The Agri/Cultures Team meeting in South Africa – A reflection on a week in the field in Kwa-Zulu Natal
In mid April we had our first team meeting in South Africa. The visit was both a team meeting and a chance for Fern, Amaranta and Rosa to spend two weeks in South Africa getting to know some more about the South African context in relation to maize agriculture. We spent the first week in KwaZulu- Natal where we visited a number of farms and the second week in Cape Town where we had project meetings as well as were involved in some seminars at the University of Cape Town.
The aim of the first week was to visit some of the sites that I will be working in for my PhD. While the broader project in Spain and in South Africa looks at the wider maize agriculture system, for this trip we focused only on visiting small-scale farms which are a big part of the focus for my PhD project (the other key area I will be focusing on will be the Research and Development stage, which I will expand on in my next post).
A key factor to take into consideration during the trip was the current drought that farmers in KwaZulu-Natal are facing. Many farmers in the province were unable to grow a maize crop this year as a result of late and minimal rainfall. We were able to find some maize growing but most farmers had not planted and those who had had small yields.
On the first day we accompanied one of the masters students from my department to her field area in Hlabisa where she had planned to report back her project fieldwork to the farmers that she had interviewed over the past two years who are involved in growing GM maize varieties on a small-scale. This took the form of a meeting in a community space that was accessible to farmers coming from a wide are in Hlabisa.
After the meeting one of the farmers at the meeting he welcomed us to his farm where he showed us the land where maize would usually be growing this time of year. There was no crop this year due to the drought. Instead of maize, the field was covered in a knee high mono-crop of weeds which the farmer pointed out to us. He explained how this was a new weed for which he had no name and that had only emerged over the past season. The weed appeared to be resistant to the herbicide he had been using along side the GM maize. He said that he would try and dig in into the soil if he could get his tractor working and failing that look for another kind of herbicide that may kill the weed. He said that the agricultural extension officer for the area had not been around recently and so he as yet had not been able to get assistance with this problem. This farmer told us that he had not been framing for a long time in the area and so it was possible that the weed is known by other farmers in the area. I would like to speak to more farmers about the emergence of new weeds or changes in the types and volumes of weeds that are now present. The following week During the Seminar at UCT, Rosa presented on ‘The emergence of Glyphosate resistant weeds in Argentina’ and I learned more about the complexities of weed resistance and the immense social and ecological affects they have had in Argentina. Rosa spoke about how due to the use of pesticides, there had been a reduction in experts in universities studying weeds and many farmers have lost touch with traditional methods of farming and thus knowledge useful in relation to dealing with weed problems. There has therefore been a break in the transmission of knowledge and capacity to find solutions. With the introduction of new technologies and the consequent layers of socio- ecological changes that ripple outwards, it is possible that farmers find themselves in place with little understanding or access to information that can help them to solve critical problems associated with new farming methods they are using. A sense of disconnection with vital information needed by farmers appeared to be a theme in the maize farms we visited that were growing GM or Hybrid seed. Later in Pongola farmers expressed their concern around the use of pesticides and the dangers associated with them. They asked for our thoughts on this, as they were unable to access such information themselves due to their remote geographical location and access to information.
On the second day we traveled to Pongola where we met with one of the members of Biowatch. He took us to visit some of the ago-ecological farmers that were affiliated with the organisation and who were growing traditional maize varieties along side many other vegetables and grains on small-scale farms. We met with 5 women from the project. First we spent some time introducing our project to the group and then learned about their farming histories and how they had come to be involved with Biowatch. We also learned about their recent activism against Monsanto and their work to mobilize the Department of Agriculture to recognize their needs as agro-ecological farmers. When we had finished talking we shared a delicious meal that one of the members of the group had prepared. Almost all of the ingredients had been grown on her land such as traditional savory melon mixed with maize meal, samp, morogo (wild spinach) and jugo beans. After this we visited some of the members gardens. Here farmers grown food for the home as well as some to sell. With the guidance of Biowatch farmers have also started growing ‘seed gardens’ and curating a central seed bank in one of the members homes. It was very inspiring to see the diversity of seeds that were being collected. The enthusiasm and knowledge that the farmers in the group had was very inspiring as well as to witness how farmers, supported by Biowatch were mobilizing to get support to grow their farms and get better access to resources and build more resilient farming systems. Reflecting on the farm we had encountered the previous day one was able to note a very different feeling that accompanied on one hand the empty (but for weeds) field where GM maize usually grew and the complexity and diversity of the field in which traditional maize grew on these farms.
On the last day in the field we accompanied an extension officer from the Pongola Department of Agriculture to farming area where small-scale farmers were growing a mixture of GM and Hybrid seed. I drove with the extension officer and along the way he showed me the areas where maize would normally, outside of the drought be planted. We met with group of women farmers at the home of one of the farmers. Here we sat under a tree and spoke for a long time about their farming histories and how they had come to be growing GM and Hybrid maize as well as about their experiences, successes and difficulties associated with this over the years. One of the farmers still grew her traditional maize but none the others still grew it. They spoke about how they no longer had the seed and would like to be able to get some. They had been growing GM maize since 2013 as well as hybrid seed. They had access to hybrid seed at no cost via the Department of Agriculture and some farmers who have the available income buy GM seed in addition to this. Once the maize is harvested farmers hire transport to take their produce to the mill in Pongola. But sometimes the price they are offered for it at the mill is too low and they bring it back and sell it within their community area. In 2013 a mill that was intended to specially target the needs of smallholder farmers was launched in Pongola. It had been my intention that we visit this mill in Pongola but I found out that it had never gotten off the ground and had closed down last year. I will explore the details surrounding small-scale farmers experiences of selling their produce in my next field visit.
During our time in KwaZulu-Natal we saw a diversity of small-scale farming systems and learned a great deal from farmers about their experiences with growing different types of maize. It was also valuable experience to be there with the team from Norway and Spain and compare how the Spanish and European context differs and what factors and concerns may be shared between the different contexts. I was also able to identify some areas to explore further in my next field visit. One of the areas I would really like to explore more is the use of a multi-species lens for gathering stories about agri/cultural relationships with insects and how this can open up narratives concerning socio-ecological change within farming systems. I would also like to explore in more detail the theme of visibility and invisibility in relation to genes, pesticides and other ‘un-seen’ elements that are experienced on farms and how this related to changing systems of knowledge and scientific vs experiential knowledge. I am interested in comparing the Research and development stage with the farm stages and we spoke about this in our team meeting as a way of focusing in detail on these parts of the maize agriculture system. This will form my next post!