Famine or not, aid agencies are concerned

The people of Guinea Bissau recently heard their agriculture minister tell them on national radio that their country was facing an impending “famine” but aid officials are not so sure.

Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Daniel Suleimane Emballo said on the radio: "Guinea Bissau's agricultural production is facing a 50 percent shortfall this year, thus rural populations today are seriously threatened by famine.”

"Yes the rains are late which is a cause for some worry,” Rui Jorge Fonseca, programme officer for the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), told IRIN on 7 August. “But at this point, we don’t have enough information or concrete data to determine the extent of the problem.”

According to Fonseca, Guinea Bissau’s problems feeding itself can be blamed on a poor cashew harvest in May and June. About 70 percent of the rural population relies on cashews for cash; many people trade their goods directly for rice, the staple food.

Cashews account for 85 percent of Guinea Bissau's exports.

A food security study conducted by the World Food Programme (WFP) in June and July found that much of the rural population will not have sufficient rice to make it to the next cashew harvest.

Most farmers in Guinea Bissau rely on cashews for the first half of the year then grew rice when the rains come in the second half. But the WFP report suggests that the annual lean season before the rice can be harvested, from July to October, is likely to be worse than usual.

Inadequate rains have forced some farmers to replant their rice crops, WFP says.

However, this does not mean Guinea Bissau is necessarily heading for a famine, Marcus Prior, regional spokesperson for WFP, told IRIN. “If the rains are good over the next two months there can still be a satisfactory harvest,” he said.

WFP “watching closely”

Regardless, WFP says it has stocked emergency food for the lean period.

“WFP is watching the situation in Guinea Bissau closely and with some concern, and is standing by to support the government if and when necessary,” Prior said.

So far the government of Guinea Bissau has not put out an international appeal for food aid.

Despite the current problems in rice production, agricultural experts say the country has the capacity to diversify and produce more sweet potatoes, maize and sorghum.

The problem is that Guinea Bissauans prefer to eat rice.

Also see: Hunger in a land of plenty