Film Title Origin & Setting
NYOGON is set in the dry Sahel lands of the southern region of the storied nation of Mali in West Africa. It will feature three languages: English, French, and Bambara, the main tongue of southern Mali. In this language, "nyogon" (written as "ɲɔgɔn" in Bambara and pronounced "nee-yo-gawn") means "together". Coincidentally, "nyo" means "millet/grain". This film features a type of sorghum grain variety that has manifested and spread through the power of community, so it is only fitting that the film's title reflect the relationship between seed and community. As the Malian adage attests, "One finger cannot lift a stone."
N’PAN, who founded the rural southern Mali village of Dissan as a settler hundreds of years ago, guides us in spiritual form in this story of individuals who seek to find a seed that can save Dissan from climate change and hunger.
Dr. SCOTT LACY, the ardent American anthropologist born and raised in rural Ohio, joins in on this fight against hunger, by fate rather than choice, as he sees it. He teams up with local scientists and local leading farmer and two-decade long friend BURAMA SANGARÉ. After being forced to evacuate after becoming gravely ill during a Peace Corps stint in Dissan in 1994, Scott vows to return with skills to aid those who gave his life purpose. He obtains a PhD and returns years later to find his beloved friends facing serious food supply problems.
After years of painstaking trial and error, the collaborative plant‐breeding model that Burama and Scott implement together produces a drought‐resistant seed whose harvests save the households of Dissan. Burama and Scott conclude that this self‐sustaining model of knowledge-exchange between plant breeders and farmers could represent the future of agriculture.
Moreover, it just may in fact be able to serve and save communities in other regions of the world within the contexts of those regions’ ecologies and cultures. This includes the United States, a nation already dealing with the challenges produced by climate change: unpredictable heavy storms, irregular seasonal temperatures, and massive drought in California. We can learn from what is happening in Dissan.
Success with Burama and Scott's work comes with a price, however, and the future of farmers like Burama still hangs in the balance. Current intellectual property rights agreements for plant variety protection exclude farmers from the right to own, grow, save, and distribute "protected" varieties. Farmers like Burama need to be granted ownership of such varieties to ensure long‐term food security without becoming dependent on culture‐eroding global markets, transnational corporate interference, and government‐funded farming programs, especially in the current politically turbulent atmosphere in today's Mali.
Scientific Background of the Film
The endemic poverty and climate change experienced in rural southern Mali are not unique in today’s developing world. In Dissan, a village consisting of a community of farming households founded in the 17th or 18th century, elders have seen local annual rainfall decline by over 25% (total rainfall and duration of rainy season), resulting in crop varieties they once relied on to feed their families to become food staples of the past. "We used to grow sorghum that was as thick as your arm!" says village elder Sanba Sangaré. Sorghum was domesticated in Africa and today is a main dry‐land cereal crop that is relatively heat and drought resistant. Studies confirm Sangaré’s observations, as the uncertainty of rainfall in the Sahel region has increased since the 1980’s. This highly variable rainfall has contributed to marginal soil fertility in the region as well. As a result, these problems have noticeably reduced food security in Dissan and surrounding areas.
The mid‐20th century movement known as the Green Revolution failed in sub‐Saharan Africa, as the lab‐created seeds require less variable soil conditions than seen in regions like Mali and several inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides that the poorest of the poor cannot afford. Clearly, mass‐produced and expensive homogenized seed production is not a realistic solution in more arid world regions like sub‐Saharan Mali.
Individually, neither scientists nor farmers have yet to significantly reduce endemic hunger and poverty in Mali, but more recently these two distinct groups have joined forces through an innovative approach known as participatory plant breeding (PPB). Participatory plant breeders argue that the controlled conditions of the lab (research station) creates crop varieties incapable of adapting to the dynamic and challenging growing environments facing poor rural farmers in places like Mali. Over the past decade, PPB has produced compelling and successful case studies, for both farmers and plant breeders. By involving local farmer “seek seekers” like Burama Sangaré of Dissan, a main actor in this film, plant breeders from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi‐Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) utilize local knowledge and farming expertise to create seed varieties that farmers actually will want to plant, harvest, and eat. The farmers then save such seed and share it using local traditional market systems of exchange; conversely, other GMO forms of agriculture yield seeds do not reproduce, thereby forcing farmers to become dependent on outside market mechanisms, contributing to losing ownership in the process and their traditional forms of livelihood and culture.
Why this film and why now? Why does this film matter?
Nyogon: together (pronounced "Nee‐yo‐gawn") intends to show how Burama Sangaré and the village of Dissan are already successfully dealing with climate change and hunger issues and how its farmers, plant‐breeding collaborators, and local knowledge can teach and prepare the rest of us in the developed world, who may very well be approaching an unpredictable future on a grander scale in scope and populations affected, as many predict could happen by the 2040's and 2050's in the West. Moreover, all of this can be done independently from transnational corporate agribusiness influence and invasive global markets.
Despite such successes, looming issues remain pertaining to the intellectual property rights (IPR) of seeds and plant variety protection (PVP) produced through the PPB system. American anthropology professor Scott M. Lacy, a main character in the film who has conducted agricultural research in Dissan for two decades, reasons that this collaborative process (along with international intellectual property rights agreements) raises new questions about the ownership of "collaborative seed" and the distribution of risk and benefits among impoverished farmers and their scientist partners. Lacy’s research describes how formal bodies such as International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) take ownership of seed and the means of production out of the hands of farmers like Burama Sangaré while increasing the rights of breeders. On the contrary, farmer systems of PVP are more in line with actual biological principals in plant breeding and seed production and “open source” local traditions. In the latter system, farmers own the seeds produced through the PPB method in order to own the means of production and thus be the primary agents in their work life agenda and can feed themselves. Under the UPOV system, however, such farmers would lose their status as producers and thus be subject to global markets and consumers of expensive and aggressively protected seed, having to pay royalties to breeders and/or obtain a grower’s license. The UPOV farmer’s act of 1979, which allowed farmers to save and exchange seed for their own use, was nullified in 1991. As a result, many areas of the world have become victims to the current paradigm, such as in México, Perú, or India.
The recent political coup d’tat and revolution in Mali has rendered previous negotiations with UPOV on alert for revision or dismissal, so the future of PVP policies in Mali hang in the balance and the future of rural farmers like Burama Sangaré are unclear and the very methods that he deploys so effectively are at risk of being deemed “illegal”. Overall, Nyogon confronts all these issues head on and offers a possible solution as to how to deal with the often neglected food security crisis plaguing sub-Saharan Africa.