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Choosing Study Sites: A Visit to King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa

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In July I travelled to King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa to explore the different types of maize farming there, especially what types of maize are being grown at different scales and the various farming methods being used. King Williams Town is part of the former Ciskei Bantustan created during apartheid. The Eastern Cape is considered one of South Africa’s poorest Provinces and as a result has been the focus of a number of governmental supported agrarian programs.

I had never been to visit any maize growing areas in the Eastern Cape before. While I grew up on a farm surrounded by maize fields in Swaziland, I had also never experienced GM maize being grown. I was curious about what those systems looked like and how it felt to walk through a GM maize field and if it felt different from the fields I had known growing up. I have recently been excited about exploring a multi-species ethnographic approach for my PhD research within the project and have been contemplating how this approach may be used to document different maize systems. How, for example, might the human and other species’ relationships with GM maize differ from those around traditional maize, and what kinds of data collection, observations and creative methodologies could be used to explore this?

harvested field GM maize proj

During this visit to King Williams Town,  I accompanied Hilde (a masters student at the University of Cape Town who was interviewing small-scale farmers that had adopted GM maize as part of a series of government interventions in the area), while she was doing her fieldwork. The area has been and still is a site for many trial GM projects, including maize but also GM cotton and GM soya. The interviewees told different stories about their experiences with GMOs. While there were some who highlighted the GM crop failure for this season and mentioned that this had already happened with GM cotton, others attested that the GM crop was a great success.

In King Williams Town I also met up with representatives of the Zingisa Educational Project, a gender sensitive organisation based there that supports people’s organisations to lobby and advocate for pro-poor land and agrarian policies and to develop alternative models of land access and land use in favour of the rural poor, emerging farmers and the landless. For a number of years Zingisa have been involved in research concerning the spread of GM crops (including maize) in the area and in providing information about the possible effects of GMOs. They are at present mobilizing farmers to grow vegetables and grains using traditional seeds and methods and are developing a system of community seed banks. Zingisa research has shown that it is most often the case in the area that small-scale farmers do not have access to information about the GM seeds they are given through various sponsored projects. We visited two gardens where traditional maize is grown in the area of Nxarhuni. One belonged to an elderly man who farmed organic vegetables and maize and saved his own seed. The other was a community seed bank and garden that had been recently set up.

GM maize just harvested     old maize silo in KWT now dept of sprots and rec

An interview with the owner of an agricultural cooperative in the town revealed how in the past farmers would have sold maize to a centralized mill but that this had been shut down. In fact, the enormous and ominous old silo, which stands in the centre of King Williams Town (now converted into the Department of Sport and Recreation), stood abandoned as a reminder of a different time. Now many farmers in the area grow yellow maize (preferred for animal feed) which they sell directly to livestock farmers or to Epol, an animal feed company with a central storage and distribution facility located near by. The market for yellow maize used for animal feed has resulted in most farmers both small-scale and larger scale in the area focusing on planting this crop. The owner of the agricultural coop explained an important factor for the poultry industry and another reason for the choice of yellow maize: “yellow maize makes yellow eggs”. This pointed to the connections between what happens on the farm and in seed choice, with retailer and consumer preferences further down the supply chain. While the ways in which farmers sell their maize varies, in general it appears that supply chains are in a sense quite short and compact in this area relative to other parts of the country where white maize is grown commercially for human consumption, which creates longer supply chains including milling and product development stages. It could therefore be important to explore different regions and supply chains in relation to each other. The next phase of my work will involve exploring further what kinds of maize systems exist in different parts of the country and then choosing which sites I will focus on for the study going forward.