Why cashew is driving Guinean farmers nuts

Posted: 5 February 2012

In rural Guinea-Bissau, farmers largely specialized in cashew production when the nut’s prices soared in the 80s and 90s in the global market. Today, they are the archetypal example of people made vulnerable by dependence on global trade and a single cash crop. Fernando Sousa sent this exclusive report.

Fernando Sousa
Fernando Sousa

As the birds’ chorus gets louder and the heat softens as the day approaches its end, Bifá’s wrinkled hands start to slow down and eventually put the machete to the side. His cashew grove lost some of its rainy season’s undergrowth today. “This is our livelihood now”, says Bifá, one of the oldest villagers from the dwindling population, and one of the first to plant cashew in the village.

“Bolanha ka bale – Our rice fields don’t yield anymore,” he says in Guinean Creole, the country’s lingua franca. “We used to grow our own rice, but there aren’t enough people now, they’ve all migrated elsewhere. Cashew is our only option to make a living”. In the tip of a peninsula in the southern rugged coast of the Guinea-Bissau, the village of Pobreza struggles to make the most out of its sudden integration in the global market.

Swamp rice field
Farmers in swamp rice field.

Pobreza undeservedly inherited its name from the Portuguese colonial time. It means poverty. Nevertheless, the village used to boast productive swamp rice fields, a technique held by its main ethnic group, the Balanta.

But the greatest wealth of Pobreza, its manpower, is slowly fading. Since the 1960s, its population declined from 195 to around 130 today. “Young people have different ambitions. They want to earn money, they want to study”, argues Bifá, whose son Maulino recently moved to the capital, Bissau, and is still struggling to find a job.

A stroll around the village confirms Bifá’s worst fears. The sight of women pounding as their children play is surprisingly less common than that of elder peasants quietly watching beyond their clay porches. The village’s chief, Dumpa, agrees that cashew is the only way out. “If we don’t plant cashew, we won’t be able to make enough money to buy rice, our main staple. It’s easier and requires less effort than rice”.

Indian traders

Dumpa, the village chief of Pobreza.

But this doesn’t come without problems. Not only is the imported rice from China and Thailand much poorer in quality than the locally produced rice, but the farmers have little bargaining power and end up giving in to the mostly unfair terms of trade imposed by traders. “We have no other options” bemoans Dumpa, “If traders name a price, we must sell it. Few of them ever come here and we are left without a choice”.

Encouraged by the rise of cashew international prices until the 2000s and the IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programmes which promoted cash crop monocultures in the 1980’s, farmers in Guinea-Bissau massively adhered to cashew production. However, the volatility and lowering of the prices throughout the last decade sparked fear of an excessive dependency on a single cash crop, especially among the 90,000 households that assure the bulk of total national production.

To make things worse, Guinea-Bissau depends on a single export market, India, whose traders are blamed for forming a cartel and imposing lower prices on Guinean exporters. Dependence on credit supplied by Indian traders to do business determines their higher bargaining power, as local traders and press indicate.

Ali Kadra was born in Lebanon but his parents came to Guinea-Bissau when he was young. He ended up marrying a local and together they opened a small grocery shop in Empada, in the south part of the country. Like most small traders in rural areas, they too engage in the nut’s trade during cashew season. “Indian traders are the ones who profit more from the cashew chain value”, he states, “As we don’t have local banks in the country, we depend on credit supplied by them to buy the nuts from farmers. That’s the tool they use to put pressure on prices”.

From the farmers’ perspective though, there are yet further impingements. Mariama lives in a small village called Bedja and owns a cashew orchard that produces around two tons every season. Since most of her family migrated to urban centers and the ones left behind aren’t capable of producing enough rice to eat all year round, she was forced to borrow rice loans from a small local trader who would later collect the debt in cashew.
When the next cashew season came, the trader demanded a much higher interest rate than previously agreed, arguing her cashew production could be lower than needed to continue borrowing him rice. “We used to exchange one bag of rice for a bag of cashew. This trader asked me five times as much cashew for a bag of rice. I had to give in three quarters of my cashew production to pay him back”.

Rich resources

In Bissau, Maulino didn’t yet find a job but he firmly states he’s where he should be. “Life in the countryside is too tough. Rice production demands a lot of manpower and physical effort. That’s not the kind of life I want for me”. He too started planting a cashew orchard before leaving Pobreza. “It’s a bit like my insurance. I can go there and collect the money from cashew if everything else goes wrong”.

André Nanque, the president of the National Cashew Commission, thinks cashew shouldn’t be the only crop farmers invest in. He acknowledges the crop is vital to the country. It represents 98 percent of the total export revenues and is the main source of income of most farmers across the country. “But farmers are too exposed to it. They should diversify what they grow and invest in other food and cash crops to increase their food security.”

Cashew orchard
Dumpa inmspects his cashew orchard.

But back in Pobreza it doesn’t feel that easy. Domingos, 60 years old, would like to diversify his livelihoods but he doesn’t know yet exactly how. “I would like to plant orange, lime and other crops because their market prices are more stable. But that requires cutting forest, sowing the new plants and keeping weeds at bay. It’s really hard work, especially during and after the rainy season and there simply aren’t enough people to do it”.

As he continues, it becomes obvious this land is rich in resources, with its large mangrove areas being the nurseries of the abundant fisheries in nearby waters. Other local resources include wild fruits, timber and bushmeat. “Of course there are other things we can do. Whoever can fish, does it. People who can climb palm trees do it to get the palm fruit so that their wives and mothers can produce palm oil and sell it. There isn’t a lack of resources, there’s a lack of people”.

But unfortunately for the farmers, the lack of manpower is not the only threat their livelihoods face. A devastating consequence the villagers endure due to the expansion of cashew groves is putting their efforts at risk.

Cane rat
The Great Cane Rat is relished as bush meat, but now the villagers can no longer hunt it as they used to.

Farfana – the local name in Creole for the Great Cane Rat is the number one villain in the farmers’ fields, a rat that can weigh up to 10 kilograms. “They eat it all! We gave up trying to grow upland rice because they eat everything before it’s ready”, states Domingos. Before the cashew, the villagers used to organize Farfana Hunts whenever they’d do the slash and burn for the new upland crops. They’d do a half circle of fire around a big area that would be farmed afterwards collectively, and scare the Cane rats in the direction of men waiting for them with sticks and dogs. “Their population was under control then, but now no one wants to use the fire anymore”. And they probably won’t do it again. Not while there’s the risk of burning their main livelihoods, the cashew orchards.

In Pobreza, Bifá knows he will have to continue cleaning his cashew orchard. His wrinkled hands only allow him to wait to the next cashew season. That’s when he and the remaining household members will gather the nuts and wait for traders to come. Maybe the prices will be better next year, he hopes. It’s his only source of income anyway.

This article was developed from research by Fernando Sousa, Joana Sousa and Manuel Bívar.