“The Farmers Have Come”
By Yeshica Weerasekera, Thousand Currents’ former Regional Director for Africa
Across the globe there is a strong and expanding movement of farmers working to promote agro-ecological practices and food sovereignty. Going beyond the narrow definition of “food security,” this movement believes that all people have the right to decide what they eat, how they produce it, and to ensure that food is healthy and accessible for local communities. Of key importance is that food is produced in a sustainable way that protects the environment and the planet. I saw beautiful examples of these efforts in Zimbabwe, through the work of organizations like CELUCT and ZIMSOFF.
During my visit to Zimbabwe, I spent a few days enjoying the warm hospitality of Elizabeth Mpofu and her husband, Isaac, in their rural homestead in the Masvingo rural district. It was revealing to sit and talk with Elizabeth, to learn of the myriad responsibilities she shoulders, and be reminded of the long hours women farmers put in on a daily basis. Elizabeth’s day is typical of most rural women around the world. Rising at 4AM, the compound yard is swept, and Elizabeth organizes other chores before she heads off to do field work on the farm before the sun becomes fierce. Returning at 10AM, she takes breakfast and gets on with the rest of the day’s activities on the homestead.
There are other matters to deal with too. The homesteads here have no electricity or water, and the nearest water source is a river 1.2 miles (2 kms) away. The power of the sun provides a vital solution, as people now charge solar lamps during the day to shed some much needed light at night. A few years ago, Elizabeth adopted a homeless child off the streets of Harare. Jerry is now 14 years old and sets off at 5AM for the long walk to the school he loves. He plays a strong role on the farm, fetching water from the river by bullock cart most days after school.
An effective small-scale farmer, Elizabeth is also a cherished and inspiring leader in her role as the Chairperson of ZIMSOFF – the Zimbabwe Organic Smallholder Farmers Forum. Made up of small-scale farmers, this dynamic group promotes organic farming, tackles the processing and marketing of their produce, and advocates for policies in support of ecological land use practices. Their efforts are deeply focused on culturally appropriate and ecologically sound, farmer-based initiatives that strengthen the conservation of their natural resources. Its membership of 19,000 farmers are spread across the country and organized in a network of four regional clusters. Leadership balance between men and women farmers inside ZIMSOFF is a key achievement.
Elizabeth and Isaac are part of the Shashe Farmers Organization. The Shashe group was formed with other landless rural people who engaged in a courageous two-year land occupation, before the government awarded them this precious resource through a land reform program in 2000. These farmers have become part of a tight knit community, experimenting and sharing their practices and knowledge, and providing strong leadership within ZIMSOFF.
Seeing is Believing
ZIMSOFF is a keen promoter of the farmer-to-farmer training approach, and I was in Shashe to attend a 3-day Training of Trainers gathering for their Central Cluster. A major goal for ZIMSOFF is to develop an effective horizontal learning model and develop the skills of farmer members as facilitators and trainers. It’s an excellent method to promote farmer innovation, and share effective learning from the farms and across the regions and clusters.
Nelson, ZIMSOFF’s National Coordinator, explained to me that farmers are more likely to trust and emulate fellow farmers who have succeeded with an experiential farming technique on their own farms. This first hand experience is more effective than bringing outside experts. Over the 3 training days, therefore, discussions and presentations led by Nelson and other young farmer leaders of the Central Cluster were coupled with well-organized farmer-to-farmer “look and learn” visits at “centers of excellence” hosted by member farmers.
Very practice-based, the topics ranged from natural resource conservation, integrated crop management seed saving, water harvesting, soil conservation, natural pest control methods, creating fishponds for access to protein in local diets, as well vermicomposting and natural worm wash pesticides.
During our conversations, Nelson related that farmers had experienced great difficulties here from 2000-2012 after occupying and acquiring the land. The severe drought of 2008 was particularly fierce, and several agroecological practices had helped farmers survive. Drywall fencing makes use of stone laying around the farm, and become a permanent low-cost fixture that saves trees. During the “look and learn” farm visits, we saw highly effective and simple water harvesting solutions. Other techniques use the natural landscape to capture water and run-off. In one instance, a small water conservation pit saved the dirt road next to the farm from flood damage. Irrigation trenches are excellent at helping keep water in the soil. Nelson and others grow the versatile vetiver grass, which stops soil erosion, helps keep more water in the soil and reduces runoff. And since cattle don’t eat the vetiver, it is also used for livestock bedding or mulched for composting.
Seed is Life
Seed saving is a high priority for ZIMSOFF farmers and a critical part of the matrix of developing self- sufficiency with food. Consistent with their agro-ecological vision, they do not buy foreign or hybrid seeds. Seed prices are high during drought conditions or low rainfall, and ZIMSOFF farmers are producing excellent drought-resistant seeds. Open-pollinated varieties (OPV) keep the soil cool and save water. Nelson talked of “a relationship with his seed”, OPVs such as maize, sunflower and sorghum. Sorghum is drought tolerant and is guaranteed each year. And during drought they can still get good yields from small grains such as finger millet, rapoko and sorghum.
Over the 3 training days, the topics covered were a strong indication of the serious commitment of ZIMSOFF farmers to learning and sharing practices to deepen agro-ecology, and address erratic weather patterns as a consequence of climate change. Singing throughout the 3 days kept the mood strong, and was a constant reminder of the past and present struggles. Songs like, “the Farmers Have Come,” “Just Give Us a Piece of the Land” and “African Farmers Are Your Bank,” have kept the morale up over the years. The results thus far are impressive. And with many Zimbabwean farmers producing organically, the country could become an excellent example for agro-ecological practice and climate resiliency.
In 2014, ZIMSOFF was selected as the international secretariat of La Via Campesina, a growing movement representing millions of smallholder farmers and peasants across the globe. With a strong commitment to La Via’s goals of food sovereignty, land reform and women and youth leadership, ZIMSOFF is taking on this role in a bold and committed way. And from her small farming homestead in Shashe, Elizabeth has stepped into a global role. Fuelled by the struggle of her fellow farmers here and in far-flung places, this rural African woman farmer is now in visible leadership for a worldwide movement for change.