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Would you be a farmer in drylands if you had the choice?

High school student in Lesotho. Photo Credit: Rodger Bosch/FAOImagine that you have a chance to secure your future somewhere else that your village or your hometown, you will go after it, won’t you?

A fail-safe job and a guaranteed paycheck at the end of each month – even if that means leaving home - are key to a decent livelihood and insurance for long-term peace of mind. Nowadays, leaving home in search of better opportunities elsewhere is appealing – more than ever – to the average young person living rurally, as opposed to staying home and becoming a full-time farmer. When faced with such  job and better livelihood “opportunities” – usually in urban areas and big cities, leaving does not feel difficult anymore. However, the case of “search for opportunities” does not apply equally to all young people, boys and girls. Some are forced to abandon agricultures and village life because of reasons out of their control. Whatever the reasons that force or lead to youth migration, the result is loss of working power and potential innovation in the agriculture sector.

Factors negatively affecting agriculture and causing youth migration are varied and complex and encompass poverty, severe environmental conditions, high costs of production, lack of education, training and guidance for your people, lack of or no access to land or to irrigation water, and many more. In general, limited social and other infrastructure in developing countries is a critical factor in the migration of young people from rural areas towards big cities and even other countries. On the other hand, it is worth noting that some farmers, when given the chance to improve their agricultural production, they will resist and be immune to change.

This applies to an older generation of farmers in particular, who insist on the “traditional ways” of doing agriculture and subscribe to the philosophy of mono-cropping. Mono-cropping makes farmers not only more vulnerable to productivity losses – particularly in the face of climate change, but also impoverishes the natural resource base in the long run and reduces the opportunity for a sustainable agricultural livelihood. In turn, this reality often serves to discourage young people who want to work in and be part of the agriculture sector. All of this makes it a harder and less desirable option to becoming a farmer.

In many developing countries, financial and technical support to farmers and education and career guidance to young people is close to nothing. In drylands, land degradation and desertification brought about by both climate variability and human activities (including socio-economic and political issues) make life hard and agricultural livelihood opportunities even harder. Migration has definitely an environmental dimension, which must be better examined and closely understood. According to a 2009 UNCCD report studies have confirmed that the variables of ‘soil quality’ and ‘availability of suitable water’ have the most significant effects on migration flows. The harsh environment means less water available for irrigation and what remains is of high cost. Also, production can be unstable due to: pest outbreaks reducing the yield and adding extra expenses of pesticide; low rain season; and sometimes the unavailable market.

In general, migration tends to reduce overall resilience in rural dryland areas. Agriculture and its future labor force is severely weakened, and affected by a possible gender imbalance.  

While one can say that it is easier to deal with human- induced factors instead of facing nature- induced elements, this does not mean that life and agricultural livelihood opportunities in drylands are impossible and nothing can be done. This picture is not as dark and gloomy as it might first seem.

Adopting a holistic systems approach to address both environmental and socio-economics  can help strengthen the agriculture sector and curb youth migration. What is also crucial is to convince young people to see the value and opportunities in pursuing an agricultural livelihood, while providing them with the actual means to accomplish just that.

While more can always be done, several long terms projects and multi-stakeholder initiatives are now being implemented in support of young farmers – and in particular women - living in the rural drylands of the developing world. The International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) has been working for years in many dryland regions – particularly that of Middle East and North Africa – to help farmers develop holistic solutions to challenges faced in agriculture development, such as the use of suitable crop varieties, the improvement of irrigation and water harvesting techniques, the improvement of land productivity and systems resilience through conservation agriculture, and so forth. The integration of livestock production with agriculture is also a good example of solutions that attempt to increase overall systems resilience and farm profitability. When dryland farmers choose to and adopt improved agricultural practices with lesser harm and impact scarce natural resources, they experience better food nutrition and security for their families, lesser poverty and a more secure future for their children.

For example, ICARDA implements a number of breeding programs for drought, heat, and disease tolerant crop varieties, while also guaranteeing market access to farmers. Young farmers are invited to try these varieties and see their efficiency in ICARDA-run research station. If they agree to plant them, ICARDA will agree to buy their final produce and/or help them link up and sell their produce in a new market. Farmers who participate in these types of programs can also benefit from training and advice on improved management and production processes, and  make use and access innovative technologies and improved agricultural machineries developed through ICARDA research.

This kind of intervention – if scaled out and up to higher levels – can not only help develop the agriculture sector, but it can also curb migration, bring peace and stability, and create viable livelihood opportunities in the long run in these  dryland countries. Continuous support is required on many fronts – including national and international actors – to sustain and scale up interventions designed to improve the agriculture sector and target young people. Aside from financial and technical support, information and guidance on best practices and innovative technologies, as well as better extension and awareness programs critical to engaging dryland farming communities, and specially the younger generation. Once they can see and experience that farming can be profitable and a viable way of life, then young people living in rural drylands will begin to imagine brighter futures where migration is not longer the best and sometimes the only option.

About the author

Ms. Malak Tleis is the Country Representative for the Young Professionals for Agricultural Development (YPARD) in Lebanon.

References

Picture credit: High school student in Lesotho. Photo Credit: Rodger Bosch/FAO

This blog post was originally published on the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems' website: Would you be a farmer in drylands if you had the choice?