Climate Change, Resilience and the Rural Poor

A couple of years ago we visited a shelter for abused women in Umtata, Eastern Cape. The leader of this community programme was looking at how she could generate an income through composting food waste in the town. Off her own bat she’d set up an earthworm composting system and was now looking to go to the next level.

We were supposed to train, impart knowledge and then head off back to Jo’burg.

It was great to return to Umtata as, in a past life, I’d done rural development work in the Willowvale District in the, then, Transkei.
While visiting the shelter we were taken around the gardens. They were growing maize, beans, pumpkins and spinach. And it was looking quite good. Tall maize stalks festooned with runner beans intermingled with ground hogging pumpkins.

A young man looked at me and asked “is the right way to grow things? My grandmother told me to do it like this.” I replied, “listen to your grandmother. She’s giving you the right advice.”

Of course she was right. This combination of maize, beans and pumpkins are called “the three sisters”. The mealies provide the beans with a climbing frame, the beans fix the nitrogen in the soil for the maize, while the pumpkins provide a living mulch thus preserving water and combatting weeds. This old growing technique is not only a South African tradition the same method is found amongst native North Americans.
But the question is interesting. Why would old advice from a woman that’s seen it all be queried? Why ask for external endorsement?
Because it doesn’t seem ‘modern’; it’s not ordered, or neat, or the same as you see in the Free State. It’s a jungle; and jungles are out of control. Likely to do their own thing. So we see a shift from round thatched houses to square tin roofed ones. From companion planting to monoculture. From age old resilient heirloom seeds to hybrids or GMO. From oxen to tractors.

As this shift occurs climate resilience drops. In the old days a maize cob contained a multiplicity of different coloured kernels: black, white, yellow, red, purple. These were taken off the cob and separated; some kernels were good for beer brewing, others were better for eating, some were known to be better in drought conditions, other’s for when there was too much rain. Each kernel’s strengths and weaknesses was understood and appreciated.

Now most corn grown is either white or yellow. And the hybrid seeds don’t re-grow very well (or Monsanto won’t let you plant them without paying a licence).

The question then is: is modern technology and methods reducing rural communities resilience to climate change or is it helping? I’d venture that, when it comes to agriculture, replacing age old methods with commercial methods is reducing the rural poor’s ability to feed themselves (while also creating a dependency relationship with the commercial seed and fertiliser companies). And this is not good.

Now, I do sound like a luddite. But really I’m not. Technology needs to be appropriate to the problem it needs to solve. For example, rather than selling paraffin primus stoves (which fall over and burn people and require paraffin to be purchased) why not put in place more efficient smoke free biomass biochar rocket stoves as they’ve done in Puerto Rico (these will cook and produce fertiliser while also reduce women’s work burden from collecting firewood as well as help them reduce their exposure to toxic fumes from open fireplaces)? Why install a solar cooking system with a baking oven when a parabolic system will do just fine (and be cheaper)? Why over market fertiliser when cattle can provide much of what soil nutrients are needed?

Climate resilience in Africa is going to come from working with existing systems and practices rather than bringing in a solution from Helsinki, Auckland or Johannesburg.

The problem is one of perspective. Small scale farmers need to be supported. They need to be trained on how to maximise yields within existing practices and resources. The answer is not to impose an industrial agricultural system and associated technologies which will invariably kill traditional agricultural and with it centuries of resilient seeds and cooperative labour sharing relationships.

Rather work with what’s there and see what can be optimised. For instance, look at soil health and provide education on crop rotation, companion planting, composting and how to optimise manure from the kraal.

Above all, solutions need to avoid creating dependency relationships between sellers and buyers. As soon as a commercial dependency arises the power shifts to the company with a reputation for avarice.

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