Tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, courgettes, onions, peppers, beets, aubergines, watermelons, and melons are been grown amongst the dunes and stones. The extreme weather conditions in this desert (with temperatures of up to 50° C, sandstorms, exceptional torrential rains, and scarce water and food) have not stopped the development of micro-cultivation projects in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf (Algeria).
The Center for Experimentation and Agricultural Training (CEFA) mainly trains in and experiments with different varieties of open pollination, which are brought from different countries, such as Spain, Italy, or France, to obtain local seeds in the camps. “The ultimate goal is to train the Sahrawis and promote family-based horticulture micro-cultures to improve the refugees’ food supply,” said Baba Efdeid, secretary general of the Ministry of Development of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).
“It seems impossible, but we can grow all the vegetables and leafy vegetables that are grown in the Mediterranean and in central Spain. The weather is similar. It’s more extreme here, of course, and the underground water mantle, which is about 25 meters deep, is saline, but we’ve discovered that some species have a better performance when they feel more stressed,” he said.
Marisa Guillen, a professor in the department of preventive medicine and public health at the University of Valencia, visited the camps with several students of Nutrition last February. “First, we have to teach them to cultivate, because if they receive an orchard and don’t know how to cultivate, they’ll lose everything within a year. This project is improving the quantity and quality of their food supply. The gardens will also help children see where food comes from and help make them aware that not everything is sugar. They drink a lot of tea, soda, cookies, candy…” she said.
The CEFA was launched in 2009 and, in addition to having a research laboratory to create its own seeds, so that it doesn’t have to depend on the outside, it offers a 15-day training in ecological and sustainable agriculture to the Saharawis.
The refugees begin growing the food on a 10×10 meter surface, next to their haimas (bedouin tents), in a small greenhouse and an area to plant the food outdoors. This land, whose dimensions can increase depending on the access to water that the family has, serves to supply food for them and grass for their cattle, mainly goats or camels. Additionally, if they have a surplus, they can sell it and earn some extra money.
“The vegetables from our orchards are better than the ones that the NGOs give us and the ones we can buy at the camps,” said Salelkha Ahmad, a 34-year-old Saharawi woman who has been living with her four children and her husband in the camp Of El Aaiún and who has been cultivating her own food during the last year.
Agricultural engineer, Baba Efdeid, said these micro-cultures don’t use fertilizers, herbicides, or insecticides. “We collect the remains of animal defecations, mix them with herbs and, three months later, we have a natural compost that we apply as organic matter. That way we can improve the soil and improve the plant’s nutrition,” he stated. In total, there are about 800 family micro-cultures in progress: 500 in the wilaya (each of the camps) in El Ayoun, 180 in Smara, and 120 in Dajla.
However, the micro-cultures do not fully cover the food needs of the refugees. They are a complement, not a substitute. “It’s one thing to improve your nutrition by using such a small surface and quite another to replace the food distributed by the World Food Programme (WFP); that’s just not possible, as we can’t produce many products in the desert, such as flour, lentils or rice, which need a lot water.” We can, however, produce fresh eco-vegetables to help increase the amount of vitamins that refugees eat but we can only produce proteins to a certain extent,” said the Secretary general of the Ministry of Economic Development of Western Sahara.
Within their extreme situation, the Saharawi refugees have their basic energy needs covered, just about, Guillen stated. “They have a deficit in vitamins and minerals, especially at certain times and in certain groups at risk, such as pregnant women, infants or children,” she said. “That’s the time when the body needs more vitamins and nutrients. “Fortunately, in spite of how and where they are living, they won’t starve to death. However, they will face many diseases related to poor nutrition and anemia is increasing due to a lack of iron.”
The crisis has brought huge cuts in humanitarian aid and the WFP stated last November that it was facing a shortfall of 9 million euro for the first six months of 2017. The president of Media Luna Sahrawi, Buhubeini Yahia, said: “This lack of funding is going to reduce the food basket of the Saharan refugees by 50%.” The WFP would distribute food to 90,000 people when it previously did so for the 180,000 who live in the Tindouf camps. “Our micro-cultures are a response, a small local solution, a complement to the already poor and declining share that the international organizations are distributing.” It is a way of supporting them. Unfortunately, it’s only an extra,” said Baba Efdeid.