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‘Our ancestors are angry’. says climate-devestated Zimbabwean farmers

‘Our ancestors are angry,’ say climate-devastated Zimbabwean farmers 

16 Mar 2010 11:56:00 GMT


Written by: AlertNet correspondent


Selina Mutoleka and her AIDS-orphaned grandchildren struggle to grow enough food on their farm in Nyimo, Zimbabwe. Climate change is making Zimbabwe’s weather more unpredictable, threatening crops, but many local people attribute the growing problems to God’s anger.

By Fidelis Zvomuya

NYIMO, Zimbabwe (AlertNet) – Selina Mutoleka thinks God is angry.

 “I think God has pushed the sun down as punishment for our sins. Our ancestors are angry with us for dishonouring them as well as cutting down sacred trees,” the 86-year-old widow and grandmother said.

Life has become increasing hard for the small-scale farmers of Nyimo village, in Zimbabwe’s western Sanyati district. Rains are irregular, erosion and animal diseases are worsening and many people, only faintly aware of the role of climate change in their problems, believe God has brought on their woes.


According to the district’s traditional leader, Chief Neuso, the region was once the land of milk and honey. Rains fell predictably from the end of October to March, and the rivers flowed continuously.


“We used to farm traditional crops such as rapoko (finger millet), sorghum and ground nuts. These were fast, (quickly) growing crops and they have since disappeared. Agricultural production has been commercialised resulting in the introduction of hybrids seeds that demand lots of fertilizers, chemicals and rains,” the chief said.


Since 2006, the rains in the area have become less reliable. The October and November rains arrive late, and the season is much shorter. This crop season, the area has received only four days of rain.


The rivers that normally provide water for people, livestock and irrigation have run dry, leading to water and food shortages.




Drought has become “more frequent and devastating” in recent years, Neuso believes, in part because many trees have been cut, particularly varieties considered sacred and associated with rain making.


Population growth and unemployment have helped drive increases in cutting of trees such as Mobola plum, false ash and mutarara, he said.


“These formed part of our sacred forests where rain-making ceremonies used to be conducted and were believed to be where ancestors used to sit,” Neuso said.

 Sanyati’s population, once around 500 people in the 1950s, is now estimated to be around 200,000. Agricultural land has been depleted, particularly after people surged into communal lands during the Zimbabwean government’s controversial land reforms, as well as after mine closures that pushed up unemployment.

But people also blame changes in the weather for declining agricultural productivity.


“Crops that I used to grow in the 1990s, when I grow them these days they don’t give enough yield,” said Mutoleka, the 86-year-old farmer.


Lack of rainfall has also hit the region’s cattle as pastures dry up, leaving many of the oxen used as draft animals too weak to work, Neuso said.


Faced with worsening conditions, many farmers have sunk into worsening debt, been forced to sell off assets, become dependent on food aid or simply migrated out of the area.




Others have turned to illegal gold panning, tearing up Zimbabwe’s countryside in a bid to survive. They leave behind a trail of devastated fields and forests, mud-choked rivers, and mercury-tainted water.


The situation has left many farmers like Mutoleka near despair.


“The raining pattern has changed. You cannot predict it. Growing up, it was not like this,” she said. “There were times that it rained and times that it did not rain. That has changed.”


Now, both rain and wind patterns have changed, planting seasons are changing and temperatures are steadily increasing, she said.


The situation is worse for many in Nyimbo because they are already struggling to care for sick relatives in a country heavily hit by HIV/AIDS. Mutoleka cares for six orphaned grandchildren, which makes food shortages even more painful.


As temperatures rise, the area has also seen outbreaks of malaria, Rift Valley fever and tick-borne animals diseases.

 In Nyimo these days, the communal pond is a parched dustbowl, the land is cracked like grotesque crazy paving and oceans of lifeless maize and cotton stalks wave in the fields, some barely recognizable as crops.

Mutoleka and her grandchildren now fetch water from five kilometres away to irrigate small patches of maize around their home.




“We feel defeated by drought and the weather in general. Before, with the abundance of rain, life was easy. With this lack of rain we get nothing out of these harvests. As crops fail, some farmers give up their land,” she said.


God is behind the bad times, most people believe.

 “God brings the rain. The one who causes the drought, who sends us the drought, is God,” Mutoleka said.

Chief Neuso said his subjects lacked knowledge and understanding of climate change, in contrast with their high awareness of general environmental degradation.


“Most of the people are aware of the transformation in the natural environment, the depletion of food and water sources over their lifetimes,” he said.


“In most community meetings we have, villagers have frequently cited excess heat, increased variability of rains and planting seasons (as problems). But to associate this to climate change is the biggest challenge we are faced with. No vernacular translation is available for this term,” Neuso said.


Climate change presents an additional stress for Zimbabweans already struggling with the challenges posed by political instability and widespread poverty.


Washington Zhakata, who heads the climate change office for Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Environment, said the country, already prone to irregular rainfall, was seeing worsening conditions as a result of the El Nino weather phenomenon this year.


“The damage caused by this weather condition is grave in some parts of the country. We have been experiencing such conditions during the early stages of the each rain season, affecting farmers’ ability to meet the planting deadlines and causing poor crop germination,” he said.


Zhakata said sub-Saharan Africa is currently the most food-insecure region in the world. Climate change could aggravate the situation further unless adequate measures are put in place, he said.


“We have to educate people on climate change and also explain to them the impacts, and how they can mitigate and adapt,” he said.

 Fidelis Zvomuya, based in Pretoria, South Africa, is a writer specializing in environmental reporting. Reuters AlertNet is not responsible for the content of external websites. 


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