Drought, Seeds & Resilience in Pongola

Two weeks ago I was invited by Biowatch to attend a seed ceremony that was taking place in Pongola. The annual seed ceremony is an opportunity for farmers who are working with Biowatch throughout the region to come together to share experiences and bless their seed before the beginning of the planting season, which starts with the first rains. Biowatch had invited guests who are experts in seed from a number of countries in Africa and who are part of the Seed and Knowledge Initiative to share their knowledge and learn from the projects in Pongola.  Dr Regassa Feyissa traveled from Ethiopia where he has worked for decades towards the conservation of genetic resources through his work as the conservation manager at the Plant Genetic Resources Center/Ethiopia (PGRC/E), as a Director of the Center to the Institute of Biodiversity and the Executive Director of Ethio-Organic Seed Action (EOSA).  Charles Nkhoma came from Zambia where he is the Director of the Community Technology Development Trust. Kudzai Kusena came from Zimbabwe where he is the Genetic Resources Manager at the National Genebank of Zimbabwe. Kuzdai is also doing his PhD on farmer seed systems in Zimbabwe through UCT and is affiliated with the Bio-economy Research Chair.

dry river bed

Dry river bed in the sugar growing region of Swaziland, with sugar cane fields behind

To get to Pongola I traveled via Swaziland and so drove through the Lowveld region to get to Northern KwaZulu-Natal and Pongola, which is situated only 30 km from the border of Swaziland. This low lying area is prone to dry conditions. However after 2 years of drought, it is drier than usual this year. South Africa has over the past two years received the lowest rainfall ever recorded since recording began in 1902. In many areas there is no ground cover left at all and livestock are left to search for any vegetation, which is often a little more plentiful on the road verges. Driving through Big Bend I passed many sugar growing areas. In contrast to the dry indigenous bush and empty small-scale farms, the sugar fields are green from irrigation. This stark contrast raises many questions about this industry. In a sense, the sugar industry appears to be like a machine that keeps churning despite its ill fit with so much that surrounds it. Each year workers strike against low pay, the drought burns on and 100 000’s of liters of water are pumped into the growing of this commodity crop that has no nutritive qualities and is responsible for so much damage to human health. However, while it is not immediately apparent, the sugar industry is also suffering from the drought, these fields are showing signs and are less green than usual. During the time in Pongola, we spoke a lot about drought as potentially being a watershed period of change. Perhaps the reality of changing climatic conditions could be the beginning of change for the sugar industry.


Sugar cane fields in Big Bend


Lowveld region of Swaziland ( near Pongola)

We spent two days in Pongola and on the first day we visited some of the farmers  that we had visited earlier in the year on the GenØk visit. We visited some of the farmers home vegetable gardens and then attended a workshop coordinated by Lawrence Mkhaliphi and Mpho Ncube from Biowatch . On the second day, the farmers held a seed ceremony at a small Church. During the workshop, farmers spoke about the successes and challenges from the previous year, comparing and sharing experiences and knowledge and setting out their vision and goals for the way forward. The discussion highlighted the challenges of drought that farmers have been facing for the past two years, but surprisingly, farmers did not dwell on this. Farmers spoke of their plans for ‘when it rains’ and while many spoke of the challenges, none were ready to give up on their farming and looked forward to being able to expand and grow more seed. When we visited the farmers gardens it was amazing to see how despite the severe drought they had managed to keep their home gardens producing food using agro-ecological methods such as mulch and swales to keep the small amount of moisture available in the soil.

goat proof fencing

A farmer’s field doing extremely well despite the drought conditions. The fence is lined with straw bunched together in a beautiful pattern. This not only looks good but keeps out the drying wind and keeps goats from seeing the vegetables and breaking into the garden

A key topic of the workshop was to speak about and envision ways forward that involved seed multiplication and the development of a thriving local seed network. While the Biowatch farmers now all have seed plots on their farms that are dedicated to the growing of seed, they want to start producing larger quantities of seed that can be shared within the network and eventually sold as open pollinated varieties. Many of the farmers expressed that they would like to be able to have enough seed to share with other farmers and spoke of how this would improve the seed they would be able to produce and help ensure seed sovereignty in the future. In the workshop and over the two days, the link between boosting the resilience of farming systems and the sharing of seed was discussed many times. Farmers brought up how they felt strongly about the importance of sharing seed (which had occurred more in the past but has been lost in many areas due to a large extent to commercial bought seed replacing heritage varieties) and how this would ensure the abundance of seed for the future as well as a variety of seed suited to different conditions. Over the two days, I learned a great deal from the farmers and other members of the group about the evolution of seed diversity and just how intricate a process the development of farmer seed varieties is. I learned more about how the growth and development of varieties happens over time in relation to a complex network of factors including the soils, the availability of water, the aspect of the land, the preferences and cultural interests of farmers, and the relationships with and between other living organisms. In this web of relationships, diversity is created and seeds that have specific qualities are born.

At the closing of the workshop the guests shared some of their experiences of being involved with projects that aimed to bolster small-scale farming through agro-ecology and to multiply local seed and build local seed systems. Dr Regassa Feyissa spoke of his lifetime work in Ethiopia building a thriving national farming system built on principles of agro-ecology and seed sovereignty.  In relation to the challenges farmers are facing in South Africa, he spoke about how it was in fact the terrible drought during the mid 1980s in Ethiopia that spurred their work to go about finding ways to preserve national heritage seed. He spoke about the challenges of drought but also the fact that drought is a time of change and thus new opportunities can come from it. He spoke of how in some ways it was the drought that shifted the direction of National agri/culture in Ethiopia. Drought conditions create a break from the usual routines and a time to consider and try out what seed may help in building a more resilient future in the face of climate uncertainty. The topic of resilience surfaced many times over the two days. Kuzdai Kusena’s thesis is interested in the resilience of small-scale farmer seed systems and the complex sets of relationships, knowledge and conditions that could contribute to bolstering seed security and seed systems. Charles Nkhoma shared how in Zambia during the ‘hungry season’ (a time when there is little left in storage and new crops have yet to produce a yield) there is s small-cobbed variety of maize that forms a vital food for some farmers. This maize cob matures early due to its small size and can therefore be eaten fresh before other varieties are harvested. Its value therefore lies in the small size of the cob, which counteracts dominant industrial ideals of producing maize with large cobs to boost yield. This story provides insight into the the way that farming knowledge and seed are so delicately woven into culture and context and just what kinds of relationships are at stake when seed is lost and replaced by new varieties that don’t consider these complexities.

These two days in Pongola provided a huge amount of learning for me and it was a great privilege to be able to spend time with so many people actively involved in the regeneration of seed, from the farmers who are doing such amazing work in Pongola to Biowatch and their visitors from other parts of Africa.

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