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November 03, 2011

Swaziland: No more subsidized agricultural inputs

Swaziland’s economic crisis has forced the government to put on ice the agricultural input scheme that has made the survival of many subsistence farmers and their families less precarious on communal Swazi Nation Land, where 70 percent of the 1.1 million population live.

“There is no seed subsidizing now. We used to do it, and we are talking about reviving the programme,” said Xoxile Nxumalo of the agriculture ministry. Under the Swazi Agricultural Development Programme, seeds were sold at a discount or provided free of charge to subsistence farmers working on communal land.

Nxumalo said discussions were taking place to provide discount tractor hire. Poor farmers could previously use the government’s tractor fleet at reduced rates but fuel shortages have put a stop to the service. In 2010 a government tractor could be hired for about R130 (US$17.30) an hour, compared to about R200 (US$26.60) per hour for a privately owned tractor.

This is the first growing season where the inputs have been withdrawn. Planting starts when the rains begin, usually between October and November. The mountainous highveld usually has ample rains, and enough rain falls in the warmer middle veld for most of the crop production. In the drought-prone low middle veld and eastern lowveld rainfall is often problematic and food assistance has regularly been required in the past two decades, particularly in the eastern Lubombo region.

A recent long-range prediction by the Swaziland Meteorological Department forecast rains arriving late in 2011, but ending at their usual time in March/April, so reducing the cropping season.

“Seven out of ten Swazis survive as peasant farmers on government-owned land, and while subsistence farming worked when the population was small, a growth in population has meant this old way of doing things is not sustainable. Swaziland has become dependant on food aid, despite the nation’s ability to feed herself,” Amos Ndwandwe, an agriculture field officer in the central Manzini region, told IRIN.

“It is not that Swaziland lacks good land. We have lots of good land, but the land management system is a feudal arrangement that was not made for modern times. If the small landholder farmers could pool their land and get financing for irrigation and modern equipment, Swaziland’s food security would be ensured in one season,” he said.

Thembumenzi Dube, a statistician at the agriculture ministry, told IRIN: “The area planted in 2010/11 was 70,344 hectares, which showed an increase of about 20 percent compared to the previous season. The increase in area planted could be attributed to a number of factors, including the onset of the rainfall season countrywide, with fair distribution.

“The seasonal [rainfall] forecast had also indicated normal to above normal rainfall in the October to December period... The Ministry of Agriculture’s efforts to encourage farmers to make use of available resources such as tractors could have also played a role,” he said.

The maize harvest for the 2010/2011 season was 84,696 metric tons, against a national requirement of the staple grain of 113,000 tons, in a season when small-scale farmers had access to subsidised seed distribution and tractor hire.

The 2011 planting season has coincided with a dry spell and most small-scale farmers are dependent on rain to water their crops. Security of tenure is tenuous on Swazi Nation Land, and the majority have few or no financial resources to improve the land or install irrigation systems.

King Mswati directly appoints Swaziland’s about 300 chiefs, who can arbitrarily evict any of their subjects from communal land. Analysts say this ensures that the ban on political activities reaches all domains of Swazi society, as anyone seen to be involved in political activity can have their land confiscated without recourse.

“I live on the banks of a river [the Nkomati]. My maize crops could easily thrive if I had a simple pump and piping. What I harvest would pay for the loan, but I have no collateral because there is nothing to offer the bank. We Swazis live under chiefs - this land belongs to the king,” Sipho Magagula, a farmer in the eastern Lubombo region.

“The last harvest [earlier in 2011] was better than last year but some people are still on food assistance, especially in the Lubombo region,” Nxumalo said.

More than 100,000 Swazis receive some form of food assistance from governmental programmes and international donor schemes.

Other social services such as educational grants and pensions have either become erratic or have been suspended as the country ruled by sub-Sahara’s last absolute monarch, Mswati III, struggles to deal with the decline of receipts from the Southern African Customs Union, and profligate spending by the government and the royal household.

An agricultural specialist, who declined to be named said, “There are 200,000 OVC [orphans and vulnerable children] in Swaziland, and if you add the growing number of people on Swazi Nation Land with inadequate crop yields, we are looking at least a third of the population needing food assistance.”

IRIN

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