Observations on agroecology post Cyclone Idai
Agroecology is the application of the science of ecology to agriculture, by understanding how nature works and mimicking natural systems. According to the FAO, it is based on applying ecological principles to enhance interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable food system. Therefore, by building synergies, agroecology can support food production and food security and nutrition while restoring the ecosystem services and biodiversity that are essential for sustainable agriculture. Further, it can play an important role in building resilience and adapting to climate change.
Currently, in Kenya, there is a big push to lift the ban on GMOs yet there is little to no focus on agroecology as a viable option to boost food production in the country. However, as a science, it should strongly be considered as it is all about building sustainable farming systems that optimise and stabilise yields. Also, agroecology offers a systematic approach to food systems whilst simultaneously providing answers to many challenges such as dealing with climate change and fighting the armyworm infestation by using the agroecological push and pull method. Though it is slowly gaining traction in Kenya, it is interesting to learn of the unexpected benefits of this method of farming.
Below is a success story in the form of a reflective letter from our peer who is based in Zimbabwe, on the success of agroecology, after a very difficult week in March, when Cyclone Idai rocked the southern Africa country.
“It has been a very emotional week here in this part of the world. Cyclone Idai has wreaked havoc, as you will have seen in the news. The scenes from Mozambique via news and personal testimonies that are coming through are horrific. I heard one testimony yesterday from someone who walked out and had to stay in a certain village for 3 days before moving on, where people falling into the water were also having to contend with crocodiles, as well as everything else; and this is in a place where the news crews have not been yet, further upstream. It will continue for weeks in Mozambique as the water sits around and now breeds diseases and mosquitoes. It is too awful for words.
Closer to home, the district I know best in Zimbabwe, once lived in and still work in, was very badly hit. You will no doubt now know the name Chimanimani from the news. It actually means ‘the very small way through’ referring to the small way through the mountains to what is now Mozambique. There are the Chimanimani mountains, Chimanimani the small town and Chimanimani the district. In one village, Coppa, there are around 60 survivors and they estimate more than 300 people were washed away on the night of 15th March and lost their lives. It was the high rainfall areas that were worst hit, around 700-800mm (2 – 2.5 feet) was received in 48 hours, the rough estimates I heard. I drove as far as I could go in the lower part of Chimanimani last Tuesday to get a sense of it. However, a washed away road prevented me from going further – there were no roads through at all. It is worth noting that Chimanimani is the only district with a climate change strategy.
The near future will and must be concerned with dealing with the tragedies and needs of now. I am hoping that we can find some kind of silver lining to this and mobilise in the middle to a longer term for a district-wide agroecology implementation plan, with a very strong emphasis on watershed management. There will be more cyclones and even more damage in the future unless this happens. There are good organisations doing great work there, part of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) through the various networks. But this work is at a smaller, local NGO kind of level, based on very limited resources. My feeling is that we need to stop fiddling and take much wider action. People in Chimanimani have experienced directly and tragically what water above ground can do. With more support, there could be mobilisation to carry out widespread watershed planning and implementation to get that water into the ground in the future. A friend in Australia was telling me that there are some people there, where housing has been developed to withstand cyclones, who are welcoming cyclones for the water they bring. This may be an unusual view but it is true that cyclones do bring a lot of water. Indeed, they are coming all the more as climate change intensifies.
Last week, I was based just below the Bvumba mountains, which are a little north of Chimanimani. They had around the same amount of rainfall and I witnessed many streams running with clean water off the mountains. This was two days after the cyclone hit. The difference is that the Bvumba mountains are largely covered with forest still. There were the odd small landslides, trees falling etc. but nothing very serious from what I could see and hear from others, and as I say the best indicator of all was the streams running with clean water. While we have to keep fighting hard for climate justice and having fossil fuel emitters reducing their emissions, we cannot sit back and wait for it. We have to really step up and be ambitious. We have to transition to agroecology. I feel Chimanimani can become an example in Zimbabwe and to the world in terms of how it responds to this. On this note, I have to say that personally, I am tired of the endless call for evidence for agroecology.
Fair enough, we must gather this evidence whenever we can but why are people waiting for that in order to start transitioning to agroecology? Agroecology is about developing integrated water management plans, plans that understand the linkages between agriculture and ecology. Do we need evidence to do that? Is this not common sense? Everyone in Chimanimani certainly now knows that water above ground is dangerous and potentially very destructive, whereas water in the ground is productive and a blessing. There are some who have been saying that and doing whatever they can in a small way along these lines and to their best extent for years. Yet people keep saying, please give us the evidence that agroecology works. How much longer must we listen patiently to this refrain? While the industrial mind-set may be very good at developing various technologies, this mind-set cannot implement the kind of watershed plans that I am talking of. They do not see landscapes and connections in a way that is necessary to do this. They talk about planting trees, for example, and then go and plant eucalyptus trees only in very high potential areas of Uganda. They ‘harvest’ water by putting in diversion drains of 1 in 200 on fields to stop gullies in fields but losing much of the water to streamlines – these are all over Zimbabwe.
The industrial mind-set does not have the ability to work with nature and to use scientific understanding in the service of nature. This mind-set is not able to develop landscapes of diversity and multiple-use that understand the way water flows and all its intricacies. I do not think that there are that many people around who do understand, partly because those who go to college and are supposed to be learned, learn little if anything about using land with nature. While there are many smallholder farmers who undoubtedly understand this, unfortunately, many smallholders have been seduced into the industrial model of farming – bare soil, lack of diversity, no sense of land-use design, little earth care ethic and so on. Last week I visited farmers who live close to one of the bridges, next to the road which was eaten right away. This old couple understands how to manage water on their small farm. At the highest point, they had dug a big ditch on contour to catch all the water from the over-grazed grazing area above them. Then lower down, they have a series of smaller, interlinked ditches.
They understand well one of the basic principles of water-harvesting – always start at the top. Agroecology is about putting everything together in an integrated way, including the extremely important planned grazing, which is so very critical to ground cover (and thus water in the ground) and for which industrial agriculture has few suggestions or plans, though they keep asking for the ‘evidence’ that planned grazing works. We have to move agriculture forward in an ecological way, which is what agroecology is all about, working with nature.
I repeat – we should gather evidence whenever we can but we cannot wait for it. Governments would surely be foolish to wait for ‘enough’ evidence. We need to get them to see this. I have been reading about some pioneering regenerative farmers in Australia who over the last 30 years have done some remarkable things to recover land in pockets of that country. They did not wait for the kind of ‘evidence’ that is being called for to start doing what they did. In every single case, they changed their mind-set because their industrial farming practice was not working and realised that they had to understand nature and work with nature. They had to be humble and keep learning how to do this. They are still learning while they run successful, viable operations. In many ways you could describe what they have done is to replace a simplified, reductionist approach with a growing understanding of their complexity.
In Western Kenya, Julius Esteve did not wait for ‘evidence’ to transform his farm into what it is today. He used his common sense. He started off with water harvesting to get every drop of water into the ground with a variety of water sinking strategies. This fed the fish ponds at the bottom of his land, which brought good income fairly early in the transformation. Then, he started his mixed planting based on his understanding of the way nature works.
Are we going to let the industrial world, that has made such a mess of land use all over the world, with its mechanistic approach and lack of understanding of nature and complexities keep asking for evidence of the benefits of agroecology? Without apology, I can say that I get emotional thinking about images of what the next cyclone will be like in Chimanimani District if serious widespread action is not taken.”
By John Wilson, a Zimbabwean working as a freelance facilitator and activist in East and Southern Africa.