Who cares about the veg on the edge?
Land and water conflicts, along with farmers' knowledge versus official agricultural extension, are the focuses of a joint research programme of WAU and the University of Zimbabwe. Despite laws to the contrary, and modern research and extension methods, Zimbabwean smallholders largely continue to farm using their own methods. And they seem to know what they are doing
Equal access to land and water, and political power for the black majority were the main issues fought over during the liberation struggle of the 1970s. In 1980 the white rulers were overthrown and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. However, seventeen years later, these issues remain largely unsettled. Much of the old legislation is still in place, and formal government institutions are largely unreceptive to the knowledge and ideas of small-scale farmers
Thursday 13 March 1997, four Zimbabwean and two Dutch PhD researchers participating in the ZIMWESI Programme presented some preliminary research findings in Wageningen. WAU and the University of Zimbabwe started a cooperation programme in 1993, focusing on women's studies, extension, sociology and irrigation (ZIMWESI). The research component of the programme focuses on government intervention in smallholder agriculture, the main source of livelihood for the majority of the black population. Over ten million people - 70 percent of the total population - live in rural areas
Most of the research results are drawn from case studies in the Eastern Highlands, along the border with Mozambique. Claims to water for irrigation from the rivers in the area form a typical pattern. Commercial farms, owned by white farmers, are usually situated upstream on relatively fertile soils, where rainfall is also relatively high. Further downstream individual smallholders have dug their own, often illegal, furrows to divert water from the river for irrigation purposes. In the lower parts of the catchment areas, larger communal irrigation schemes have been established
This land allocation pattern dates back to the colonial period. At the beginning of this century the white leadership began to promote agriculture when mining prospects turned out to be disappointing. Arable land was distributed in such a way that by 1969 the best 18 million hectares had been assigned to the 6,500 white settlers. A total of 680,000 black farmers had to make do with the remaining 18 million hectares, the tribal trust lands, now known as the communal areas
Irrigation programmes for famine relief were introduced by missionaries and supported by the colonial government. Since 1980 the uneven distribution of land has changed little. Only three million hectares were bought by the government for redistribution among the black population, and only 14,000 farmers benefitted from this
Pieter van der Zaag, ZIMWESI coordinator in Zimbabwe, explains that the rights to divert water from the rivers for irrigation purposes have not changed either. In the 1930s large commercial estates managed to guarantee their rights to a fixed continuous supply of water. In areas where the rivers have a high seasonal variation in discharge, this leads to problems in the dry season, as the farmers downstream then have no water for irrigation. Van der Zaag believes that rights to water should be based on the behaviour of a particular river. Water distribution should be based on shares instead of fixed appropriation. According to Van der Zaag more equitable water distribution could be achieved by constructing a dam downstream from the commercial farm. Water could then be stored during the rainy season for use in downstream areas in the dry season
Van der Zaag stresses the importance of case studies for policy reforms. New water policies should be catchment specific and based on agricultural data rather than ideological criteria, which have a political ring. Mavis Chidzonga, argues, however, that there is nothing wrong with the water act as it stands. The main problem for farmers in the communal areas is that they do not know how to obtain rights to water. According to Chidzonga access to official information in general is a problem for these people. At the same time, however, the information provided through official channels is not always appropriate to the farmers' needs and practices
The Department of Agricultural and Technical Services (Agritex) is the government agency responsible for providing advice and training to farmers. Agritex is represented in each village by an extension work. Part of the focus of Chidzonga's research was on farmers' access to extension services for a vegetable garden project in the village of Banyure. The project consisted of the introduction of exotic crops and routine tasks to be carried out by a group. The garden produce was meant for home consumption, and any surplus was to be marketed. After a while, however, the recommended cropping pattern began to change as traditional vegetables were grown at the edge of the plots. One of the women explained to Chidzonga: We grow the prescribed vegetables as we were trained, in neat rows. It doesn't matter that we grow our own vegetables on the edges. This is where the manure and excess water accumulates, so the vegetables we eat get the best nutrients. Another woman added: We want our own vegetables for home consumption. Have you ever tried to cook a lettuce?
The central issue in Jeff Mutimba's research is the difference between farmers' knowledge and extension information provided. Mutimba found many examples of farmers' own knowledge and technology development, which go largely ignored by the official research and extension system. He also discovered that information supplied by Agritex is only partially adopted. One of Agritex' recommendations is that compound fertilizer should be applied at or before sowing. In practice, farmers apply fertilizer after germination has taken place. Mutimba relates: They first want to see something growing. Fertilizer application at the same time as sowing means applying expensive fertilizer before it is known whether the crop will germinate. Research shows that time of application makes little difference to crop growth. The official recommendation remains unchanged, however.
Mutimba also found many examples of farmers' experiments in trying out and adopting new crops or cultivation methods. Particularly impressive are the results of two farmers who managed to get avocado trees to flower after three years. One farmer ties an iron wire around the trunk of the tree in the second year, and the other buries iron tins covered with a concrete slab in the planting hole. However, according the experts there is no known avocado variety which flowers before its eighth year. One horticulturalist simply refused to accept the possibility, and another suggested that early flowering was induced by stress, but saw no point in investigating the matter further
What is even more remarkable about the discrepancy between the recommendations made by extension workers and the knowledge of the farmers is that the extension workers themselves are recruited from the villages, and used to be (or indeed still are) farmers themselves. One possible explanation might be that the performance of the extension workers is judged according to the success of the extension programme, which is measured in terms of the number of Master Farmer certificates awarded by the extension worker. These certificates are awarded to the best performing farmers each year on Field Day. However, the Master Farmer certificate is apparently not all that sought after
Simon Madyiwa, senior irrigation officer with Agritex, remains diplomatic. Despite the heavy criticism of Agritex during the course of the presentation, he feels that this kind of research is highly beneficial for Agritex.The methods introduced for extension and technical support are based on results from the research department. Unfortunately they cannot always keep pace with recent developments as they usually face a lack of resources. The formal establishment of equal access to land and water is not in the hands of Agritex alone. Reform of the land and water acts is a matter for the national government. Although Zimbabwe has been self sufficient in food production at the national level since independence, Chidzonga maintains that this is not reflected in the communal areas, where households are often unable to meet their food requirements