Interview with Kees Stigter *
The World Food Summit held in Rome (2002) called for an international alliance to accelerate action to reduce world hunger. It also adopted a declaration calling on the international community to fulfil an earlier pledge to cut the number of hungry people to about 400 million by 2015. Several commitments were made related to poverty eradication and food security. The three main commitments are: first, to ensure an enabling environment designed to create conditions for the eradication of poverty and for durable peace; second, implementing policies aimed at improving physical and economic access by all to sufficient nutritionally adequate food; and, third, to promote the allocation and use of public and private investments to foster human resources and rural development.
At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, also in 2002, other commitments and initiatives were put forward. The first commitment was to halve the proportion of people without sanitation by 2015 and the other was concerned with agriculture.
Our interviewee of this issue, Kees Stigter, has vast knowledge and experience of agriculture and climate in many parts of the world.
Kees was born in Amsterdam in February 1940, just a few months before the start of five years of occupation of The Netherlands during the Second World War. His father was a cashier at a colonial bank and his mother was a piano teacher. He went to primary and secondary school in Amsterdam. Two years after the War, his father was assigned to the Dutch East Indies and Kees and his mother followed half a year later. However, they could not stand the grim post-war situation with freedom fighting, prison camps and colonial suppression and they retired half a year later. This relatively short stay abroad had a profound and lasting effect on an eight-year old boy.
Kees commenced his undergraduate studies in Amsterdam in 1958, majoring in physics and mathematics. He was very keen on, and demonstrated exceptional ability in, experimental physics. He had an immense fascination for developing countries and their survival problems. He knew that the Netherlands University Foundation for International Cooperation was active in assisting developing nations and organized courses every Saturday morning at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam. Kees followed these courses for two years and learned the importance of agriculture and the physical environment in the daily struggle for survival of the people.
In October 1962, he decided to take meteorology at the Free University as a two-year minor option (in those days, it was not possible in the Netherlands to study meteorology as a major) and continued his work in experimental physics at the Van der Waals Laboratory in Amsterdam. Kees chose the classical field of thermal conductivity and produced a thesis on the design and use of a hot wire instrument to measure the thermal conductivity of neon at up to more than 2000 atm. In spite of the fact that Kees enjoyed the scientific atmosphere in Amsterdam, he resented the gap between the pure science and the problems of daily life. He wanted to do something useful, to alleviate the suffering of people in the developing countries. He later learned how science could be used for development.
In September 1962, Prof. Rathenau accepted Kees as an assistant at the Central Physics Laboratory. This engagement was not only an honour for Kees, it was a welcome event financially since he had decided to get married. A year later, Kees had an offer from Van der Waal’s Laboratory to join them as a fully paid assistant and do postgraduate research. After receiving his professional degree in experimental physics with meteorology and mathematics as minor subjects, Kees decided to try his luck at Wageningen Agricultural University (WAU) in 1966 as a member of staff. He also became a potential Ph.D. candidate of Prof. W.R. Van Wijk who had published in 1963 the ground-breaking book Physics of Plant Environment with a second edition in 1966. The approach of Van Wijk appealed to Kees very much, since it had an immediate application, particularly under the extremely heterogeneous conditions of the tropical environment.
For two years, Kees worked as a part-time lecturer in undergraduate physics courses. Unfortunately, Van Wijk died in 1967, depriving the world of a true leader in agricultural physics and meteorology. To expand his knowledge in agricultural sciences, he took courses in soil science, hydrology, irrigation, hydraulics, agronomy, horticulture and social sciences. He became a member of the Agromisa Documentation Group, which wrote advisories for people working in developing countries. In 1969, for five months, he was an FAO expert in climatology in Madagascar. This mission brought Kees into direct contact with the rural world of Africa for the first time, and he realized how little he had to offer to Africa and other developing regions and how much more he had to learn.
He made up his mind to work for a Ph.D. degree and was extremely fortunate to come into contact with Prof. C.T. De Wit, a former student of Van Wijk. Together with another Ph.D. student, Jan Goudriaan, Kees started his research to quantify the microclimate of fodder maize in the newly reclaimed polder area of Flevoland. He was fortunate to have at his disposal a large group of capable technical colleagues, laboratory, field and workshop facilities. For three growing seasons, the group studied and validated parameters in one of the first physical dynamical simulation models of crop microclimate that Jan Goudriaan was designing for fodder maize. They published several important papers. Kees wrote his thesis in the meantime on “the design, calibration and use of a ventilated porometer” and was awarded the WAU University Research Prize for the first part of his research.
Kees has written and published almost 500 papers of all categories, not including general papers on science and society and book reviews. He is co-author of a book on multiple cropping in warm climates, later translated from French into English. Some of his work has appeared in the most prestigious publications and journals. In October 1983 he was nominated Tanzanian candidate for the Sasakawa Environment Prize.
This interview took place in Bruchem, The Netherlands, in September 2003.
Bulletin — Between your postgraduate studies and your Ph.D., you did a great deal of lecturing in various fields including climatology. Can you tell us about it?
K.S. — In 1970, I was promoted to Senior Research Scientist and was assigned by my department to help organize the first English-language M.Sc. course at WAU, in soil and water management for students from developing countries. I also taught climatology in the first and second course of the same series in 1971 and 1973. After my departure for Africa in 1974, my lecture notes remained in use for many years. We also organized “capita selecta” courses in tropical agrometeorology. Having obtained the Research Prize and my degree, I was nominated Principal Research Scientist (Associate Professor) at WAU. I continued my work on the theme of the use of science for development from a political leftist point of view and published many papers after 1968. When the “democracy movement” hit the Dutch universities, I became a member of the broad editorial board of the Dutch journal “Science and Society” on topics related to the Third World. I organized and gave lectures at a national conference on “Science and Developing Countries”. Applying my scientific research to the service of the Third World remained my main objective, however.
Bulletin — When did you start visiting foreign countries and what did you do?
The letter contained a request from the Department of Physics of the University of Dar Es Salaam for assistance in agricultural and environmental physics. I was asked to deal with the letter. My first thought was to go there myself so I discussed this with my wife, as we had four small children, including two adopted Korean children. We decided to go to Tanzania. At the University of Dar Es Salaam, I was appointed Associate Professor of Agricultural Physics. The Department was headed by an enlightened Tanzanian scholar, Prof. Paul Vita. I had developed a great interest concerning the value of traditional knowledge as a starting point for assisting farmers in developing countries. The only previous knowledge and reference I had on the subject was a paper written in 1972 by Prof. Gene Wilken, a physical geographer from the USA. Fortunately, I had taken that paper with me. On site, the only instruments for meteorological observations were two Assman psychrometers and two wind vanes, nothing more. Fortunately, prior to my departure, I had secured a promise of financial support from the Government of the Netherlands. Not later than four months after my arrival, we started to receive what we needed as part of the annual allocation of my country to the Tanzanian Government. This valuable support continued for 30 years.
As part of my mission, I started organizing courses in environmental physics, environmental parameters and agricultural physics for both undergraduate and postgraduate levels and, in mid-1978, I was appointed to the position of Full Professor.
What started so successfully became a family tragedy. A little more than a year after her arrival in Dar Es Salaam, my wife appeared to suffer from colon cancer. We returned to the Netherlands for treatment but she died in November 1978, leaving behind four children between the ages of four and 11. Even during the last days of her life, she insisted I go back to Tanzania to continue with my work.
Bulletin — How did you continue with your work in Africa?
K.S. — During the period 1979-1985, I established the Direction of Agricultural Physics (DAP), later called the Research Group of Agricultural Physics. It specialized in collecting and physically quantifying examples of indigenous knowledge and traditional techniques of microclimate management and manipulation. This project was again fully funded from the bilateral donations of the Dutch Government. We organized outdoor experiments and tested and adapted all kinds of meteorological equipment (radiometers, including totalizators and integrators, air-movement detectors, Piche evaporimeters, evaporation pans, raingauges, soil thermometers, infra-red thermometers, etc.) for outdoor use in tropical conditions.
We developed theories on soil-temperature modification and radiation extinction by grass mulches. We analysed, studied and interpreted the data sent to us from Kenya by Dr Caleb Othieno, Director of the Tea Research Institute in Kericho. Expanding on earlier theoretical work by Van Wijk, we were able to explain quantitatively the death of some young tea plants after drought. The thermal properties that we quantified for some of their mulches, negatively influenced root growth. Those mulches had been tried out on station for erosion prevention in farmers’ fields, where they were traditionally used. The tea with badly developed roots could not stand the subsequent drought.
Bulletin — And the project on traditional techniques to improve microclimate?
Later on, technicians from Wageningen were successfully involved in assessing the workshops in the participating countries, as well as in the training of local technicians.
In particular, we developed a model of research education whereby the candidates could tackle local problems under their own existing conditions and brain drain could be prevented. Just before its extension into a second phase in 1990, we called it the “Picnic” model. We were joined by the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, north Nigeria. In 2003, the Netherlands Fellowship Programme (which gives priority to research in sub-Saharan Africa with focus on local research demands and capacity-building components) adopted the Picnic model.
In Wageningen, I was assisted by a Steering Committee that, in the second phase, until 1997, counted 10 members, some also from outside WAU. In this second phase, I had become a honorary visiting professor at the universities concerned, a position I still hold in the Sudan. I carried out 41 missions to Africa, the last one in 2000/2001 in Sudan.
Bulletin — You have done a great deal of research, training and teaching in all aspects of agrometeorology. How much of this work had direct relevance to practical aspects? What are the most evident benefits obtained by the countries involved?
K.S. — For about 15 years, my African Ph.D. and M.Sc. candidates, their local supervisors and myself conducted quantitative African field research in a number of priority areas determined by my African counterparts. Our achievements include the following:
• Protecting irrigated land from wind-driven sand encroachment by shelterbelts, for which we developed design rules, and determination of water waste by traditional and newly developed irrigation methods in the Gezira scheme, Sudan;
• Assessment of alley cropping (contour hedgerow) agroforestry solutions in semi-arid areas, first on flat and subsequently on sloping land, as well as wind protection and water conservation in hedged agroforestry demonstration plots in Kenya;
• Wind reduction by scattered trees in savannah woodland, protection of coffee plants from wind damage by umbrella shade trees (northern Tanzania) and assessment of shading and other improvements in traditional grain-storage structures (southern Tanzania);
• The insufficient wind-advected heat protection of crops between multiple shelterbelts grown to combat desertification (northern Nigeria) and proposals for improvements of traditional inter-cropping systems with millet and cowpea and the design of more efficient systems (semi-arid Nigeria);
• The selection and planting of trees and grasses for catching wind-driven sand by deposition in a secondary source area as protection against desertification, as well as improving the microclimate of sorghum grain traditionally stored underground and extending its safe storage periods in Central Sudan. This required the design of improved grain-holding pits, using recent farmer innovations, together with supporting research findings.
Bulletin — How did other scientists in the field react to your research?
K.S. — Colleagues everywhere had praise for the obvious socio-economic relevance of this kind of work but some had doubts about its suitability for research education and scientific training. Since the early 1990s until now, we have published the results of this work in peer-reviewed scientific journals. In a little over 10 years, we have published some 50 such papers in more than 25 different scientific journals. This is our answer to any scepticism with respect to the scientific value of this quantitative African fieldwork.
This type of research by African Ph.D. candidates who live in the area and face agrometeorological problems daily can be very beneficial to poor farmers. It serves the local agricultural communities, including those using livestock and forests. This approach may be different from the traditional one, but it is functional and practical, since it takes the farmers’ needs into consideration. Massive external support is needed in Africa, not only in the way of food aid and relief goods, but also with substantial structural measures and means. Donors, including the UN, are increasingly lacking. Are they no longer interested in poverty alleviation or have they forgotten the daily plight of the poor peasants? At present, a sense of hopelessness prevails.
Apart from my projects, I was involved for more than 35 years in numerous workshops, seminars, conferences, evaluation and other missions in Africa, not only in my four project countries but also in Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Niger, Senegal and Zambia—15 countries in all.
Bulletin — Tell us about your visits to Asia.
I made four short visits to Viet Nam, in 2000, 2001 and twice in 2003, working on joint workshops and projects. There were also invitations to lecture for the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre in Bangkok in 2002 and Beijing in 2003.
Nowadays, I have to work with relatively little support, even from WAU, with the exception of my own “Chair Group of Meteorology and Air Quality”. Other sources of support are the Inner Mongolian Academy of Agricultural Sciences (IMAAS) through the China Agricultural University, Beijing, which provides assistance to Ph.D. candidates from the poorer western province of Inner Mongolia via the IMAAS. We have just started a joint three-year project at the IMAAS Wuchuan County Dryland Farming Experiment Station in Inner Mongolia. Since 1997, I have had seven missions to China and have managed to introduce Picnic-type models of assistance, providing advice to M.Sc. and Ph.D. candidates for specific fields and particular places. In brief, through numerous discussions, personal advice and lecturing at more than 10 different Chinese institutes, I have so far succeeded in bringing my African experience and that of CAgM to China and have also used experience from China for the benefit of Africa.
There are plans for mounting more joint undertakings, such as during invited visits to India in January/February 2004 and Japan in September 2004.
Bulletin — What about the South-West Pacific?
K.S. — My second wife is of Dutch/Indonesian origin. I had met her in Tanzania in 1980 when she was working at the Embassy of the Netherlands. She helped me raise my children and later on assisted me in my work in Africa. Since 1994, we have lived for part of the year in Indonesia. These stays have become even longer since my retirement in early 2001 and I therefore wanted to do some work there. In early 1999, the late Dr S. Karjoto, a former president of RA V, introduced me to the Department of Geophysics and Meteorology (DGM) of the Institute Pertanian Bogor (IPB) in West Java, where the main fields of study are agrometeorology and agroclimatology. My Department of Environmental Sciences at the Wageningen University and Research Centre established an Agreement of Cooperation with IPB/DGM. I have done six more missions and visits to IPB in that context and a great deal of lecturing, as well as many discussions on suitable projects.
Through Dr Andi Lolo, Cultural Attaché at the Indonesian Embassy in The Hague, I became acquainted with the existence of what now is called the Consortium of East Indonesian Universities. From January 2000 until September 2002, at their invitation, I lectured at five regional universities, in Bangkalan (Madura), in Makassar, Manado and Kendari (Sulawesi)) and in Mataram (Lombok). I taught on the future of agrometeorology and on the potential and problems of the use of agrometeorological information and services, including seasonal climate forecasts and warnings for extreme events, in agricultural production of small farmers.
Bulletin — What are the dominant agricultural problems in Africa, Asia and the South-West Pacific? What about drought and desertification? Are forestry and livestock development comparable to agriculture?
K.S. — My answer to this question is based on the experience I have obtained from my own work, my nearly 13 years (1985-1997) of membership of the National Advisory Board of the Netherlands Minister for Development Cooperation, and my five years as a member of the Daily Board of the largest Dutch NGO for development assistance. The vicious circle of poverty and inability to cope with environmental degradation and disasters is the most obvious problem in African agriculture, forestry and livestock production. This is true in subsistence farming but also in raising livestock and growing cash crops, including trees, for local or the wider African markets. The absence of well organized but decentralized leadership and efficient governance makes it impossible to break this circle. Other factors are corruption and the scourges of AIDS and globalization under imperfect market conditions set by the industrialized world. Soil erosion by wind and water and partly related soil fertility degradation and desertification are caused mainly by poverty-guided agriculture, animal husbandry and forestry. These are added to numerous consequences of increasing climate variability and climate change, including more droughts and floods. Only on a small scale, innovations by African farmers and the emerging assistance from NGOs and enlightened local scientists are beginning to have beneficial effects.
We have succeeded in parts of Africa to provide some services with agrometeorological components but the scale of intervention is much too small to have adequate impacts. We do not provide the means on a large enough scale, even when we manage to get around the institutional problems. Therefore, no near future solutions will be forthcoming on anything other than a small local scale. The same problems exist in some poorer regions of rural Asia and the South-West Pacific and parts of South America. In some parts of Asia, the conditions are less desperate compared to almost all of Africa south of the Sahara. Changes of attitude and increased governance to protect land, forests and people, appear most feasible in the long run in some parts of Asia.
Bulletin — Are there solutions to which science may contribute?
K.S. — In my recent agrometeorology lectures in Asia, I developed a diagnostic and conceptual framework for a better understanding of dilemmas relating to crops, livestock, forestry and non-forest trees. My definition of agrometeorological services—to be developed further through participatory pilot projects—ranges from:
• Agrometeorological characterization to response farming;
• Microclimate management decisions to focused interannual, seasonal or other climate forecasting and specific weather forecasting;
• Disaster mitigation/reduction using, as a basis, monitoring and early warning approaches, to validation of new adaptation strategies relating to environmental degradation and other changes.
To make an impact in the most important domain of the livelihood of farmers through such participatory services, a combination of three pools of knowledge must be selected, for each case, in a second domain, where initial and boundary conditions for problem solving are set. We must first understand the value and the limits of current local adaptive strategies, indigenous technologies and innovations that were developed from pools of traditional knowledge. Secondly, we must make the most suitable choices in mobilizing applicable knowledge from contemporary science pools in order to tackle the problems using our derived services. In this respect, but also for a better understanding of existing adaptation strategies, there is a third domain—the support systems in the form of data, basic research, education and policies. Thirdly and finally, for any service to be successful in impacting the livelihood of the target groups of farmers, we must derive from our socio-economic knowledge pools the appropriate policy environments. From this reasoning, it is clear that neither in Africa nor in most of rural Asia and the South-West Pacific,has the correct mix of these three knowledge pools been made and implemented. So, we cannot solve any of the basic problems in agricultural (including livestock) and forest production affecting the livelihood of farmers. Small-scale local work is the only resort, with limits of success set by the larger scale conditions.
Bulletin — To what extent have the recent rapid advances in information technology, such as audio and video media, the Internet, etc., contributed to the dissemination of agrometeorological information to users?
K.S. — To begin with, I believe it is incumbent on all the agrometeorological services to be in contact with the farmers, to find out about and discuss their problems and, in the light of such discussions,, to make an inventory of their exact requirements. In other words, a high degree of participation by farmers to formulate their needs is absolutely necessary. From there on it is up to the agrometeorologists and other experts in the field to analyse the problems and come forward with reasonable solutions. The proposed solutions must be validated by the experts with the participation of the farmers and suitable intermediaries. Of course, the rapid advances in information technology are invaluable to facilitate the task of experts. Just like so many modern “high-tech” means and services, scientists love them and push for their increased application. However, it should be kept in mind that these tools and their sophisticated abilities are simply the means and not the goals. Agrometeorological bulletins and rural radio have proven their value beyond any doubt. There is no reason why e-mailing, television and the Internet should not be used to transfer the information. The technical aspects of such transfer should be left to the technicians. What is important here is: what to transfer, how to transfer and from whom to whom? I believe that neither the scientists nor the climate forecasters are the right people to interact on a direct and regular basis with the end users, who are the farmers. Often their technical jargon is incomprehensible to the farmer. What is needed is a group of capable intermediaries who can translate focused agrometeorological information into a language and a form that is easily understood and absorbed by the end users.
In Africa, for a long time, the wrong approach has been adopted as regards extension intermediaries and their training, as well as equipping them for their tasks. The extension services, if anything, were taught modern knowledge, not adapted or applicable to the actual needs of most of the farmers. Vocational education in agriculture and/or in technical subjects hardly exists. Changing the training of intermediaries and providing them with the information suitable for validation with farmers is perhaps one of the most urgent actions needed.
Bulletin — You were in contact with WMO for many years and were vice-president and president of CAgM. In which way could the Organization as a whole, and the Commission in particular, improve their efforts in helping farmers?
I have already pointed out the areas into which substantial initiatives could be injected to improve our efforts in the field of agrometeorology, in particular in the developing parts of Africa and Asia. I am somewhat disheartened that the top of the Organization has never promoted better operational support to the national agrometeorology in developing countries. I must mention that CAgM, in the course of its existence, has collaborated considerably with other organizations such as FAO or institutes of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. Yet, somehow we never received the adequate support and funds for many of our operational plans to materialize. Until recently there was never much enthusiasm to involve the World Climate Programme in expanding agrometeorological activities. The situation in the National Meteorological Services is not much better. Why is agrometeorology so neglected in many developing countries—just where the need to support this field is most important? This is one of the largest mistakes made in international meteorology and climatology.
Bulletin — What are you doing nowadays and what are your plans for the near future?
K.S. — Apart from finalizing publication of the results of our African field research and teaching in Asia and the South-West Pacific, I am heavily involved in the process of overseeing the rewriting of WMO/CAgM’s Guide to Agricultural Meteorological Practices, which I started in 1999. These tasks will keep me busy for the next five years or so, if I last that long.
Since April 2001, I have been the founding president of the Web-based International Society for Agricultural Meteorology, In March 2002, we started a Website (www.agrometeorology.org), on which I spend some time almost weekly, with much help from others. We want agrometeorologists everywhere in the world to be in contact with each other and with the many other Websites that are of importance for the agricultural environment. We also intend to launch an electronic journal on operational agrometeorology. This activity will certainly continue for some time. We have already the support of some 500 members.
This does not leave much time for new initiatives, but the advantage is that most of this work can be done from anywhere in the world. What I would like to do in the near future is to start new project-guided missions in Africa, Asia and elsewhere, to promote my views on operational agrometeorology, using the diagnostic domains concept explained earlier. I also wish to have further opportunities to advise on the equipping and training of agrometeorological extension intermediaries for the benefit of those farmers who need our support.
Bulletin — What is the most unforgettable event of your professional life?
K.S. — This is perhaps the most difficult question, not because I do not have a reply but because I have too many replies.
Unforgettable events have happened to me during all my professional life and I thought that each one was the best one at the time. For example, when I wrote my thesis on instrumental aspects of field observations and I was awarded the WAU University Research Prize, I was very excited. Then came my work on developing and initiating the Picnic model and the early work on drought and tea. Subsequent results of works on research, education and training made me very content. Whenever I contributed to a new section in an African university and faced the challenge of adapting my work to African conditions and day-to-day realities, I felt extremely happy. Given the conditions, we considered the early successes of the TTMI Project, such as showing that alley cropping was largely unsuitable on flat land in semi-arid climates but could be useful on sloping lands, no less than a miracle. In Sudan, we quantified water waste of “laissez-faire” irrigation. We were the first to quantify sand capturing in a shelterbelt and by single trees and grasses. We were the first (and so far only) to quantify wind reduction in savannah woodland as a function of tree density. All these efforts and their beneficial effects were unforgettable events for us.
In Sudan and Nigeria, working with students who were ready to sacrifice much of their personal lives for learning and research, we discovered that involvement and innovation by farmers were the main elements in, for example, the success of improved small-scale underground grain storage. In Nigeria, we showed the errors which had been made in the design and extension of multiple shelterbelts for crop protection and we designed improvements. When we confirmed that the socio-economic components we had added to agrometeorology made the difference, we were highly pleased.
If one day I happen to see that my “end-to-end” conceptual diagnostic framework on generation and transfer of agrometeorological services and information has received recognition and has had effects in the domain of the livelihood of the farmers, then I will know that my 40 years of service in agrometeorology has been fruitful. This is unforgettable to any scientist.
In July 2003, we had just arrived at the Wuchuan County Dry Land Farming Experimental Station in Inner Mongolia, less than 100 km from the capital Huhhohot. Unannounced, we went to the house of the chief of one of the small villages nearby. The chief and his wife were having dinner. There were nine of us sitting in a small room on the “kang” (a large traditional bed heated from below in winter), in the dim light of a single naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. We discussed for a long time (translated by my counterpart, Prof. Zheng Dawei) about the family of our host, their crops, farming system, income, expenditure, etc. We talked about available agrometeorological information, traditional knowledge and more. They told us about their desire to have access to a cable TV or a dish in order to receive channels with programmes on farming. I have spoken on many occasions with poor farmers in Africa, India and Indonesia,but this unexpected evening discussion in China was definitely one of the most unforgettable events of my professional life.
Bulletin — We wish you many more years of valuable service to agrometeorology wherever such advice is needed—and many more conversations such as the one you had recently in China.