Nelly Bassily | October 9, 2012
Géraud Sewa is a young market gardener with no land. Until recently, he made a living growing lettuce, cabbage and carrots on a small plot in Cotonou, the economic capital of Benin. He did not own the land, but the owner agreed to let him farm it. In this way, Mr. Sewa earned enough to feed his family.
But recently, he was kicked off the land without notice. He recalls with bitterness: “[The owner] let me use the field for a while. Then one fine morning, he came without notice, asking me to leave, abandoning me to my fate.” A building will be constructed where Mr. Sewa used to garden. Now he is unemployed.
Approximately 600 market gardeners cultivate over a dozen sites in and around Cotonou. Some grow leafy vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage, parsley, and mallow leaves. Others produce vegetables such as carrots, cucumbers, green beans, and turnips. According to a union representing market gardeners in Cotonou, the farmers produce 5,000 tonnes of vegetables per year.
But today, Cotonou’s market gardeners live in fear that, at any moment, landowners could tell them to clear out. Urban expansion is leading to more farmer evictions. This insecurity of land tenure puts the peri-urban agriculture system at risk. And this threatens Cotonou’s food supply.
Sanni Boni is a market gardener who went through the ordeal of eviction. He is in tears as he says: “I had two gardens of three acres each. Both were taken from me by the owner, who wanted to build. There is nothing left for me now. I do not know what to do.”
Sylvère Sonon is president of the market gardeners’ union. He explains the problem: “The land on which most gardeners grow does not belong to them. They negotiate with the owners and they often do not have a written contract.” Land use is based on verbal contracts. Therefore, landowners can come without warning and take away the land. Mr. Sonon says this insecurity of tenure discourages growers from investing in the land. He says this could result in a further drop in production, endangering the city’s food supply.
Madeleine Lafia heads a government organization that promotes agriculture and supervises urban farmers in Cotonou. She warns: “Production may decrease significantly due to the scarcity of land, a corollary of urban growth.” She adds that in the absence of a land security policy, farmers’ livelihoods are at risk.
While producers are in turmoil, consumers are objecting to the high cost of living. The price of vegetables in Cotonou is rising. The gardeners accuse the authorities of not being interested in their fate, despite their contributions to feeding the city. The union of market gardeners has only one wish: to have new land for their members to work peacefully.