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Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

River Blindness and Agriculture: Disease decline means vast tracts open for sustainable farming

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West African farmers are moving into valleys recently freed of the disease "river blindness". The question is, are they farming in sustainable ways or will they over-exploit the tremendous resources of the Volta basin and, in the process, destroy them? The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is spearheading a programme to develop sustainable farm settlements in the Volta basin, expected to be virtually free of river blindness by the year 2000.

Fertile and well-irrigated, the Volta basin should have been a farmer’s paradise. But until recently the river banks bred a parasite which caused onchocerciasis, as "river blindness" is formally known, in 15 per cent of the population. The disease kept new settlers out.

Now a 22-year effort to drastically reduce the incidence of river blindness is paying off, and farmers are taking their hoes and their families to the rich fields of the basin which runs through Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Togo, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea. The World Health Organization estimates that 500,000 cases of river blindness have been averted through the efforts of West African governments and international agencies.

Control of the disease has opened up to farming and livestock an area totalling roughly 80,000 square kilometres. However, governments in the region and international agencies are worried about over-exploitation of the land.

So in 1995 they named FAO the lead United Nations agency charged with formulating and executing a plan of action to develop human settlements and sustainable agriculture in the valleys. The program is underway, beginning with an inventory of resources -- human, socio-economic and natural. FAO will advise the governments on rural development programmes and will present them with a series of projects in agriculture, forestry and livestock-raising. The program is integrated in that it considers other concerns of farm families, such as the need for health care.

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