Help farmers change face of region

Overcrowding and poor land use over much of the 20th century has seen serious deforestation and erosion. Alien plants form the bulk of the crops, creating problems of nutrients. And, finally, most farming is severely under-capitalised. For a century there has been unsustainable farming over much of the region, to the extent that most farmers now need to spend a fortune in chemical fertilisers. Yet there is so much that could be done to improve farming, and improve soils, that does not cost vast sums. As University of Pretoria professor, James Blignaut, noted last week that sustainable agriculture is both possible and viable. And it is vital that the changes are made ‘ and made soon. Despite rapid urbanisation vast numbers of |Southern Africans still earn their living from the land. Agricultural exports dominate most economies and are very useful in others. Expensive transport and low foreign exchange reserves make self-sufficiency in food a sensible economic policy. Ecologists have led the research drive to improve both livestock and crop production, starting off with Alan Savory’s great insight into buffalo herds in the 1960s, which allowed cattle ranchers to boost production at least five-fold while improving the veld. Some of this research has been done in Southern Africa, but the work done in other warm semi-arid areas cannot be minimised although often there is need for extensive modification. Yet a great deal of Australian research into water harvesting and permaculture has now been successfully adapted to Southern Africa and is ready for widespread use. Ecology is the study of natural systems, hence its value when applied to agriculture. The monoculture techniques common in well-watered temperate climates create very simple systems that break down in other parts of the world and, to be honest, are unsustainable over the very long run even where applied successfully. African farmers need to create quite complex systems on their land to maximise yields and minimise risks and costs, and they need detailed knowledge of how to do this. For example, everyone talks about the need to plant trees. And to give many in Southern Africa their due there are a lot of eucalyptus woodlots. Indeed, the small plantation next to the house is now almost ubiquitous. But we do not see rows of leguminous trees, which pump nitrogen into the soil, intercropped with annuals. We are only just starting to see deliberate planting of appropriate indigenous or imported fruit trees from tropical semi-arid regions. Water harvesting means more than just dams. Simple swales, mounds of earth following the contours and holding runoff builds up soil moisture, allowing earlier planting and a longer crop cycle. Careful planting of suitable trees and grasses on the mounds can build fertility and provide extra grazing. The biggest single problem is no longer research, although this must continue. The biggest problem is helping farmers find out what has been discovered, helping them change the customs of decades or centuries, and then helping them implement the research. And often a whole community must be persuaded to change, since just one farm might not be big enough to implement the whole gamut of ideas. Support is required. While saddle dams and swales are easy to build, they are very tricky to lay out without a decent map and a theodolite, but such expertise is only required for a very short time, suggesting the need for a mobile pegging team. Some of the most desirable trees and plants are almost impossible to find, so nurseries need to be established, preferably as income-earners for a community. We have the knowledge, we have the technology. We can change the face of Southern Africa. We just need to show the farmers how.

April 2006
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