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  • Writer's pictureNeill Mckee

Revisiting IDRC projects I filmed during 1975-1987

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

During the last year I have been writing a new memoir on my career as an international filmmaker and multi-media producer with CUSO, IDRC, UNICEF and three US-based development agencies. The longest part of the draft manuscript, so far, is on my years as a filmmaker with IDRC during 1975-1987. I had the opportunity to visit, film and photograph hundreds of projects supported by the divisions of IDRC at the time: Agriculture, Food, and Nutrition Sciences; Health Sciences; Social Sciences; and Information Sciences, working with IDRC program staff and meeting and working with the scientists and personnel carrying out the field work, and learning so much about international development and the world in the process.

During the process of writing, I was curious to learn about the results of the research projects I filmed so long ago. Did they result in any positive, long-lasting benefits? In fact, I was surprised to find that in many cases, the answer is positive, at least for those I documented fully in separate films. Below are some excerpts from my manuscript, still a work in progress.

Fisheries and Aquaculture

I worked closely with William Herbert (“Bert") Allsopp, Associate Director for Fisheries and Aquaculture and Brian Davy on three fisheries and aquaculture films. My fondest fish filming memories are on trips to the Philippines, where I visited the research site of the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC) near Iloilo, Panay Island. There, I captured the story of the milkfish (Chanos chanos), the most important aquaculture species in that country. In 1974, IDRC-funded research, carried out by a Filipino-Canadian team, had induced artificial spawning of an adult milkfish using hormonal injections, and fertilization of its eggs with milkfish sperm. This was important because the supply of fish fry was always limited. At the time, the full lifecycle of the fish in the wild remained a mystery.

I had to return several times and hire others to capture all angles of this project. We filmed induced spawning of captured adult milkfish, but also captured scenes of villagers with large fine nets mounted on floating bamboo frames, plowing through the shallow water near the shore, scooping up these minute fish fry—almost transparent except for their eyes—and transferring them into containers onshore. Some of the fry that escaped the villagers’ nets would head back into the sea and return as adults, six or seven years later, to spawn and produce more fry.

This traditional operation of capturing wild fry provided seasonal employment for over 200,000 coastal people during April and May each year, but fewer than half of the fry survived the capture, transfer, and distribution process, and many more that did reach fish ponds never made it to marketable size due to poor rearing methods. It was a tremendous waste of natural resources in a country where 50 percent of the population suffered from protein deficiency.

I took many sequences on improving pond culture with the right bottom soil chemistry to induce the growth of zooplankton, which milkfish feed on, and the best methods of ensuring fry survival. But I added some artistic touches and music sequences to maintain audience interest. On my last visit, I recreated a sequence for the success of August 1980, when the project achieved natural spawning of a four-year-old fish in captivity—a huge breakthrough. I commissioned artwork to demonstrate the intention of setting up milkfish hatcheries and nurseries onshore in combination with these floating cages offshore, where milkfish would grow to sexual maturity.

Milkfish, known locally as bangus, is the national fish of the Philippines. The main object of the project was to learn the best methods of more intensive milkfish aquaculture rather than expanding areas of pond production, which would destroy more coastal mangroves—the breeding grounds for many fish and shellfish species. To show the potential of the industry, SEAFDEC hired a helicopter to fly me over some of the 37,000 acres (15,000 hectares) of milkfish cages in Laguna de Bay, a large freshwater lake near Manila. I also took shots of bangus in markets and restaurants serving a wide variety of bangus dishes. I loved the taste of this fresh seafood and the spirit of the people I ate with after completing those sequences—camaraderie and satisfied bellies.

When I finished our 28-minute film titled, The Mysterious Milkfish: Increased Yield Through Research, it was used widely in the Philippines and elsewhere for education and publicity on aquaculture, shown internally to visitors, distributed though many Canadian embassy film libraries and the National Film Board of Canada, and shown on television in the Philippines and other countries. David Suzuki, the host of the CBC’s The Nature of Things, visited me at the studio where I worked in Ottawa and produced a segment of his show on IDRC’s support for solving problems with milkfish aquaculture in the Philippines. Our film was also given an Honorable Mention at the 26th San Francisco International Film Festival, in 1983.

Did IDRC’s support for this research lead to any long-lasting success in the Philippines? My online search revealed production of milkfish aquaculture expanded from 136,000 metric tons in 1980 to over 400,000 metric tons in 2019, with increasing private sector investment. Also, in 2019 an estimated 861 million fry were produced by registered bangus hatcheries in the country, while only 19.5 million were caught in the wild—an impressive change. But there remained a problem for less than half of the fry were produced in-country and the remainder imported from Taiwan and Indonesia. In 2019, there were five milkfish fry hatcheries in the country under the Bangus Fry Sufficiency Program. But in 2020, the Philippines' Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources decided to establish 300 community-based hatcheries across the country. (Source) SEAFDEC continues to offer technical advice and expertise on the development of new fish hatcheries to meet the shortage in the country. Also, SEAFDEC is still at it, with a new brood stock facility and hatchery completed in 2021. It employs thermal manipulation technology to ensure the water remains at the right temperature for year-round spawning. (Source) The World Fish Center and SEAFDEC continue to recognize the role of IDRC in the early days.


In the mid-1980s, I was also tasked with making a series of short films for IDRC’s forestry experts: Gilles Lessard, Associate Director for Forestry and Agroforestry and his team: Derek Webb, Cherla Sastry, and Karim Oka. On August 1st, 1984, I traveled with Jean-Marc Fleury, a science writer in our Communications Division, through West Africa, to film trees and the lack of them. He acted as my interpreter, soundman, and guide, for he had come to know the region well. At the time he was based at our regional office in Dakar, Senegal. Jean-Marc and I started with scenes of desertification around the Ouallam, 56 miles (90 km) north of Niamey, the capital of Niger, a former French colony in the Sahel—that dry band of land stretching across Africa south of the Sahara. Here people were living precarious lives, for the rains had failed for years. The few trees we could see were dying, with goats eating the last vestiges of leaves; crops had withered; and cattle carcasses lay all around. The desert was advancing southward.

In 1984, few people were talking about human-induced climate change on a global scale. The main culprit, according the information we had, was the expanding population’s insatiable demand for firewood, the only affordable source of energy for most people in Africa, at the time—firewood comprised 90 percent of their energy requirements. Electricity was only available in cities and larger towns and petroleum products were too expensive. Solar cookers had not been adapted to African cuisine, and energy efficient stoves were only used experimentally.

Returning south toward Niamey, we took shots of women and children hauling small loads of firewood on their heads, and men with larger loads on bicycles, on camels, in trucks, and on boats crossing rivers. We also captured sequences of wood burning in bakeries, breweries, brick kilns, fish smoking, barbeques at restaurants, and in home compounds.

The next day we drove to Zinder, 590 miles (950 km) to the east. Flight schedules had all changed and we predicted the old Land Rover with driver we had rented would not make it. Fortunately, the Canadian Embassy lent us a car and a driver. Our vehicle had an official Government of Canada logo on its doors, and with the “ordre de mission” Jean-Marc had arranged, we made our way through about 20 police checkpoints to Zinder. There, in the evening, we met Hamari Zada, the Director of Forestry for the region. He had a whole program lined up for us.

On August 7th, we head southeast of Zinder into a very different Africa. I sped up my movie camera to take a steady moving shot of a green land of crops dotted with trees. We drove to the small town of Matamèye, where IDRC had been carrying out an important experiment in community forestry for a decade—village woodlots that had involved the villagers from the beginning. The project’s researchers had taken the time to learn about the ancient relationship between trees, crops, people and their animals in this region. Before this intervention, the people had received opposite advice from agriculture extension workers and foresters. The former wanted them to clear land for crops, and the latter advised conserving trees. Now, the two worked together with the villagers to plant native acacia trees, and fast-growing neem trees from India. These were being intercropped with cereals, such as sorghum and millet, and they also were providing firewood and fodder for animals.

Older Acacia albida trees dotted the land, their roots holding the soil firm. It’s a leguminous tree with the ability to fixate nitrogen from the air on its roots and produce nitrogen-rich pods and leaves that fertilize the soil, and also provide protein-rich feed for animals. We filmed meetings with villagers and small tree nurseries run by farmers, each producing up to 5,000 seedlings a year. Previously, the villagers considered planting trees to be the government’s business. But here, they took responsibility for planting them, after being taught the correct methods, and caring for seedlings by building simple barriers to keep animals away.

Establishing these village woodlots was not an easy process, for ethnic affiliations, grazing rights, and complicated land ownership patterns had to be taken into account. We also filmed villagers cutting trees for firewood and building materials, and pruning second growth to allow new shoots to grow more rapidly. The villagers were drawn together to reap the benefits. We took sequences of children being taught the importance of trees in their school programs. The whole scene inspired me—this experiment was really working.

Returning to Niamey, we filmed “The Day of the Tree,” with the President of Niger and his entourage, the diplomatic core, and a large crowd who had been rallied for the purpose. A brass band played, followed by speeches and formalities, then everyone, including the President, walked to a field to plant trees to the beat of African drums—a great show—but I wondered how many of the seedlings would survive, and whether this commitment would have any impact beyond Niamey. I was skeptical, but Jean-Marc and I were told that the IDRC-supported Matamèye experiment had already become a model for similar projects elsewhere in the country.

We decided to give our 18-minute film the title Trees of Hope and Les arbres de l’espoir for the French version. Our film went on to win a special prize at Ekofilm ’86, the 13th International Festival of Films and Television Programs on the Environment; and also in the same year, the Red Ribbon Award for Environment and Ecology at the American Film & Video Festival. The same channels of distribution were harnessed for this film as The Mysterious Milkfish, and all of my IDRC productions were transferred to video format in the early 1990s and sold through an Ottawa distribution company.

But what happened to all this experimental community forestry work and our toil and sweat in capturing it on film in temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 C)? When writing about these memories, I searched on the Internet and found, to my surprise, that IDRC’s efforts had not been wiped out by climate change. In 2018, The Guardian newspaper, U.K., titled an article, “The Great African Regreening: Millions of ‘magical’ new trees bring renewal.” The article went on to say that, “This is not a grand UN-funded project aiming to offset climate change. Small-scale farmers have achieved it because of what the trees can do for crop yields and other aspects of farming life.

Not satisfied with what could be “newspaper hype,” I looked further and found a series of scientific articles on what had happened since our relatively small intervention in the 1970s and 1980s. Many other agencies had entered the scene. One 2011 article titled, Rebuilding resilience in the Sahel: Regreening in the Maradi and Zinder regions of Niger stated the following:

"The societies and ecosystems of the Nigerien Sahel appeared increasingly vulnerable to climatic and economic uncertainty in the late twentieth century. Severe episodes of drought and famine drove massive livestock losses and human migration and mortality. Soil erosion and tree loss reduced a woodland to a scrub steppe and fed a myth of the Sahara desert relentlessly advancing southward.

"Over the past two decades this myth has been shattered by the dramatic reforestation of more than 5 million hectares in the Maradi and Zinder Regions of Niger. No single actor, policy, or practice appear behind this successful regreening of the Sahel. Multiple actors, institutions and processes operated at different levels, times, and scales to initiate and sustain this reforestation trend…. Reversals toward de-forestation or reforestation were preceded by institutional changes in governance, then livelihoods and eventually in the biophysical environment."

In these two cases, IDRC’s mission had achieved exactly what the founders of the organization had hoped for—a small investment for local researchers to find solutions to important problems—solutions that would be picked up and replicated by other development agencies, national governments, as well as the private sector. I hope to complete and published my new memoir in early 2023. It has many more examples of the early research IDRC supported, and is filled with entertaining stories of my experiences while traveling through many countries on all continents. Meanwhile, below is a link to my digital library with many of the films and media projects, books and articles I produced during my career and my author’s website on the three memoirs I have produced and published, to date. I welcome feedback and interchange.

Regards, Neill

Neill McKee, M.S.

Creative Nonfiction Writer

Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA

Author’s website:

Author's digital library:

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