the contribution of fair trade, and the growing adoption of private standards by supermarkets. This is followed by seven business case studies from Africa, South America and Asia, covering fruit and vegetables, beef, fish, cocoa, edible oils and medicinal plants. Interestingly, the contributions from business people are the most readable; Johan Van Deventer's description of the development of Freshmark, which sources vegetables for the Shoprite chain, is personal and engaging. The other chapters are largely well-written, but take a more factual approach.

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AIDS, poverty and Hunger: Challenges and responsesAIDS, poverty and Hunger: Challenges and responses
Edited by Stuart Gillespie
Published by International Food Policy Research Institute
Available from:
2006, 375pp, ISBN: 0 89629 758 6 (Pb), US$ 20

"Hunger and HIV/AIDS are entwined in a vicious circle. Malnutrition and lack of food heightens susceptibility to HIV exposure and infection, while AIDS in turn exacerbates hunger," says Stuart Gillespie, the editor of this book. In such a desperate situation, what hope is there? Through eighteen essays aimed at development professionals, the contributors argue that attempts to defeat the AIDS epidemic, which has caused more than 25 million deaths globally, have not gone far enough. As a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, Gillespie's opening chapter reminds the reader that "nutrition is the pivotal interface between food security and health security," a message echoed throughout the book. But the role that food and nutrition can play in the AIDS epidemic must be explored from a multi-dimensional perspective. The impacts of the virus on wages, income and the agricultural sector as a whole, must be researched, so that appropriate and effective responses, interventions and policies can be developed.

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People, land and water: participatory development communication for natural resource managementPeople, land and water: Participatory development communication for natural resource management
Edited by Guy Bessette
Published by IDRC/Earthscan
2006, 333pp, ISBN 1 84407 343 2 (Hb), £44.96

Participatory Development Communication (PDC) is one of several names given to a range of processes involving participation and dialogue that have gained wide acceptance among development professionals in recent years. They describe a process whereby communities, research or development teams and other stakeholders define their development goals and their strategies for reaching them. How this works in practice, however, may be as varied as the number of different projects that adopt the approach.

This recent volume from the International Development Resource Centre presents around 30 case studies of PDC from Asia and Africa, explaining the background, the process and the lessons learned in each case. Examples include work with forest communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo to manage a national park, farm wives taking to the stage in Burkina Faso, and strategic communication in community-based fisheries and forestry in Cambodia. One unusual feature of the book is that many of the case studies are presented in very accessible formats, including first-hand stories and letters, making it an entertaining as well as an interesting read.

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Trishna and the Dream of WaterTrishna and the Dream of Water
By Carole Douglis
Published by United Nations Environment Programmme / Earthprint
Available from:
May 2006, 32pp, ISBN 92 807 2723 0 (Pb), US$8

"I wish our village stayed green so we could have more of a harvest," says Trishna on her trip to collect water. Passing an abandoned bore hole pump and a diminished stream, Trishna guides the reader through lessons about deserts and desertification. This is a children's picture book, designed to create awareness of environmental problems, and to offer useful information about how to stop such problems as desertification. Part of the Tunza Environmental Series, 'Tunza' meaning 'to treat with care of affection' in Kiswahili, the books are inspiring for both children and parents. Other books in the series published by the United Nations Environment Programme include 'Tore and the Town on Thin Ice', 'Tessa and the Fishy Mystery', 'Theo and the Giant Plastic Ball' and 'Tina and the Green City'.

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Better forestry, less poverty: A practitioner's guideBetter forestry, less poverty: A practitioner's guide
FAO Forestry Paper 149
Published by Food and Agricultural Organisation, Rome
FAO 2006, 76pp, ISBN 92 5 105550 5 (Pb), US$ 14

In explaining the relationship between forestry and wealth, the authors offer a useful case study. A typical farm in the Luc Nam district of Viet Nam consists of land dedicated to forestry, fruit trees, and rice fields. The family have invested in animal husbandry, agricultural production, and a fish-pond. But their biggest investment over the last few years has been in forest planting, and their sales of timber and firewood now offer substantial financial rewards. The case study illustrates a key message in this guide: that while most farms prefer to invest in activities with relatively quick returns, such as agricultural production, people will invest in long term solutions to poverty reduction such as timber planting, if they are given government support.

In 1992 the government of Viet Nam began allocating land to individuals and co-operatives for tree planting. Later, the government formed policies to support such investments, for example removing land-tax. This guide suggests various ways in which such successful models of forestry planting can reduce poverty. It also examines the relationship between forestry and different forms of poverty. It will be of interest for all those who work in forestry, from rural development practitioners and local planners to the communities they serve.

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January 2007