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.

Responding to increasing water-scarcity and drought in South Africa

Livestock drink from a drying river outside Utrecht, a small town in the northwest of KwaZulu-Natal, November 8, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Livestock drink from a drying river outside Utrecht, a small town in the northwest of KwaZulu-Natal, November 8, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

2015 has been labelled as the hottest year ever recorded and this past month of February had the highest mean global temperature (breaking January’s record) to date. This temperature increase is affecting different areas of the world in different ways. In South Africa, drought conditions are escalating. While in November last year the drought was being labeled the worst drought in 30 years, 4 months later it is being referred to as “the worst drought in a century.” This time-scale stretches beyond the bounds of individual memory and experience, placing us in an unknown and uncertain terrain and highlighting the need to draw on a diversity of resources to move forward.

In recent months I have been following the coverage of the drought in South Africa and how this crisis is being responded to by maize farming – the staple crop in the country. There has been much debate about the approaches, funds and means made available by the government to support farmers and those suffering the worst effects of the drought. Currently, articles in newspapers warn of how the drought threatens to tip South Africa into economic recession. The price of rising agricultural imports, of which a large part includes maize, will feed into inflation and increase already rising food prices and high levels of poverty. More importantly, since the middle of 2015, South Africa (usually a net exporter of grains) has been forced to begin importing maize from neighboring countries that are also suffering from drought.

The drought, which is affecting 5 provinces, is hitting particularly hard in the province where my research is based and maize is grown extensively by small-scale farmers. In fact, small-scale farmers are likely to be the worst affected by changes in climate due to a lack of resources. Given this, drought has emerged as an important theme within the Agri/Cultures research project here in South Africa. It seems increasingly relevant to look at how water scarcity and drought is experienced and related to within different cultures or systems of agriculture and socio-ecological relationships. What kind of solutions and ideas concerning the crisis of drought are being put forward? How do these reflect (or not) dominant agricultural discourses?

Strategies for climate adaptation in South Africa have to date “mainly centered on crop improvement of a limited set of major crops” through crop breeding and genetic modification (the development and release of new drought resistant varieties in South Africa was discussed in some detail in a previous post). However, there is also a quieter but growing interest in the use of indigenous crops as a response strategy in the face of drying climatic conditions. This week the South African Water Research Commission (WRC) put out a press release about a short-term study they are conducting on drought-tolerant indigenous and traditional crops. Recognising that these increasingly underutilised crops (often termed Neglected and Underutilised Crop Species (NUCS)) urgently need to be investigated as part of the solution to providing a food ‘secure’ future.

The director of the WRC project explains that “The agricultural landscape of South Africa in many ways reflects the dominance of modern crops that originated from outside of Africa. Their rise has led to a decline in cultivation and knowledge about indigenous crops…The complexity of the problem posed by water scarcity, climate variability and change, population growth, and changing lifestyles requires unique solutions. Indigenous crops have the potential to fill this gap.”

The executive manager of the WRC envisions that this research will “propel these indigenous crops from the peripheries of subsistence agriculture to the promise of commercial agriculture, through scientific research”. It is interesting that here we see commercial agriculture looking to marginalized agri/cultural practices as sources of innovation. Within the Agri/Cultures Project I hope to explore how the crisis of water scarcity is being approached and experience within different systems of agri/culture and how it is forcing the agriculture industry to rethink relationships with nature and the importance of biological diversity and diversity of knowledge.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 9.34.00 AM

This photograph was taken by Christopher Mabeza and is part of his article titled Metaphors for climate adaptation from Zimbabwe: Zephaniah Phiri Maseko and the marriage of water and soil” in the Book Contested Ecologies. Here Mbeza explores how the well known farmer Zephaniah Phiri Maseko’s relationship with water is an integral part of the agro-ecological systems he creates on his land in Zimbabwe. His work is an inspiring example of the importance of exploring different systems of agriculture. The book is freely available online: https://www.bookdepository.com/Contested-Ecologies/9780796924285

Reflections on Rain – maize seed systems in a time of drought



silo reflected in a rain puddle, source:https://mhsphotoj.wordpress.com/category/uncategorized/page/5/

At this time of year in the summer rainfall regions of South Africa, maize should be a budding crop, however this is not the case this season for many large and small-scale maize farmers. Heavy summer rains, which are expected from September to October have not fallen yet and as a result, South Africa is currently experiencing the worst drought since 1982. The news over the last few weeks has been full of articles concerning the looming drought and images of dry maize stalks and cracking soils.

Five of the nine provinces in South Africa have in recent weeks been declared drought disaster areas. These include South Africa’s key maize growing areas; North West, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Free State.

The lack of rainfall, combined with dust storms, fires and soil degradation has led to a recent ‘mass exodus’ of farmers from parts of the Free State. The Free State is responsible for 44% of South Africa’s maize production. Following a reduced harvest last year, it is expected that this will fall again this year. While in the past weeks some rain has fallen, forecasts warn that it would take a lot more rain to alleviate the current drought situation in the affected provinces.

scorched maize fields

dry maize fields, Source: http://mg.co.za/article/2015-10-15-parched-free-state-hit-by-mass-exodus

In recent weeks it has been confirmed that my project here in South Africa will focus on small-scale maize farming systems in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). Here I will be tracing traditional, hybrid and GM maize seed systems which can all be found in a relatively small geographical area. I will be traveling to KZN in January for the first time to meet the NGO BioWatch that works in the Upongolo Municipality with farmers who are growing traditional maize. I will also be visiting the Hlabisa Municipality where small-scale framers are using both Hybrid and GM maize seed to see if I can potentially work in this area too.

Since both of these areas are currently experiencing drought conditions, it is likely that much of the conversation will concern relationships with rain. In south Africa, small-scale maize farming is for the most part rainfed agriculture and thus is likely to be severely affected. It is within this context that drought resistant maize varieties (both GM and non-GM) are positioned as solutions to improving food security and livelihoods of small-scale farmers.

In this post I want to reflect on maize and drought in South Africa in light of the current conditions and the recent authorization of new drought-tolerant maize MON 87460. In December 2014 the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) launched 2 types of conventional drought-tolerant maize hybrid varieties. On June 19th, this year, the GM maize MON 87460, licensed from Monsanto to the Water Efficient Maize for Africa Project (WEMA) was authorized for general release in South Africa.  This approval means that Monsanto can now sell GM maize seed MON87460, to farmers in South Africa for cultivation. WEMA was founded in 2008 as a partnership between the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and Monsanto to develop drought tolerant maize varieties for small-scale framers in Sub-Saharan Africa (Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda). In South Africa the ARC is WEMA’s partner organization.

Recently, Dr Kingstone Mashingaidze, the Country Coordinator of the WEMA project in South Africa, called the authourization of MON 87460 “a significant step forward” in terms of assisting small-scale farmers and fighting food shortages. The ARC believes that this new trait can contribute to expanding arable land. The often quoted figure is that only 13% of South Africa’s landmass is agriculturally viable.

The announcement of the authorization of MON 87460 has been met by much resistance from civil society organisations and NGOs. According to La Via Campesina, non-governmental and farmer organizations from South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique, Kenya and Uganda strongly condemn the go-ahead issued by South African authorities to release MON 87460 for cultivation. The African Centre for Biosafety (ACBio) lodged an appeal on 7th August 2015 to the Agriculture, Water Affairs and Forestry Minister Senzeni Zokwana. The ACBio advocate for food sovereignty and have outlined their concerns in their appeal.  They illustrate that decision making is not done thoroughly and transparently and often summarizes claims made by Monsanto without investigating them thoroughly enough. They are concerned about the introduction of new proteins / genetic material into human and animal feed and the potential impact on pollinators. Furthermore, they query the effectiveness of the ‘drought-tolerance’ of this trait in South Africa, given a lack of peer reviewed studies exploring this. The ACBio is also concerned about the potential social-economic impacts on small-scale farmers as recent studies caution that previous projects which encouraged small-scale farmers to plant GM seed led to a number of difficulties for those farmers (a potential topic to explore in a future post).

Given the current reality of drought and its effect on maize in South Africa, and the likelihood that this may become an increasing concern in years to come, it is important to consider relationships with rain for small-scale farmers. While creating more drought-resistant varieties is posed as a solution by some, others strongly disagree that this is the right approach for small-holder agriculture. Some rather believe that solutions lie in boosting food yields through crop diversity and supporting agro-ecological systems. For a future post i would like to explore these viewpoints in more detail.

Source: https://fr.pinterest.com/pin/48132289746074806/