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‘Taste this, it’s salty’: how rising seas are ruining the Gambia’s rice farmers | Global development

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In the sweltering heat of the late-morning west African sun, Aminata Jamba slashes at golden rice stalks with a sickle. “The rice is lovely,” she says, music playing in the background as her son, Sampa, silently harvests the grain. But even if the quality is high, the quantity is not.

While once Jamba could have expected to harvest enough rice to last the whole year, this year she reckons it will last three to four months. After that, she will have to look elsewhere for a way to feed her family and make enough money to live.

“Things are different now,” explains Manding Kassamah, a fellow farmer and mother of nine, fresh in from the rice fields, empty water can in hand. “The rains used to come in plenty. People would work and have a good harvest. Now, we work hard but we don’t get as much rice as we used to.”

Manding Kassamah, a rice farmer in Kerewan
Manding Kassamah, a rice farmer in Kerewan, says the soil began to get saltier about 25 years ago but the process has accelerated in the past decade. Photograph: Sylvain Cherkaoui/Guardian

Traditionally, rice farming in the Gambia has been mostly done by women, while their male counterparts look after the groundnuts. But for years now the female farmers have watched as the land around them becomes increasingly difficult to manage.

Here in Kerewan, on the north bank of the Gambia River, they are battling the climate crisis on two fronts. Rising sea levels are pushing saltwater further and further along the river, which snakes its way across the length of the low-lying country, and prolonged dry spells mean less freshwater to flush out the salinity. The result is that the water in the fields that used to produce rice is now too salty, and the much of the land – more than 30 hectares (74 acres) – has had to be abandoned. For women such as Jamba and Kassamah, that is a disaster.

A farmer,on an expanse of salt
Almamo Fatty, a farmer, shows the layer of salt where there used to be a rice field. Photograph: Sylvain Cherkaoui/The Guardian

“These women are pushed out and they don’t have many other livelihoods to turn to like men,” says Muhammed Ceesay, 27, from the youth-led organisation Activista. “It pushes them into poverty. They are very vulnerable.”

The women here are relatively lucky, as they do have an alternative source of food and income in the form of a vegetable garden. They can grow aubergines, tomatoes, peppers and onions, and know that, even if they have dwindling rice supplies, they will have something to sell or eat. “It’s our tomorrow,” says Binta Fatty. “It helps us in so many areas because it helps us stay healthy and to be able to buy small things for our children. That’s why we focus on the garden after the rice fields.”

This backup is essential. Last year’s rice harvest only lasted Fatty about six months before she had to do what in Kerewan would once have been unthinkable: buy imported rice.

In the past 10 years, this has become the norm across the Gambia. “In this community there was a time when, if they saw you buy rice from the shop, they would know there was hunger in your house. Now, it’s the order of the day,” says Almamo Fatty, 63, no close relation of Binta, although the two joke that they are brother and sister.

“I don’t think you will see anyone in this community [now] who will say: I can farm enough rice to feed my family for longer than six months,” he says.

Binta Fatty, rice farmer
Binta Fatty’s rice harvest last year only lasted her for six months, whereas it once would have lasted for the year. Photograph: Sylvain Cherkaoui/The Guardian

His own is no exception. His son, Kemo Fatty, a climate activist who was part of the Gambian delegation to the Cop26 climate summit, has seen how his mother has become gradually less self-sufficient. “She has to depend on my pay cheque to actually buy rice that comes from China, and this has been happening for the past couple of years now,” he says. “Imagine, from having our own rice that we grew and ate all year round to having no rice at all.”

The Gambian government knows more needs to be done to protect its farmers from the impact of the climate crisis: agriculture is the most important sector of the economy, accounting for about a quarter of GDP and employing about 75% of the labour force.

But, from low technological capacity to poor energy supplies, the challenges for farmers are daunting. Almost all food in the country comes from rain-fed fields, making farmers particularly vulnerable to changes in precipitation.

And female farmers – who are expected to shoulder the burden of caring for their families as well as earning their keep, risk domestic violence as poverty bites, and are often unable to access the contraception they need to control how many children they want – are arguably the most vulnerable of all.

The Gambian climate activist Fatou Jeng, who was also in Glasgow for Cop26, says that although they make up about 70% of the country’s agricultural workforce, women and girls “face inadequate access to basic natural resources needed for farming”.

Writing for the International Rescue Committee website, she adds: “There is a great injustice at the heart of all of this. All too often, these under-represented groups, such as women living in fragile states, understand most about what is at stake and, therefore, the solutions needed to tackle climate change. Yet women in particular have been systematically excluded from the decision-making table.”

In short, if women like Jamba, Kassamah and Fatty are left out of the climate crisis solution, the solution may never be found.

Salt held up on the tip of a machete
Almamo Fatty shows the salt encrusting what used to be prime agricultural land near Kerewan. Photograph: Sylvain Cherkaoui/The Guardian

Standing on the boggy banks of a tributary of the Gambia River, Almamo Fatty gestures to the ground, the clay sparkling in the sunshine. “This stuff you see shining? That is salt,” he says, shaving off a thin layer with a machete. “If you taste this, it is salty.” And it is.

“Twenty years ago, if you grew rice here it would grow like this,” he says, gesturing to his shoulder. One field would have produced 20 bags of rice. Now, there are plans for a dyke to stop the saltwater, but he knows life will never go back to the way it was before the climate crisis arrived. “This land here, it was all rice fields,” he says. “Now it’s all abandoned.”

Additional reporting by Omar Wally



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Protests flare across Poland after death of young mother denied an abortion | Abortion

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Protests are under way across Poland after the death of a 37-year-old woman this week who was refused an abortion, a year since the country introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

On the streets of Warsaw on Tuesday night, protesters laid wreaths and lanterns in memory of Agnieszka T, who died earlier that day. She was pregnant with twins when one of the foetus’ heartbeat stopped and doctors refused to carry out an abortion. In a statement, her family accused the government of having “blood on its hands”. Further protests are planned in Częstochowa, the city in southern Poland where the mother-of-three was from.

“We continue to protest so that no one else will die,” Marta Lempart, organiser of the protests, told Polish media. “The Polish abortion ban kills. Another person has died because the necessary medical procedure was not carried out on time.” All-Poland Women’s Strike has called on people across the country to picket the offices of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and organise road blockades in the coming days.

Agnieszka was first admitted to the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital in Częstochowa with abdominal pain on 21 December. She is said to have been in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy when she arrived and was in “a good physical and mental shape”, according to her family, who said her condition then deteriorated.

On 21 December the heartbeat of one of the twins stopped and, according to Agnieszka’s family, the doctors refused to remove it, quoting the current abortion legislation. They waited several days until the second foetus also died. A further two days passed before the pregnancy was terminated on 31 December, according to the family.

A priest was then summoned by hospital staff to perform a funeral for the twins, the family said.

The family say that the doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy earlier, citing Poland’s abortion legislation. “Her husband begged the doctors to save his wife, even at the cost of the pregnancy,” Agnieszka’s twin sister, Wioletta Paciepnik, said on Tuesday.

After the termination, Agnieszka was moved from the gynaecological ward and her health continued to deteriorate. Her family suspect that she died of sepsis but the cause of death was not identified in a statement released by the hospital.

Shortly after her death, a statement by her family accusing the hospital of neglect was published on Facebook, alongside a distressing video of Agnieszka’s last days.

Agnieszka’s death marks the first anniversary of the 2021 ruling that declared abortion due to foetal abnormalities illegal. Abortion can now only be carried out in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life and health are in danger.

Her death comes after that of a woman known as Izabela last September, who died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Her family claim the 30-year-old was refused an abortion or caesarean section and that the hospital cited the country’s abortion laws. An investigation found that “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined. Soon after, an anonymous man from Świdnica in south-west Poland came forward to share that his wife, Ania, died in similar circumstances in June last year.

While “selective abortion” is possible in the case of a twin pregnancy, it is unclear whether aborting an unviable foetus to save its healthy twin is permitted by the new abortion legislation. The Polish court has not referenced the questions raised by this situation, presented by opposition senators last year, in the new legislation.

“We want to honour the memory of my beloved sister and save other women in Poland from a similar fate,” Paciepnik said in a video appeal. The case is now being investigated by the regional prosecutors in Katowice, who also investigated the case of Izabela.

The family are represented by Kamila Ferenc, from the Federation for Women and Family Planning, who confirmed that an autopsy of Agnieszka’s body has been ordered by the court.

According to a statement from the hospital, Agnieszka tested positive for Covid before her death, although she tested negative twice when first admitted. “We stress that the hospital staff did all the necessary actions to save the patient,” the statement read. The hospital did not respond to the Guardian for a request for comment.

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Italy welcoming back EU tourists from February

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Italy will remove all Covid-linked restrictions on international visitors from the EU from 1 February, except the requirement to carry a “Green Pass” – a certificate of vaccination, negative test result, or immunity through having had the virus. Roberto Speranza, the health minister, also gave Italians the go-ahead to travel once again to Cuba, Singapore, Turkey, Thailand (the island of Phuket), Oman, and French Polynesia, Reuters reports.

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Polish state has ‘blood on its hands’ after death of woman refused an abortion | Abortion

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The family of a Polish woman who died on Tuesday after doctors refused to perform an abortion when the foetus’s heart stopped beating have accused the government of having “blood on their hands”.

The woman, identified only as Agnieszka T, was said to have been in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy when she was admitted to the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital in Częstochowa on 21 December. Her death comes a year after Poland introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

According to a statement released by relatives, the 37-year-old was experiencing pain when she arrived at the hospital but was “fully conscious and in good physical shape”.

The first foetus died in the womb on 23 December, but doctors refused to remove it, quoting the current abortion legislation, and Agnieszka’s family claim “her state quickly deteriorated”. The hospital waited until the heartbeat of the second twin also stopped a week later, and then waited a further two days before terminating the pregnancy on 31 December.

Agnieszka died on 25 January after weeks of deteriorating health. Her family suspect that she died as a result of septic shock, but the hospital did not identify the cause of her death in statement issued on Wednesday.

“This is proof of the fact that the current government has blood on their hands,” the woman’s family said in a statement on Facebook. The family also uploaded distressing footage of Agnieszka in poor health shortly before she died.

After the termination of the pregnancy a priest was summoned by the hospital staff to perform a funeral for the twins, Agnieszka’s family said.

Her death follows that of a woman known as Izabela last September, who died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Her family claim the 30-year-old was denied an abortion or caesarean section and that the hospital cited the country’s abortion laws. An investigation found “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined.

Agnieszka’s family claim that contact with the hospital was very poor and that the hospital refused to share the results of Agnieszka’s medical tests citing confidentiality guidelines. They say the doctors “insinuated” that Agnieszka’s rapidly deteriorating state could be caused by BSE, commonly known as “mad cow disease”, or Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) and suggested she ate raw meat. The hospital did not reference this claim in their statement.

According to the statement from the hospital, Agnieszka tested positive for Covid before her death, although she tested negative twice when first admitted. “We stress that the hospital staff did all the necessary actions to save the patient,” the statement read. It is not clear whether an autopsy has been ordered.

Agnieszka is survived by her husband and three children.

The Guardian has contacted the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital for comment.

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