ARYAMOUN, Egypt, 4 September - The scene is of tranquil village life, where mud brick houses stand surrounded by the lush green of rice paddies and fields of maize.Water gushes from a pump and farmers tend their crops. The Nile flows majestically past, dotted with the white sails of feluccas.

This is Aryamoun, a village in the Delta of the Nile, but it could be any one of a thousand villages in Egypt, where farmers, the backbone of the Egyptian economy, have used ancestral skills to cajole the land into yielding just a little more each year. Representing over half of the population and 27% of the labour force, farmers have helped Egypt become one of the few countries in the world that yields three harvests a year.

Overall productivity per hectare is among the highest of the developing countries, and Egypt holds the world record for yields of rice, sorghum and sugarcane. On the other hand, rural people continue to struggle against traditional adversities -- declining soil fertility and environmental degradation, coupled with high population growth and low literacy rates.

In a simple room in Aryamoun's Agricultural Extension Center, six young men and women suddenly enter in a burst of music. Volunteer performers in the Rural Theater Troupe, they twirl to the rhythm of drums, their gaily colored traditional costumes flashing, while the audience applauds in anticipation. Then the drama - "The People and the Land" -- starts to unfold.

Learning from the villain

As the plot onstage thickens, the audience, composed of entire families, cheers on the heroes and shouts advice. The villain of this play is the wealthy local purveyor of fertilizers and pesticides. He aims to prevent the farmers from introducing new techniques for recycling agricultural by-products, such as rice hay and maize stalks, into compost fertilizer and fodder for livestock.

Traditionally, these by-products have been burned in bonfires, whose black smoke was blamed for a mysterious cloud of stinging smog that hung over Cairo for several days a few years ago. In addition, recycling and composting can reduce fertilizer use by up to 50 percent, as well as cover all fodder expenses for several farm animals. This alone can represent a substantial saving for farmers.

"A simple plot, half a dozen volunteer amateur actors and an open space are all we need to deliver vital messages on crop protection, increasing productivity, protecting the environment, birth spacing, girls' education and adequate nutrition," says Dr. Ahmed Wahba, National Project Director of the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture.

The author of the play, Issa Hammad, is a local mathematics teacher. "The play attempts to address issues of concern to farmers in familiar language, using an entertaining medium to hold their attention," he says. For example, a concept like birth spacing is conveyed using messages well known to farmers, such as the need to leave sufficient space between plants to encourage growth. The importance of maternal nutrition is explained by using the example of crops, which need adequate nourishment to grow strong and healthy.

A time for planting - and for marrying

"Farmers know that there is a specific time for planting, and that it is no use trying to force plants to grow before their season," Mr Hammad points out. "This deeply entrenched knowledge is used to advocate against early marriage: just as there is a correct time to plant, there is also a correct time to marry one's children."

Rodent control is another major worry in the countryside, since a few dozen rats can devastate an entire season's harvest and be the ruin of a farming family. Proper waste management can eliminate their breeding areas and thereby reduce their numbers. By introducing each message into the script, the audience shares the characters' concerns and searches for a solution, also offered by the play.

Theatre troupes are entertaining and teaching audiences throughout rural areas in four Governorates in Egypt, where the problems of agriculture, environment and population converge most seriously. Ongoing for eight years, the project provides a manual containing the basic formulas, which writers then adapt into dramatic storylines. The project has also supported training for trainers in how to link family planning and agricultural messages.

FAO is responsible for technical support and overall management of the project, which is funded by the United Nations Population Fund and the Government of Egypt. The Government also participates actively in all the steering committees through its Ministries of Education, Health, and Agriculture. The success to date means that it will be extended to a third phase next year.

When the play ends, the actors receive a standing ovation from the spectators, many of whom have already introduced composting and fodder recycling into their activities. Dr Wahba estimates that today almost half the farmers in the Aryamoun area practise composting and fodder recycling. Most villagers now acknowledge the importance of environmental protection and population control. Not only have they escaped the debt cycle endemic to farmers who must purchase fertilizers and pesticides on credit, they are now empowered to take the major decisions affecting their own families, their productivity and their environment.