Fire farming

Smallholder farmers in southern Africa are stuck in a poverty trap. They cultivate their lands in a traditional, but inefficient way that destroys soil and forests. A whole set of measures would be necessary to improve matters.
Slash-and-burn agriculture is common in southern Africa. T. Kruchem Slash-and-burn agriculture is common in southern Africa.

In the yellowish-grey veld, an archway of tree trunks marks the entry to the residence of Lesa, the leader of the Lamba ethnic group. Lesa’s employees live in thatched huts on the outskirts of Mpongwe, a small town in northern Zambia. Lesa herself resides in a little red brick house. Next door is a meeting place that is open on all sides, covered by a roof resting on wooden posts. The young chieftainess strides to her wooden armchair with dignity; her visitors kneel before her and give her sacks of maize meal and canisters of cooking oil.

Next, Lesa gets down to business. The farmers of her people need lots of land to feed their families, the chieftainess says. A typical farmer cultivates maize and cassava on one or two hectares of land. But after three or four years, the land is exhausted, so it has to lay fallow for up to 30 years. "It is my duty to give the farmers new land – but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do so," Lesa says, and adds: "Decades ago, the government took a great share of our land and gave it to commercial farmers." The population of her tribe is growing fast.

The village of Ruace in northern Mozambique, near the city of Gurúe, is similarly located on barren steppe. It is a seemingly endless expanse of huts made of concrete or corrugated tin, surrounded by meagre maize fields. Agriculture is the people’s livelihood, says Paulo Imede, the director of a farmers’ organisation, but things are not going well.

"Here, in the mountains of Niassa province, the soil is rocky and barely holds water," Imede explains. Farmers have to dig deep in order to grow anything at all, so they need machines. "But we don’t have machines," the farmer laments, "and therefore we live in abject poverty."

Both Zambia and Mozambique are sparsely populated countries. Zambia is home to 14 million people, Mozambique to 24 million. Each country has an area twice the size of Germany. Zambia and Mozambique have been witnessing an economic boom in recent years, but it was driven only by exports: of copper in the case of Zambia, of aluminium and coal in the case of Mozambique.

The boom has created very few jobs because the commodities are processed abroad. Slums continue to grow in the shadows of the new glass towers that adorn the capital cities of Lusaka and Maputo. The urban poor survive by shoe shining and various other small busi­nesses. Almost half of the people in both countries are malnourished. However, poverty is worst in rural areas, where the majority live. The irony is that there is no lack of arable land.


Infertile soil

Agriculture expert George Allison knows why the people are so poor. He works on a wheat and soybean farm north of Mum­bwa in Zambia. To get there, one passes storage buildings and fenced wheat fields of large farms, followed by a woodland savannah covered in tall broadleaf trees. Along the road, however, there are lots of burned fields.

In Zambia and Mozambique, farmland is naturally acidic and nutrient-poor, George Allison says. Apart from river valleys, the soils of southern Africa are generally of low quality. The ancient, weathered land barely contains any organic nutrients. Almost everything has been washed away by millennia of heavy rains. Nonetheless, Allison argues that even this soil could produce high yields with the help of lime, high-quality seeds and the right amounts of fertiliser.

In fact, Zambia’s few large-scale farms harvest three tons of soybeans per hectare in the wet summer months and, thanks to artificial irrigation, ten tons of wheat in the dry winters. The amazing thing is that their soils are not better than those of the smallholders, who only manage to harvest 500 kilos of maize per hectare despite very hard work. Things are similar in Mozambique.

The small farmers still practice what is known as shifting cultivation: they clear one or two hectares and work them for two or three years with fire, hoes and ploughs, quickly depriving the soil of its last nutrients. The farmers sow low-yield varieties of maize and cassava, apply no fertiliser or do so incorrectly. They do not irrigate and barely protect their crops from pests and weeds. Their traditional form of agriculture cannot but result in poverty, damage the environment and exacerbate global warming.


Smoke over southern Africa

Throughout the winter months, clouds of smoke hang over southern Africa. Whoever travels through the burning savannah in this season will only see a grey sky, until the sun finally appears as a hazy ball of fire late in the afternoon.

Blackened fields are found all along Zambia’s roads. They result from chitemene, the Zambian form of slash-and-burn agriculture. George Allison elaborates: "A farmer cuts down all the trees on a circular plot of land. Next he stacks the branches in the middle of the circle and burns them. He then plants maize or cassava in the ash." The ash serves the farmer in two ways, by providing nutrients and neutralising the acid in the soil for some time. After the farmer has cultivated the land for two or three years, it must lay fallow for at least 20 or 30 years. Only once trees have grown, can it be used again. Accordingly, the chitemene system is only viable if the population density is very low, Allison says.

Zambia is sparsely populated, but the trouble is that most smallholders live along the country’s few roads, and those areas are settled densely. More and more nutrients are being leached from the soil.

The same is true of Mozambique: "The farmers here burn the grass on their fields even though they know that it damages the soil," says Alfred Muchanda, a forester in the small northern city of Lichinga. Unfortunately, such practices have deep cultural roots. Muchanda explains: "The farmers believe that evil spirits nest in their fields in the wet summer months. These spirits supposedly cause diseases in people and bad luck in farming and business – in short, they are responsible for a number of catastrophes." In order to rid themselves of the spirits, the farmers believe they must burn the land as soon as the grass is dry enough. Rational arguments are of little use when it comes to challenging such deeply-held beliefs, Muchanda complains.


Saving cattle for a rainy day

Zambia and Mozambique have enormous natural pastures, so raising cattle would be a good way to make money. Nonetheless, very few cows graze in Mozambique’s grasslands. Experts say the country has no tradition of animal husbandry.

Zambia, however, is home to large herds, but they are only rarely managed in a profitable manner, laments Mick Mwala, a professor and agricultural expert at the University of Lusaka. According to him, cattle are considered valuable from a social and cultural viewpoint rather than
a business one. "More animals mean more prestige," Mwala says. "Farmers do not sell their animals when they are most valu­able; they wait until they are very old and hardly worth any money anymore."

In Zambia, like in many other countries in Africa, cattle are treated as a kind of savings account. Apart from raising a farmer’s social status, they provide a safety net should crops fail. Farmers will only sell a high-quality animal if they have to – in order to send a child to school or to finance a wedding for instance.

The upshot is that smallholders in Zambia and Mozambique cannot make a living from their traditional way of farming. Accordingly, they depend on their natural environment, the woodland savannah, in other ways than farming: they gather fruit, herbs, medicinal plants and firewood, hunt and cut down trees to make charcoal from wood.

The road between Lusaka and Mum­bwa is lined by kilometres of devastated land that is marked by tree stumps. Brick kilns smoke. Hundreds of trucks and bicycles are piled high with charcoal. According to George Allison, charcoal sells for the equivalent of $ 50 to $ 60 a ton in the city. It is by far the cheapest fuel in Zambia. Indeed, Zambia has the world’s highest per-capita rate of deforestation. A large share of the charcoal is exported to Tanzania and Malawi.


Hunting with fire

Mozambique also loses hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest to fire every year. In addition to charcoal production, hunting with fire is a reason. For dozens of kilometres, the road from Nampula in the north to Gurúe passes through thick smoke; the surrounding hills are dotted with numerous fires, most of which are circular. "That’s how we hunt rats," a local person says. "We make a ring of fire around an area of land. The rats run to the centre. Some burn, but most suffocate. We collect them the next day."

Carlos Malita, the director of a local aid organisation in Gurúe, shakes his head. "The people here have no idea how much damage this style of hunting is doing. They destroy every living thing over a large area. If the fire gets out of control, they sometimes even burn down their own houses." The bare hillsides around Gurúe are the result of this practice. Rains washed away the exposed soil after the forest was destroyed in decades of hunting with fire.

Many small-scale farmers in southern Africa know there would be an alternative approach to farming, one that might increase production, usher in development and stem poverty. "But it’s like we’re sitting under a table," one of them says. "When we try to stand up, we bang our heads on the underside."

It is obvious what the farmers need: first and foremost, expert advice, followed by high-yield seeds, fertiliser and pesticides, as well as access to modern equipment, irrigation systems, markets, electricity and loans. It all amounts to a complex support kit. Nothing less would do to convince smallholders in southern Africa to cultivate their lands in a more efficient way.

The sad truth is that the ruling elites have never bothered to address this issue. The governments’ agricultural budgets are lean, Professor Mwala says. Basically, they fund personnel expenses and subsidies that cost a lot, but don’t do any good, he adds. "Meaningful subsidies have to have a clearly defined goal – like helping people during an emer­gency or stimulating a promising sector," the scholar insists, "and they have to be temporary."

In his opinion, Zambia’s agriculture subsidies are not geared to achieving any clear goal. He believes they just make farmers depend on the government which is run by populist politicians who don’t care if they distort markets and thus prevent a healthy agricultural sector from developing.

International aid agencies, which have been active in the region for decades, have an equally poor reputation among the local people. "They may offer farmers a few resources as part of a short-term, three-year project," explains a UN expert in Zambia, "but they hardly ever offer a comprehensive package that would really make a difference."

For 50 years, donor organisations have repeatedly carried out the same or similar agricultural projects, always passing them off as "innovative", criti­cises Rudy van Gent, who until recently worked for the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) in Zambia. According to van Gent, aid agencies have simply been spinning their wheels without making a real impact on people’s lives: "If you revisit these organisations’ projects after five or ten years, you will see almost no evidence of what the millions of dollars they spent were supposed to achieve."


Possible solutions

So what is to be done? Is there any way to stop starvation agriculture in southern Africa? Agricultural expert George Allison knows what farmers must do technically: "In order to make the leached and acidic soil fertile again, it has to be neutralised with lime. Fertiliser has to be applied systematically and the soil life has to be disturbed as little as possible. That means never, ever using a plough."

Allison explains that ploughing not only kills weeds, but also causes all the organic matter in the soil to oxidise. The result is carbon loss. "It dramatically worsens the quality of the soil – especially here in southern Africa," he says.

The alternative to the plough is the ripper, known in Zambia as the magoye ripper. It is a device that cuts narrow furrows into the soil for seeds and fertiliser. Relying on the ripper is a component of conservation agriculture, which for decades has been widely practiced in Brazil, Argentina, Australia and the USA. One principle of conservation agriculture is that the soil must always remain covered with organic matter, preferably with crop residues. This approach protects the soil from erosion caused by heavy rain, wind and changing temperatures, allowing the soil to retain water and nutrients.

In addition, it is vital that farmers rotate their crops, switching from cereal grains to soybeans, for instance, and back again. The first plant introduces nutrients into the soil that the next plant needs. "Soybeans can bind up to 200 kilo­grammes of nitrogen per hectare," Allison explains. "After the soybeans are harvested, the nitrogen in the roots benefits the next plant, which could be wheat or barley."

Conservation agriculture is not strictly organic farming however. "The natural environment in southern Africa simply doesn’t allow it," says Vince Hodson, an agricultural expert for Zambia’s Conservation Farming Unit. Hodson argues that the country’s smallholders have no choice but to use chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

"In Africa, weed control is traditionally the work of women and children. Many children begin weeding at five o’clock in the morning. It is very hard work. The children who go to school afterwards are too tired to pay attention to their teachers." Hodson points out that their hard work is ineffective however, since farmers who rely on manual weed control cannot stay on top of the problem.

According to Hodson, weeds can take over part of a field in the blink of an eye, suffocating crops. "Farmers have to quickly weed their fields right before the start of a planting season in order to be able to sow their crops. But it takes 20 to 30 days of work to manually weed five hectares, so farmers end up planting too late." Using herbicides, however, a farmer could clear the same amount of land in a single day and plant on time, according to Hodson.

For the time being, very few small farmers in southern Africa have access to the multitude of resources they would need to earn a reliable living from up-to-date conservation agriculture. And so they continue their traditional slash-and-burn practices. At a disastrously accelerating rate, they are burning forests, grasslands and fields. They hoe, plough and wear themselves out – and get almost nothing in return.


Thomas Kruchem is a journalist who travels to developing countries regularly. He is a four-time recipient of the German Development Media Award, presented by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). His recent book "Land and water – The responsibilities of international investors in southern Africa’s agriculture" (Frankfurt, 2013) was published in German, English and Portuguese by Brandes and Apsel on behalf of GIZ.

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