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Transformations and Alternatives

Adapting to Climate Change: Smallholders in Zimbabwe

Picture 1. A small dam on a smallholder farmer’s plot. The water is used for watering his tomato crop in the background. Photo: Christopher Mabeza.

June 21, 2019

That global climate is changing is beyond reasonable doubt. The impacts of climate change are being felt disproportionately across the globe with people in the developing countries bearing the major brunt. Zimbabwe is no exception. There are climate change fingerprints all over Zimbabwe’s rural landscape. Increased rainfall variability has caused havoc as smallholders lurch from drought to drought with their livelihoods becoming more and more precarious. Discussions tend to ignore the role smallholder farmers play on the frontline of the climate change crisis. In the wake of this existential threat, smallholders have conjured amazing adaptive strategies to climate change. Tragically, their innovations are often the groomsman and hardly ever the groom in policy formulation, courtesy of perspectives that wrinkle their noses at the critical role local innovations play in helping rural communities adapt to climate change. Transfer of technology appears to influence much of how policy perceives adaptation to climate change. Yet this article argues that smallholder strategies are critical in rural development.

Relentless experimentation is at the heart of smallholder farmer initiatives in rural Zimbabwe. Such initiatives are disarmingly revealing about their tenacity. The innovations are a pursuit of many dead ends. These strategies do not constitute a silver bullet solution to smallholder fragile livelihoods. They are silver buckshot solutions. Silver buckshot solutions are a suite or array of partial fixes for adapting to climate change. This means therefore that there is no single solution, but multiple solutions working in unison to address the impacts of climate change.

The Shona of Zimbabwe have adapted to climate variability since time immemorial. They are the largest ethnic group in the country. They pride themselves as hard workers with zero tolerance for laziness. They mainly till the land as a way of ensuring that they have food on the table. Their livelihoods depend on rainfed agriculture. Among these farmers are individuals who have become experts in farming and adapting to a changing climatic environment. These accomplished farmers are known locally as hurudza. In some instances, these productive farmers are known as mutambanevhu (one who “plays” with the soil). They are relentless experimenters. Most of their innovations are premised on water conservation.

Water harvesting is increasingly becoming a viable option for farmers to adapt to increased rainfall variability. This is a viable option given that in these marginal environs rain is said to come rapidly and to leave rapidly. In rural Zimbabwe, a farmer who is world-renowned as a water harvester, the late Zephanaih Phiri won an award from the National Geographic for his water harvesting skills. He harvested water that cascaded down a rock outcrop near his home. He would say, “I marry water and soil so that they won’t elope and run off but raise a family on my plot.” This meant that his innovations would prevent soil erosion, ensuring that he captured most of the water for use in irrigating his crops. Most smallholder farmers harvest run-off water and channel it to small dams they have constructed at their homes (see Picture 1). They use the water to do market gardening. Others who call themselves “erosion killers,” build a wall across a gully thereby converting it into a small dam which is also used for the purposes of market gardening (see Picture 2). By so doing, they curb gully erosion.

Picture 2. This small dam is a product of “erosion killing.

In some rural areas of Zimbabwe, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have launched Conservation Agriculture (CA) to help farmers adapt to climate change. CA is premised on minimum soil disturbance and water conservation. Most of the farmers who practise CA use grass for mulching (see Picture 3). Some innovative CA farmers use old tins to make rain gauges (see Picture 4). They keep recordings of rainfall from these devised rain gauges.

Picture 3. Grass is used by these farmers for mulching.
Picture 4. A farmer practicing conservation agriculture (CA) in Shurugwi with an improvised rain gauge made from an empty tin.

Increased climate variability in rural Zimbabwe has led to an unfolding phenomenon, a “blue revolution.” The blue revolution is fish farming. Fish farming is “greener” than livestock production in the sense that it emits less greenhouse gases. It is heartening to note that fish farming is becoming a major activity in some parts of Zimbabwe. Smallholders construct fish ponds at their homes (see Picture 5).

Other farmers are raising free-range chickens, or what I prefer to call “chickens without borders.” Farming chickens without borders has become a popular adaptation intervention by many smallholder farmers. These farmers have realized that there is opportunity in adversity. This is premised on the understanding that the only reasonable response to change is to find opportunity in it. Some farmers are rearing as many as 2,000 chickens without borders. They sell their chickens in the neighboring towns and especially in the capital Harare where there is a huge demand for organically grown chickens. Thus, business is very brisk and the farmers hope to increase the number of their chickens.

Picture 5. A smallholder farmer’s fishpond.

Enterprising farmers are diversifying their livelihood options. They harvest non-timber forest products such as mopane worms, known locally as amacimbi (see Picture 6). Amacimbi are a delicacy and have a readily available market. Proceeds are used to buy food and pay fees for school children.

Mopani worms (amacimbi).

Smallholder farmers are playing a critical role in the climate change adaptation discourse. They understand their environments better than policy experts. They are key repositories of knowledge that can be harnessed in helping communities to adapt to climate change. It is up to policy makers to take on board these innovative silver buckshots by smallholders.

Christopher Mabeza, Zimbabwe Open University, Zimbabwe <cmmabezah@gmail.com>

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