The Missionary Farmer
Bro. Ottorino is not one to wear a cassock, and he is never afraid to get his hands dirty, either!
By Emanuela Citterio
Brother Ottorino Zanatta, 68, is a PIME Missionary Brother and a farmer. He lives in Cameroon, where, in 2010, he accepted the challenge of renovating a farm that is located in the Far North Region of the country to make it productive once again.
“My work is the same as that of millions of farmers, with whom I share the labor, the hopes and uncertainty. Especially here in Africa, where most of the population is devoted to agriculture and where severe climatic changes cannot be corrected by technology.” Bro. Ottorino Zanatta, 68, is a PIME Missionary Brother and a farmer. He lives in Cameroon, where, in 2010, he accepted the challenge of making productive a farm that is located in the Far North of the country. It is an area from which young people flee to pour into the suburbs of large cities, and one that is affected by the situation of insecurity caused by the actions of the terrorist sect Boko Haram, which encroaches from neighboring Nigeria.
A man of small stature, always on the move, Bro. Ottorino is a religious brother who lives a concrete and practical spirituality: “I certainly do not wear a cassock at the agricultural center,” he says. “My work tools are not even computers or the internet, but a pitchfork for manure and straw and, when necessary, a small tractor for agricultural work. To come to Africa to become a farmer means first of all understanding and sharing the difficulties of the majority of the population, being at their side to give them some encouragement for the future. Sometimes it is also necessary to suffer with them, lest they do not feel abandoned.”
The agro-pastoral farm of Foullouwayna already existed in the 2000s, but for about 10 years it was not run to its potential. Few knew what it was growing or even where it was located, even though it was only ten kilometers from the city of Yagoua, on the border with Chad. “In 2010 I left the mission of Zouzoui with the task of re-launching the farm and joining the team composed of PIME Brother Fabio Mussi and Sara Baroni and Simonetta Redaelli, both of the Lay Pime Association, who worked in the Diocesan Committee of the socio-charitable activities (Codas-Caritas) of the diocese of Yagoua,” explains Bro. Ottorino. Throughout the region the political instability caused by Boko Haram has affected the economy. Trade in agricultural products and farm animals with neighboring Nigeria, a very populated country that imports food from Cameroon, has slowed down considerably. Furthermore, the recurrent epidemics of swine and avian flu have also paralyzed the trade routes to the south of Cameroon.
“The first impression of the farm was that of finding myself in an abandoned corner of [the] savannah with mostly sandy and almost barren lands, full of bushes, with all the facilities, from animal stables to lodgings, crumbling and incomplete,” recalls Bro. Ottorino. “So we had to roll up our sleeves and start thinking about a simple structure that would be useful at improving agricultural techniques and farmers.”
Brother Ottorino started with some young people from neighboring villages to rebuild the farm and, with the support of the Caritas rural and agricultural development service, he managed to bring animal husbandry back into operation and cultivate an area of about 30 acres. “I work with five full-time people, responsible for various sectors: pigs, stables, a fishery, agro-forest nursery, chicken farm and production of vegetables,” explains Bro. Ottorino. “For seasonal work such as land preparation, grass mowing, sowing and harvesting, young people from neighboring villages are recruited. “
Bro. Ottorino uses his skills in argriculture to combat the both the poverty and famine caused by the violence in the region.
Since 2016, the cultivation of the 30 acres of land has become faster thanks to the purchase of a small 30-horsepower Chinese tractor. A tractor that has solved the problem of manual labor shortages and replaced animal traction right at the crucial moments of the beginning of the rainy season. “Now the rains are limited to only three months a year and moreover they are not always regular,” notes the PIME Missionary. “This is also an alarming sign: nature sends warnings to man who no longer respects the laws of nature.” The land grows local cereals, millet, corn, beans, cassava, rice and fodder plants for animal feed.
Another challenge that the farm has decided to take on is the fight against desertification. From the very beginning a nursery of forest species was created, and it has been growing steadily. “In 2013 we produced 10,000 seedlings of Neems, a non-prickly tree native to the Indies, the following year 30,000, and arriving in 2017 another 45,000 seedlings,” affirms Bro. Ottorino, who however admits, with regret that this activity struggles to take off. “Unfortunately, farmers have other priorities to feed their families, and are not encouraged by institutions to plant trees. There is in fact no private ownership of land, so those who planted risk being unable to benefit from the fruits of their work. Moreover, state-run offices are slowed down by bureaucracy and do not receive the necessary funds for the purchase of plants.”
Animal husbandry occupies an important place on the farm. “The stables are home to 35 cattle and 60 sheep and goats. The pig sty with its 150 pigs rules over the rest. The poultry shed can hold up to 1,000 hens. Finally, we have 12 ponds that allow us to raise thousands of fish.” The farm has succeeded in triggering a circular economy, albeit with many difficulties, in a pre-desert band of the Sahel, where from February to May the temperature reaches 110 degrees in the shade…
“The goal is self-sufficiency and, hopefully, one day it will be profitable,” explains Bro. Ottorino. “Despite the threat of Boko Haram complicating the situation, the farm is offering employment to about 20 young heads of families. And this is not a little thing. Another fundamental objective is the training of young farmers, organized in cooperatives with the support of Caritas. Every year about 100 young people go to the farm to be trained in new agricultural techniques.” Bro. Ottorino goes on optimistically: “The small improvements we introduce among the population allow us to hope for a better future. When a farmer has learned to improve his land using organic fertilizer from his animals, he has acquired much more than a degree. He earned the right to defeat hunger. And this is a great achievement for himself and for the community.”