By Witness Kozanayi, researcher supporting the SKI AEL Participatory Action (PAR) Research process
Chimanimani, Gutu, and Makoni Districts have something in common. It is not the fact that they are all rural areas in Zimbabwe. Neither is it the fact they are all SKI sites where pilot work on Agroecology Landscape (AEL) regeneration is being implemented. No. A recent landscape survey in these three areas revealed that these areas are in transition! There are institutional, biophysical, spatial, and temporary changes taking place in these areas. This piece presents lessons I learned while supporting TSURO, FEET and ZIMSOFF to carry out a community led baseline survey for their AE Landscape work.
The profound changes have taken place at different speeds – in some instances, it has taken long, decades even, for some of the changes on the landscape to be visible e.g., gully formation. In other instances, change has been immediate, for example landslide and flooding in Chimanimani District. Change has also assumed a spatial scale with some changes transcending large areas like gullies cutting across villages, while other changes have been localized. There have been institutional and cultural changes too. Changes in crops grown, local diets, and residents organizing into groups to carry out collective work in farming or to address local environmental challenges.
The most notable change in the three areas is degradation of the landscape. Degradation manifests as gullies in grazing areas and crop fields including abandoned ones, soil erosion, deforestation, pollution of water bodies and the land, for example by discarded plastics and bottles. Degraded landscapes result in compromised livelihoods and in some cases conflicts between residents as they fight over the limited resources. Overpopulation due to natural increase and in-migration from urban areas, reckless and destructive farming practices and breakdown of local governance systems are some of the factors contributing to the degradation of the landscapes. With a sense of nostalgia, the elders in all three sites wistfully reminisce the good old days when the landscape was beautiful, serene, and nourished local populations. The older generation say that the spirits of the land used to smile at the residents and provide for all living things. Thus, locally, degradation of landscapes is not viewed only in biophysical terms, but also in terms of the spiritual link between nature and people. The village elders argue that residents have to come around and reconnect with their landscape and past. In local understanding, part of that process starts with the restoration of degraded landscapes to appease the spirits of the land.
The three sites have also not been spared from disasters, such as COVID-19, droughts and for Chimanimani, floods and landslides. Both pandemics and disasters made local people introspect about their food sources and farming practices. For Chimanimani, a lesson that was learned in the aftermath of the devastating cyclone Idai in 2019 was that agroecological landscapes were more resilient than conventionally farmed ones. For COVID-19, an observation that reverberated across all 3 sites was that some of the neglected traditional foods and fruits were important in boosting the immune systems of people. Foods and farming practices that had been dismissed in preference to “modern and smarter” ways of farming and diets, were suddenly reintroduced. Indigenous fruits such as baobab and bird berry both rich in vitamin C became a common part of the local diet.
In Gutu and Chimanimani, the invasive plants e.g., Lantana camara and Vernonathura polyanthes (mupese and pese in the local language respectively) was a serious problem on the landscape. Vernonathura polyanthes, originally from South America, was introduced in Mozambique by an NGO in the 1970s as a fodder tree for bees. Recurrent cyclones and floods emanating from Mozambique carried the seeds of the plant to Chimanimani where the plant swiftly colonised swaths of landscapes. Mupese pese divides opinion among local people. To beekeepers, the invasive plant is a source of joy as it is a source of nectar for bees, while to livestock farmers, the plant destroys the rich biodiversity in the area. As for Lantana camara, the Gutu communities are already making concerted efforts to uproot it from grazing and wetland areas.
Disappearance of traditional seeds is yet another worrying trend in Gutu, Chimanimani and Makoni districts. Locals bemoan the loss of traditional crop varieties and with that, local dishes! Increasingly, hybrid seed varieties and Western diets are being adopted. Yet year in year out, such hybrid varieties are a near complete write off due to droughts or heavy rains. Farmers hail the SKI as a game changer in terms of local seeds and diets. Building on the momentum built by the SKI project over the last 8 years, farmers speak of an increased zeal by residents to produce and consume traditional grains such as rapoko, sorghum, taro and finger millet.
While traditional leaders are trying to revive cultural practices that are important for the conservation of sacred sites and production and consumption of traditional grains, some emerging religious groups, are busy criticizing and undoing such efforts. For example, certain apostolic sects go and pray at sacred sites- to “cleanse” the defiled spaces, thereby defiling the sacred sites. Such religious groupings condemn if not demonise the consumption of certain traditional grains associated with traditional rituals like beer brewing. However, the traditional leaders, as guardians of local culture, are relentless as they continue to promote and conserve traditional crops, diets, and ways of managing natural resources, including through acknowledgement of their sacredness.
Demographic and institutional changes are also taking place. The default view of rural areas is that these are sanctuaries for old people and semi-illiterate people. Thus, the rural development agenda is in the hands of old people. In the three districts described here, youth is increasingly taking the lead in driving the local research and development agenda. Fortuitously, SKI’s emphasis on locals taking the lead in all programmes including applied research, has stimulated interest in the inquisitive youths, some of them recent high school and university graduates. In Makoni, the local leader of the AE Landscape work is a university graduate with a degree in Rural and Urban development. In each of the three sites, there are many youths with high-school and tertiary qualifications, and professionals like schoolteachers, who are actively involved in the AE Landscape work. An emerging practice is that the village elders are creating space for the youths to take a more active role in rural development. The net effect of this change in leadership is that there is a democratisation of knowledge generation by fusing different knowledge systems- traditional knowledge (held by the elders) and western knowledge (acquired by the youth in the four walls of a classroom). Strategies and solutions informed by the merging of these two forms of knowledge are anticipated to be more robust than in the past.
Some concluding thoughts
The AE Landscape work is providing an opportunity for local communities to have a holistic understanding of their landscape. Numerous lessons can be discerned from the community led baseline studies. Firstly, the degraded landscapes have resulted in compromised livelihoods. Secondly, the landscape degradation exacerbated by climate change has triggered the use of old ways of farming and managing the landscape. Landscape management is currently business unusual and efforts need to be maintained to change this.
The ongoing AE Landscape restoration work has great potential to contribute to the transitioning of the landscapes in target communities as it leverages on the momentum and civic energy that has already been generated under the SKI program over the past 8 years. In addition, the landscape regeneration work can potentially serve as an entry point to building resilience of farmers to climate change as communities try out different agroecological solutions to local challenges.
In unison, farmers, NGOs, researchers, local and national leadership, can contribute to positive change in the landscape in unique ways, according to their competencies and expertise. Key to the success of this noble work is first building the capacity of local people and then allowing the local people to oversee the entire development process. As they say in Shona, “Akazvimbirwa ndiye muzaruri wesasa”- literal translation being, “He who has a running tummy opens the door”. In all the three sites, the local people were eager to take remedial action on their degraded landscapes.
To conclude, in designing efforts to regenerate the degraded landscape, notions of scale, both in terms of time and space need to be considered. Interventions may take time to bear fruit, while solutions should consider institutions within and without the target pilot sites, for, due to the sheer magnitude of the problems, locals may not go it alone! Working beyond farmers’ fields – in communal areas where some of the landscape challenges emanate as the AE Landscape restoration work aims to do – is commendable. With time, the scars on the landscapes can be healed- because only time heals more than a doctor!
 The problem of soil erosion is old in Zimbabwe. It started haunting the colonial farmers less than 30 years after they began using industrial ways of farming in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia then). They were to reckon thus, “Mother earth (is) only a thin skin clothing the naked poverty of the rocky ribs below”-The Herald, Rhodesia, 1 October, 1917.