Ian Scoons

BY Ian Scoones
Climate change generates greater variability within and between seasons. This requires new responses among farmers in Masvingo Province, Zimbabwe. Farmers today must adapt, be flexible and nimble, and react to uncertain seasons as they unfold. This requires new skills and approaches; not just farmers, but also development agencies hoping to help rural people cope with drought.

Changing responses, changing droughts

There are strong memories of drought (or rather nzara, see previous blog) among the farmers of Masvingo. During our visits earlier in the year, many remembered past events. The drought of 1991-92 was firmly etched in their memories, while the elderly remembered the droughts of 1982-84. These days, memories of 1947 (associated with the distribution of yellow “kenya” maize) are fading, but drought is a recurring phenomenon at the heart of how stories are recalled in rural areas, as we have seen. explored in our book Risks and Opportunities over 25 years ago.

But the way people have reacted over time and the way different “droughts” have been experienced are very contrasting. Some droughts are remembered as affecting livestock, but not people; others are the opposite. Some affected everyone across the whole area, meaning real food shortages and dependency on aid, while others were quite localized and food could be purchased in nearby neighborhoods. As discussed in last week’s blog, drought is not a singular phenomenon.

One thing that people have mentioned time and time again is that today’s droughts are so varied. This is not a simple failure of the “rains”, but the problem of increasing variability. Sometimes there are very heavy rains, then nothing for weeks. In the “old days” the rain – if it came – would be steady and continuous, soaking the earth, they say. This is much more effective for crops than today’s rains, when heavy rains can destroy crops through waterlogging and wind and rain damage.

As many climatologists have argued, it is not the absolute amount of rainfall that changes with climate change, but its variability. This is certainly the experience in our Masvingo study areas.

Land reform and resilience

We were talking to farmers in our A1 resettlement area study sites in Masvingo province, from the very dry south to the relatively wetter northern parts of the region. One of the common stories we heard was that today we are not suffering from the drought as much as before. This seemed to go against the arguments about climate change and the frequency of events that were recalled. Why was that?

The answer, of course, was that land reform created a buffer against the effects of drought by providing more land with better soils and the ability to accumulate assets that can be used to improve agriculture and get through a period of welding. Land reform has therefore been a tremendous boost to resilience, although of course it is not usually approached in these terms. This applies to almost everyone, as even those who have failed to accumulate farming significantly are able to obtain agricultural employment from others.

However, even with larger areas of land and accumulated agricultural assets, smallholder farmers in land reform areas still need to learn to cope with high levels of rainfall variability in order to avoid hunger. This requires skills and abilities and well-honed practices.

From prediction to performance

In the past, rainfall patterns were more predictable, forecasts for the season were sometimes reasonably good. There was a standard movement of the “Intertropical Convergence Zone” southward and nightly television reports documented its position. More broadly, historical analysis of climate records shows a cyclical pattern of wetter and drier periods over about seven years over several decades that seem to suggest some type of pattern. This is no longer the case.

In our discussions, farmers pointed to their own forms of prediction that had been used in the past: certain types of birds being present, with certain calls, the flowering of particular trees, the formation of certain clouds, or the strength and the direction of the wind. . These would provide short-term predictions of what might happen in the next few days, but even these local prediction mechanisms often seem to fail these days.

As we sat in a farmer’s paddock, the rain fell just a mile away, but there it was completely dry. This variability means a different response. Farmers were unanimous in their rejection of formal predictions as useless today – whether they come from the Met Department or from prophets or priests. “This is ‘fake news’, someone proclaimed, continuing, if you follow her, you can make a big mistake.”

What is the alternative to the following predictions?

The answer almost everyone gave was “plan”, be prepared for any eventuality. Having your seed and fertilizer available, making sure you have enough animals to plow, working out how you can divert if the rains fail – say invest a lot of effort in the ‘outfield’ for more targeted and intensive gardening, where you can manage the soil, irrigate and so on.

During our discussions, many examples were given of how, in a very variable season like the one we are experiencing, different strategies were pursued. This required flexibility and, of course, resources (labour, inputs, etc.) to be able to switch between options. It is the agricultural “performance” that everyone must follow, where there are various scripts and different actors.

This is very different from standard packages or technocratic “climate-smart” agriculture solutions. Even when these are useful, they must be adapted. Fertilizer recommendations from extension workers should be modified to suit the season, even at the micro-plot. As discussed in a recent blog, the practice of no-tillage Pfumvudza it is also necessary to change, more or less large pits, more or less mulch, additional ridges to divert water if there is too much.

In today’s uncertain world, there is no single solution. Dealing with drought and avoiding hunger requires a lot of skill and careful contingency planning.

Accept uncertainty

As farmers have had to do over the past decades in Masvingo, shifting support more attuned to uncertainty rather than predictive risk will require new ways of doing things, as we highlighted in an article on Rethinking Farming. humanitarian and social aid in “crisis” situations. Unfortunately, as discussed in the next blog, this is not yet the case.

As I explained in a recent book chapter, perhaps these practices – centered on accepting uncertainty, living with and from variability – are the future, not the forms often rigid and standardized humanitarian and social protection responses that we see offered by the state or aid agencies. , development agencies.

  • This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland