Small-scale farming systems in KwaZulu Natal – visiting field sites and thinking about multi-species methodologies


View over some maize farms in Hlabisa which are badly affected by the country-wide drought conditions.

Last week I travelled to KwaZulu Natal to visit some potential field site areas with my supervisor, Rachel Wynberg and Hellen, a master’s student who is also looking at the impacts of GM maize on small-scale farmers in South Africa. Hellen was conducting some focus groups with members of a cooperative who are using GM maize in Hlabisa near the town of Mtubatuba. We decided that Hlabisa would be an important site for my fieldwork as it has a long history of farmers growing GM maize seed varieties due to a number of interventions in the area. There have been a number of studies done in the area looking at the social and economic benefits and impacts of GM maize for small-scale farmers here over the past decade, however little research on socio-ecological dimensions. Hlabisa was one of the first sites in South Africa where Monsanto rolled out Bt maize through government programs in 2001. It is estimated that throughout the country 3000 small-scale framers attended introductory workshops on using GM maize.

While we were in Mtubatuba we met with one of the key members of Biowatch who is based at their offices there. He has worked in the area for a long time and was able to advise me on what small/scale maize agri/culture sites he felt would be suitable for the project. We discussed how Pongola, which is on the border of Swaziland could be a good site as farmers there grow both traditional and GM maize, however there is a strong resistance to GM maize by some of the farmers in the area. He also suggested that the area of Ngwavuma could also be good as it has a very high diversity of traditional maize seed varieties present. While I was unable to go to these sites further North this trip we will be going there during our project meeting in March which will be in South Africa.

We spent one day visiting a group of women from an agro-ecological cooperative affiliated with Biowatch located near Mtubatuba. We spent a few hours speaking with the chairperson (whose home we met at), the vice secretary and an additional member. The farmers here grow a number traditional maize varieties as well as a diversity of other food crops (see the photograph below). Their crops are spread out between 3 different growing sites. They each have a ‘summer’ and a ‘winter garden’ located at their homes ans these are farmed for household use. The summer garden is where maize is grown and despite the drought some maize had been planted and was growing. In addition they also all work collectively on a large ‘market garden’ which they use to generate income through selling produce such as spinach, leeks, green peppers and other vegetables to a nearby supermarket. All gardens are tended to using agro-ecological methods which BioWatch provides training in.

This visit was a great opportunity to reflect on method. We had a long discussion about how the farmers in the cooperative had come to grow the maize they grow now and farm using the methods they currently use. We also spoke a lot about drought and the survival of different maize varieties as well as other crops in times of drought. The farmers explained how they had only recently begun farming again over the past few years. While they were born in families where their parents were farmers, grown up farming and gotten married into farming families (often receiving a diversity seed as part of a dowry), many factors had cause them to move away from farming. They told us of how during a period of drought in the 1980’s many oxen had died and so they started to plant by hand or hire tractors when they were available. Another problem that started to increase was that of stray animals (goats and cows) would always come into their fields as no one was herding them anymore due to various social changes and pressures I have not explored at this point.

This story of how a changing relationship with cattle is an important part of the changing agri/cultures was also expressed in Hlabisa during the focus groups Hellen was conducting. In Hlabisa farmers mentioned that they started to vaccinate their cattle in the 1980s as well as adopt foreign breeds of cattle introduced by white farmers which weren’t as resilient. Some felt that the vaccinations affected the cows health as well as the quality of milk and meat. Cattle are a key species in small-scale maize farming systems in South Africa. I feel I have much more to explore and understand here around the importance of cattle in small-scale agri/cultural systems and how relationships with cattle changing over time due to climate and political history is connected to maize growing.

As explored above many farmers in Kwawhowho had given up on farming due to the loss of oxen, drought and other pressures until Biowatch came to the area to carry out training workshops. Biowatch motivated people to start planting again, first on a small-scale with household gardens and then through the introduction of ‘market gardens’. But drought has been a constant a problem. Last year it was bad however they did manage to keep seed. This year it threatens to be worse. When I asked about the types of maize being grown the chairperson went to collect some maize cobs as well as buckets of seed in various jars and we laid these out and leaned about the different types of maize and other kind of seed as well as how it is planted and what insects are both good and bad some of which had gotten into the jars. We were shown a variety of traditional maize with a small pink cob that grows well in drought. There were also some other vegetable species that were considered good survivors in times of drought.

maize kwawhowho

Maize varieties we were shown in Kwawhowho ( we were told the one on the left fairs well in drought conditions)

Talking around the different seeds offered a great way of learning about the complexity and diversity of the agri/culture system. We also walked around the garden and explored what was there and how things were planted as well as looked as some of the insects and other specie sin the system and how they are connected. These maize systems are not part of a supply chain but are rather closed systems. Maize seed is saved and in times where seed is running low farmers trade with nearby farmers and farmers rely little on external or bought inputs. During the few days we were in KwaZulu Natal  I began to see how the multi-species methodology can be a powerful tool for uncovering socio-ecological connections and wider narratives about agri/culture systems. Reflecting on some writing I read recently I started to see how a multi-species approach in conjunction with the use of photography and sensory data collection could provide a way for engaging with agricultural system in a way that draws out new complexities. George Monbiot in his recent book Feral writes how: “Most human endeavors, unless checked by public dissent, evolve into monocultures. Money seeks out a region’s competitive advantage – the field in which it competes most successfully – an promotes it to the exclusion of all else.” (Monbiot, 2014: 153)

I look forward to exploring many different systems of small-scale agriculture and how an interest in the multi-species as a window into understanding these systems better. I am interested in looking at a range of systems from those that sustain an increased level of diversity growing various kinds of traditional maize varieties as well as other crops to those that resemble monocultures growing only one varitety of GM maize. In March we will be be visiting various types of small-scale maize farms in the Northern part of KwaZulu near the borders of Swaziland and Mozambique where farmers grow traditional, hybrid and GM maize more commercially and so that will be an opportunity to explore the supply chain linkages and the use of the multispecies as a way of researching maize agri/culture systems.

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