Clemson’s Dara Park plants seeds of knowledge to help a nation in need
CLEMSON — Farmers in the developing country of Guinea-Conakry, West Africa, abandon their farmland and grass-roofed huts every three to five years in search of more fertile ground.
They find a new patch of forest, cut and burn the vegetation and grow fruits and vegetables until the land is baron of nutrients again. The government-owned land is then left to natural reforestation, a lengthy process residents likely won’t witness in their lifetimes.
“They are growing food mostly for their own consumption. The majority of people are living day to day,” said Dara Park, a soil and water specialist and associate professor in the Clemson University plant and environmental sciences department.
Park visited the City of Faranah in Guinea this summer to teach farmers best-management practices for increasing production while conserving soil and water resources.
In this country of limited resources, poor soil fertility and strains on water quality, proper land management is vital. Park spent nearly two weeks in Guinea in June teaching local Extension specialists, farmers and faculty members and students of the agricultural university the importance of soil health and water quality and quantity. She taught the basics of water movement and retention to mitigate the country’s intense rainy season, including stormwater management techniques to reduce soil erosion and runoff. She visited with farmers to discuss the benefits of cover cropping and irrigation scheduling and to teach them how to improve soil moisture during the country’s dry season.
Meeting the people and understanding the challenges they face, learning the terrain and experiencing the torrential rains near the River Niger were critical for Park to effectively communicate the importance of responsible farming techniques.
Most farms are family operations, though some are communal. They grow avocados, peppers, mangos, bananas, tomatoes and many other fruits and vegetables. They also raise livestock. Farmers share information to help one another. They walk each other’s children to and from school.
“It’s great to see that everyone helps on the farm, and I look forward to continuing to work with the people that I met,” Park said.
The nonprofit organization Winrock International invited Park to teach in Guinea as part of the Guinea Agricultural Education and Market Improvement Program funded by USAID. The program has brought numerous experts to Guinea the past four years to help Guineans improve food security and adapt to the pressures of climate change by adopting new agricultural technologies and modern land-management methods.
Park traveled the country with an interpreter – the main language there is French. Each morning, Park would sit with Sylla Fatoumata, who would teach her some words in French. Fatoumata is the production manager at a local Guinea radio station and hosts her own show, teaching English to Guinea women in hopes they’ll use the language to improve their lives.
“We are currently planning Skype sessions for me to share information she can pass on to listeners on how to increase soil health and crop productivity,” Park said.
While in Guinea, Park developed curriculum for undergraduate and graduate courses, conducted a field trip and created tools that addressed soil and water challenges for better agricultural production. At the university in the town of Faranah, she taught lectures on how irrigation water influences soil structure, plant health and pesticide efficacy. She visited local farms to advise how to better manage water and increase productivity.
Park also developed field kits for local Extension agents to use to assist in assessing water and soil conditions. She provided her class handheld units to measure soil and water pH and electrical conductivity, as well as field kits that provide soil water content data important to scheduling irrigation. Park provided step-by-step instruction on how to use the instruments, how to interpret the results and how to use the data to better manage land.
“It was great to witness them being able to see the data and make decisions to manage the farm more effectively given the natural resources they have,” Park said.
Guinea land consists of ultisols and oxisols, the most weathered and nutrient-deficient soils of the Earth’s 12 soil orders.
“Because of the rainfall and the hot temperatures, the soil is very leached of any minerals that would be productive for vegetation to grow,” Park said. “Any existing organic matter that is there decomposes very quickly because of the climate.
“It was pretty interesting because we have a lot of these same issues in South Carolina. On our coast, we have salinity and we can have sodium issues during our dry seasons like they do in Guinea,” Park said. “So I was able to teach about these problems that other people are having and how to address them.”
Guinea is home to more than 12 million people and was at the heart of deadly Ebola outbreak in 2014. Despite wealthy mineral reserves, Guinea remains one of the poorest countries in the world and has a GDP per capita of $523, according to USAID. The country held its first free, democratic election just seven years ago. Employment opportunities are slim in Guinea, and residents face sanitation problems, have limited access to clean water and are at a high risk for disease, according to information from The World Fact Book of the Central Intelligence Agency. Nearly 19 percent of children under the age of 5 are underweight, and less than one-third of the adult population can read and write. About half of the population lives in poverty.
“It was bittersweet leaving. I was ready to return to my family, but I did not want to leave the many new friends I had made,” Park said. “They shared with me just as much, if not more, than I shared with them.”
This was not Park’s first trip to a developing country. She also has visited Guyana in the past with a team of scientists to investigate how gold and diamond mining influence stream ecology and fish diversity.
“With the expertise we have at Clemson, there’s such a wealth of information to share from our land-grant universities,” Park said. “I feel it is part of our duty to help improve the livelihood within these developing countries.”