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October 19, 2008

Cultural reticence, management problems reduce Swaziland´s beef export potential

Swaziland's failure to take advantage of the opportunity to export unlimited quantities of beef to the lucrative European Union (EU) market is being attributed to poor animal husbandry, high livestock mortality rates, and cultural practices that deter farmers from selling their cattle.

The EU's new trade agreement with the impoverished country has opened the world's richest market to Swaziland's hormone-free beef but the lure of cash has failed to entice farmers to sell, and few people will benefit from the trade concessions even though the majority of Swazis own cattle.

"Swaziland used to have a quota of 10,000 tonnes of beef entering the EU market, and Swazi beef was taxed a levy of eight percent; now there is no limit to the amount we can ship, and no tax levy," said Jon Williams, managing director of Swaziland Meat Industries (SMI), the national abattoir. "What is more, Swazi beef is 100 percent hormone free, a requirement for EU beef imports. That is why relatively little beef is sent there [to the EU] from the US. All Swazi beef we can lay our hands on we export, and for domestic use we import beef from South Africa, which may not be hormone free," Williams said.

SMI, which facilitates cattle sales, has so far shipped only 300 tonnes to the EU in 2008. About 80 percent of Swaziland's one million people live on communal Swazi Nation Land (SNL), in a system with King Mswati III as the head of state in sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarchy, and in which chiefs allocate land and grazing rights. Despite efforts to promote commercial farming, subsistence farming is practiced by most SNL residents, who comprise the bulk of the 600,000 Swazis living in chronic poverty, according to the UN Development Programme.

"The sale of a cow would reap enormous cash benefits for a typical family – money to buy food and to educate children," said Sandile Fakudze, an agriculture extension officer in the central Manzini region. "Swazis are reluctant to part with their cattle, and this is an enormous problem.

The [national] herd is in trouble; deaths are high," said Roland Dlamini, acting director of Veterinary Services in the Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives. "The fertility rate is a problem - a cow will give birth every three years on average."

For more than a decade Swaziland's national herd has stagnated at about 640,000, or two cows for every three people. The cattle mortality rate, which was below four percent in 2005, is now at 10 percent as a consequence of poor rainfall and drought that has exposed poor agricultural practices. "When we are talking about animal mortality, we are essentially talking about calf mortality - mothers are malnourished because of poor grazing land. Swaziland needs a breeding policy," Dlamini said. The department's goal is to produce a healthy national herd and ensure that annual breeding occurs. "It would stop overgrazing, and direct which breeds we should raise. Nguni cattle have been shown to do well in this country and a breeding policy would encourage this, instead of farmers buying any cow they seem to like," Dlamini commented.

"Grazing on public land will continue, but there needs to be an integration of farming and cattle-raising, so cattle can feed on each season's crop residue, like maize stalks," said Dlamini.

The government provides free veterinary medicines at 519 public dipping tanks, but its most popular service is the eight public feedlots operated in conjunction with SMI, which also provides technical and financial support. "The feedlots are the answer to making the national herd viable once more. The animals will be healthier and more market-ready," said Dlamini.

Current cattle-raising practices are taking their toll on the environment, with widespread overgrazing of ever-decreasing pasturage causing soil erosion and the marginalisation of formerly productive land, the desertification of formerly marginal land, and the silt pollution of streams that are the principal sources of water for households and irrigation in rural areas.

Part of the challenge is changing agricultural practices like routinely burning vegetation each winter, resulting in choking smoke for two months of the year and making Swaziland, with its negligible industrial base, a contributor of greenhouse gases, the effect of which is thought to compromise rainfall locally.

Alternative methods of farming cattle are being investigated, including the greater use of an indigenous Swazi plant. "The leucaena bush [Leucaena leucocephala] is drought resistant; it doesn't like cold, but it thrives in the many areas where there is little rainfall. Planting it on hillsides, in river beds and water catchment areas would stop erosion, and the cattle would get the protein they need," Williams said.

Complicating Swaziland's bid to try using the EU's trade concessions to fight poverty by earning foreign currency is the reluctance to sell cattle for cultural or sentimental reasons.

Timothy Masuku, who owns a dozen head of cattle 20km from Manzini, Swaziland's commercial centre, said, "I need my cattle for cultural purposes. They are for my sons to give to their brides' families, and other purposes. It is not like I can sell them any time." Masuku, like his ancestors, sees his herd as a savings account, rather than as the basis for acquiring cash to save or buy goods. "Besides, you don't know what tomorrow brings. If my family must move, we can take our cattle with us," Masuku said. Swaziland's system of plot tenure on communal land makes residents extremely vulnerable to the whims of chiefs, who can evict residents at a moment's notice, without legal recourse, even though families may have lived on the same plot of land for generations. Banning political parties in Swaziland has not dampened growing support for a democratic system akin to its neighbours, Mozambique and South Africa. Most chiefs are resisting a change in the status quo, leading to some to reportedly threatening their subjects that any political activity would lead to their eviction. In such circumstances cattle represent tremendous security as mobile assets in an emergency.

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