Interviews with internally displaced persons, non-governmental organizations, government officials and FAO field staff throughout Darfur suggest that despite ongoing violence in the region, the time has come to redouble support for the many farmers and herders who now want to return to their fields and pastures.
"When the militia attacked three outlying villages in December 2003, about 9 000 people, out of 14 000 in this area, fled. The militia burned the huts in the three villages and drove all the livestock away," says Mohammed Adam Isag, the umda or chief of a group of villages around Bulbul Dalal Alangra in South Darfur State. "Many have come back this year, but the others need support to return. Meanwhile, farmers will only farm close to the villages for fear of going to distant fields, and food production has gone down a lot."
Working through a non-governmental organization, FAO has helped the village, both returnees and those who didn't flee but who have shared what they have with the returned villagers. Fields within sight of the village are high with millet, the staple crop, grown with 18 tonnes of seed delivered earlier this year. Donkey ploughs, hand tools and farming advice were also given.
Across the three states of Darfur, FAO has helped 950 000 people, both returnees and those in host communities, get started again or boost food production to cope with the crisis. Inputs delivered to date include 1 500 tonnes of seed, 250 000 hand tools and 6 000 ploughs.
Yet, food production remains in crisis, according to Fadul Eldom Ahmed, Director of Agriculture Services for West Darfur, who estimates that the area under cultivation in his state alone went down to 30 percent of normal levels in 2004 and to 66 percent this year. FAO estimates this year's cultivated area in the state as only 45 percent.
"If the area finds peace, most of the people will return home and at that time we won't need food support - we'll need 3 000 tonnes of seed, tools and technical assistance in West Darfur alone to help people produce even more than before," he predicts.
Opinion in Darfur is divided into two camps. One says violence is still too widespread to put large-scale assistance into re-establishing livelihoods like farming and herding. The other camp believes that emergency assistance and rehabilitation must go hand in hand.
Demere Seyoum, field director of World Relief, an NGO that works with FAO providing inputs to farmers, thinks that many residents driven from their farms are eager to return "regardless of the risk".
"They have been going out in groups of 10 to 12 women for protection, walking four, five or six kilometres from camps to their former villages that were destroyed to cultivate their fields," he says. "The risks are certainly there -- first, security, but also the risk of putting in a lot of effort for a small return. Small things can really help these farmers produce a lot more. "
"We argue that people want to come back to farm. They tell us that the security situation is okay," says Hashim Zakaria, head of the Sudanese Popular Committee for Relief and Rehabilitation in South Darfur, an NGO that works extensively with FAO. "But the international community is more interested in funding relief."
FAO continues to provide agricultural emergency and rehabilitation assistance to these vulnerable people in Darfur wherever possible and when the local conditions allow.