Thursday, June 16, 2011
Chemicals Be Gone: A Sustainable Answer To A Changing Climate
Daniel Kampani's field with his compost heap and his maize stalks protecting the soils where another crop will grow with the coming rains.
“With conservation agriculture, we need less rain”. Says Daniel Kampani, 48, who is farming in the hills west of Lilongwe, Malawi. He has been using fertilizer and planting his small plot next to his one bedroom house for ten years, and each year only managed to get about three hundred pounds of maize from it. Two years ago he stopped using the expensive fertilizer and started mulching the field, using last year’s maize stalks and other plant compost as fertilizer. He lay the fertilizer right across the field, sheltering it from the sun and rain. This year he managed to harvest seven hundred pounds of maize from that plot. Because of this technique, the field also needs less moisture, something that is becoming harder and harder to find.
Daniel Kampani with his wife Clara. The two stand in front of their first big peanut harvest, which is going to bring in enough money to buy more pigs and send their children to school. In the past their tobacco crop barely gave them enough cash to buy basic foods they could not grow.
A farmer like Daniel understands all too well the effects of a changing climate. “We are doing this because of climate change”, he says as he stands next to his wife, Clara who helps farm their land, “here we have had less and less rainfall every year, and when it does come, it rains very hard, but for a shorter time.”
Daniel and Clara are part of a new trend in Malawi. They are members of NASFAM, the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association. This group is seeking to change old habits among the roughly seven million smallholder farmers in this country of thirteen million people. 85% of all the farmers in the country are subsistence farmers, that means they eat pretty much everything they produce. There is only one short growing season, from December to March and after smallholders consume their produce, they struggle to get through what some call the “hunger season”. This is the three months when the rains have come but the new food has not been harvested yet.
The country is small and has a limited amount of land, and that means Malawian farmers must make the most of it. But deeply ingrained agricultural habits have led to severe soil depletion. The people here believe that if they burn their fields in the long dry winter it will ensure a healthy crop, but this is far from the truth. Not only do the active fires throughout the country contribute to bad health and the release of noxious greenhouse gases, but the technique depletes the soils, kills healthy earthworms, and reduces crop yields dramatically. So why would people here do this?
Bumper harvests like this peanut harvest have been made possible through sustainable agricultural practices spread through NASFAM with support by Irish Aid in Malawi.
“They do not have the information that we do”, explains Daniel, “we are trying to get everyone in this area to stop this, but it is hard, it is a traditional thing. We must return humous to the soil, we must make it healthy again.” NASFAM has grouped together small farmers and gotten them to support each other in this new green revolution. As a group the farmers help each other and trade know-how. NASFAM has also helped them to diversify into peanut production, getting small buying stations out into rural areas where they can get a fair price for their produce, without having to truck it to town.
The peanuts replace tobacco as the smallholders’ cash crop, and are a great change for a diet that was very protein and vitamin poor. Legumes like peanuts help replenish nitrogen in the soil after years of maize and tobacco production and their shells make excellent fertilizer.
Irish Aid, the assistance arm of the Irish government, actively assists NASFAM with half a million euros to keep their outreach programs running. Networks of volunteers like Daniel and Clara help spread the conservation agriculture message into remote rural areas. In just a few years they have managed to lift about twenty percent of the farmers in the area out of subsistence farming and into the cash economy.
Deforestation in Malawi is acute, only eight percent of the trees are still standing, and many experts agree that the loss of forest cover contributes to local climate changes. Farmers like Daniel know this all too well, “We also need to plant trees. We need them for fuel, we need them for shade, we need them for fruit, some of them our animals can eat the leaves of in the dry season... they assist in so many ways.”
Daniel now has money to raise pigs, food in his granary, and sells his peanuts on the international fair trade market. He no longer has to worry if he will make it through the hungry season.
By planting trees, making his harvest more climate change proof, and increasing soil productivity, farmers like Daniel are uplifting poor countries and making a positive contribution to our planet. They can also teach the rest of us a few things about sustainable agriculture in a warming world at a time when agribusinesses have trying to convince everyone that the only way to combat climate change is through their fertilizers, chemicals and pesticides.
In Malawi and the rest of southern Africa there is an urgent need for projects of this type. As poor countries cry out in international forums for financing to adapt to the climate change wrought by the rich western world, it is programs like this that should be held up as an example for everyone to follow. But while countries like Ireland and the United States struggle to keep their own economies afloat, small inputs like the one keeping NASFAM running are in danger of disappearing. That would be a crisis for Malawi, and a great loss to our collective ability to adapt to the changing world around us.
Something to sing about: A women's farming group from NASFAM get together to share peanut growing secrets and support each other's new conservation farming practices.