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September 07, 2008

Swaziland struggles to feed itself

What happens to a nation whose people depend on the largesse of international donor agencies for their existence, once support is withdrawn?

If forecasts for the small landlocked African nation of Swaziland are an indication, the granting of temporary relief may be followed by a new humanitarian emergency.

"The poverty solution we’ve heard about for so many years has been sustainable development: give people the tools they need to continue producing without outside assistance," said Titus Mahlalela, a food aid distributor working with the international NGO World Vision. World Vision distributes some of the food aid brought in by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) to local communities; at present, this aid keeps a record 600,000 Swazis alive -- more than 60 percent of the population.

Mahlalela's view is that the International community is willing to help alleviate Immediate emergencies, but is less attracted to long-term commitments required for lasting solutions. An initiative of another UN agency, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), illustrates what happens when assistance that might help farmers achieve sustainable food production is prematurely withdrawn.

A rise in food production last year is likely to be reversed this year, FAO officials say, as farmers who received assistance have nowhere else to turn. Ploughing season is only weeks away.

"They gave me what I needed to farm last year. Seeds and fertiliser. We don’t know if we will receive these this year. I for one don’t know what I will do without these things," said Amos Nhlabela, a 45 year-old small farmer in Mlimba, a hamlet 50 km north of the central commercial hub Manzini.

Recent efforts to boost crop production were based not on achieving sustainability but were instead focused on alleviating crop losses due to drought. A false assumption was made: once rains returned, so would crop yields. In fact, lack of rainfall was only one obstacle to achieving sustained food production in Swaziland, where eight out of ten people depend on subsistence farming for survival.

For generations, Swazis accepted a cycle of bounty and famine that characterised traditional farming, which is dependent on sun and rain and manure from the oxen that plough the fields. When Swaziland gained its independence 40 years ago, it routinely recorded food surpluses because a population one third smaller than it is today did not consume as much from available land.

"Three things happened in the intervening decades," noted Carl Dlamini, an agriculture field officer in the central Manzini Region. "The population grew but there wasn’t enough farmland, so new generations moved onto marginal land that could barely produce.

"Secondly, climate change brought droughts that made formerly good land only marginally productive and marginal land completely incapable of producing crops. For the last 15 years much of the eastern Lubombo region has been droughty.

"The third factor cutting into agriculture production has been AIDS."

A concentrated and substantial amount of aid last year proved beneficial. In 2007, food production was down by 80 percent in some areas, and all parts of the country saw crop losses due to hot and dry weather. An emergency relief call from UN agencies brought a response that financed partial recovery.

WFP provided food aid, and the FAO funded purchases of farm inputs – seeds, fertilizer, tractors – required for individual farm production. A WFP/FAO crop assessment team found that agricultural output in 2008 agriculture output was twice 2007 levels, though still below that of the previous four years.

Ironically, the success of last year’s emergency relief resulted in the end of the government-declared national food emergency. Last year’s FAO budget of US $3 million has been slashed to $500,000.

For the coming planting season, which is imminent in some parts of the country as spring rains begin falling, only one out of six farmers who received inputs from FAO last year will receive them this year. The impoverished country’s treasury has no funds to make up the shortfall.

"We had a good response to the donor appeal last year. But the drought emergency is over," said Tamie Dlamini, Programme Director of FAO’s Swaziland operations. "We will have another shortfall in food production this year, not from drought but from farmers not planting because they cannot afford inputs."

Less than 60 percent of Swaziland's arable land is under cultivation, partly due to AIDS decimating the agricultural work force. This year, input costs will be another important limit on agricultural production. Fertiliser costs are expected to be up 200 percent over last year come the height of the planting season in November.

Rising fuel prices are reflected in the higher cost of private tractor rental. The Ministry of Agriculture has too few tractors, and waits have caused some farmers to plant late.

"I cannot afford fertiliser. I cannot afford seeds. I cannot afford to rent a tractor. I can borrow my cousin’s oxen to plough, but he also has no seeds or fertiliser," said another farmer, Sonny Dube, Amos Nhlabela’s neighbour.

"Why is money available for emergency relief, but not for making farming affordable? Why are there too few tractors? Where is the funding for a self-replenishing seed bank that farmers can draw from?" asked Connie Hlope, one of the few women agricultural field officers in the country. Her job is to advise farmers on planting schedules and tractor hire.

"You hear why farming hasn’t been ‘sustainable.’ People blame donor dependency. You hear that people refuse to plough because they get food from the WFP. But I’ve never been able to substantiate that. It’s a myth," Hlope said.

An interview with a rural resident confirmed this. Amanda Mavuso, a widow and mother of five who manages to cultivate a two-acre field in central Swaziland said, "The food we grow is good. We enjoy it. The food from overseas is not quite right. It tastes different. No one around here prefers donor food."

If she and her family do end up accepting donor food, it will be because she is unable to do the work of running a farm by herself. She has no money for inputs and depends on the assistance of neighbouring families to do the hard tasks of ploughing, weeding and harvesting.

Until programmes are devised to meet the fundamental needs of small-scale agriculture that feed a majority of Swazis and which once produced a national surplus of agricultural production, "sustainability" will remain more of a developmental cliché than an achievable reality in the lives of small farmers.


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