The Gutu AE Landscape Project is empowering smallholder farmers so they can take a leading role in defining ecological and sustainable solutions for their landscape. Four villages in the Gutu district under Headmen Mupata, Nesongano, Magombedze and Munyaradzi, all under the Paramount Chief of Gutu are taking the lead, covering about. about 2,000 households in total. The project villages are situated in the main watershed area of Gutu district which forms part of the Save river catchment area.
The Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF) is a national smallholder farmers’ organisation, with extensive movement building experience. ZIMSOFF is focusing on amplifying traditional knowledge in the protection of biodiversity within the Nyamandi landscape in Gutu district.
The people living in this area experience many challenges that have emerged over a number of years as a result of the loss of traditional knowledge, poor agricultural practices and invasion by alien vegetation.
One of the most immediately visible problems in this area is the encroachment of Lantana Camara, an invasive alien species that has a negative impact on grazing and agricultural land. Farms have lost much agrobiodiversity, and this means the management of pests and diseases in their fields have become a big challenge. Over time sacred sites have been degraded through pollution of water bodies, killing of wild animals, and deforestation.
Soil erosion in mountainous areas and on arable land is a huge problem and also contributes to the siltation of rivers and streams. The uncontrolled cutting down of trees in the forests and woodlands further contribute to soil erosion and the degradation of water bodies. A shortage of grazing areas has created tension between the different land users and threatens important biodiversity.
The community’s vision is to restore and reconnect with traditional knowledge; strengthening and amplifying traditional wisdom so that the sacredness of sites that protect precious natural resources can be revived. This will contribute to the nurturing and restoration of biodiversity within the wider landscape.
While reviving traditional knowledge, the 100 participating farming families also aim to showcase the best modern agroecological practices. This will increase their ability to absorb the shocks of climate change and droughts. By reviving diverse food production systems that integrate crops and livestock, whilst nurturing natural resources, these smallholder farmers will be able to create communities of practice for landscape restoration, ecological agriculture and food sovereignty.
The communities have recognised that they themselves have contributed to the degradation of their environment by creating dead soils, polluting water and allowing the diversity of seeds and crops to be lost. They recognise that they have to revitalise the soil at household levels so it is a living system. A primary longer-term goal in their vision, is to bring back ecological practices in context specific ways and guard against repeating past mistakes.
The smallholder farmers identified socio-economic, cultural, and ecological land-use issues which they will need to address to implement their vision. They also voiced the importance of promoting their views on the issues that affect their rights as farmers. They have developed criteria to identify a “best farmer” with good practices showing aspects of landscape regeneration.
With traditional knowledge systems as the bedrock of their approach, ZIMSOFF started off by facilitating dialogues so participating communities could co-define why they want an AE landscape approach, what it is and why traditional institutions should lead. This was followed by rituals and ceremonies to inform the spiritual world on their intention and to seek guidance on how to revive water, soil, seed and cultural practices.
A participatory community mapping process helped them to identify the challenges they face, and define their priorities. It also helped them to identify the good practices in soil, water and seed conservation that they already apply. Farmer-to-farmer learning and exchanges were organized. Some were site specific and some were exchanges to other areas. Farmer led trainings were very powerful for transferring knowledge and demonstrating good examples. Action plans and a landscape design were developed for each area and farmers identified the strategies and practices they will be able to implement.
A documentation team of youth from the communities was formed and trained in various types of documentation (i.e. video, photo, and writing). Since then, they have been actively helping to document stories of change, and landscape and project data. The widespread sharing of information has enabled its validation and the development of a strategy. A training in participatory action research (PAR) with young people supported the further strengthening of documentation processes. A range of activities were developed to enable sharing and showcasing of good practices, including: field days, seed fairs and the identification of model homesteads.
The four headmen developed bylaws to support the regeneration of sacred sites, water bodies and forests. Women formed seed study groups while working parties and village assemblies have also been revived. This project was closely guided by the principles developed by the regional agroecology landscape collective.
During the implementation it became increasingly clear how important it is to involve local government agencies and politicians when working on a landscape level. One result of involving a range of government agencies was that the local Member of Parliament invited ZIMSOFF to reach out to more communities in his constituency and committed resources so this can be done.
A project of this scale is very complex, and it can be a challenge to know what to prioritise, i.e. what would be the most important thing to do in a given situation. Well organised dialogues do build trust and help to unpack a range of issues that affect traditional institutions and the farming families. Dialogues have the capacity to bring everyone to the same level of analysis and understanding which is important for enhancing coherence and cooperation, and for setting priorities.
Seed fairs are also not only about seed, but also about good nutrition, motivating farmers and creating a space for knowledge exchange and community building.
Culture is crucial in communities such as these as Shona culture itself provides supporting pillars for people’s daily lives. It also provides people connection with the spiritual world which connects them with their environment and the Cosmos.