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September 13, 2009

Swaziland running out of land for farming

Population growth, adherence to land distribution customs, and a small country are combining to make Swaziland a crowded place, rapidly running out of room to achieve food security.

The population has doubled to more than one million since independence from Britain in 1968, but according to custom each Swazi son is given a portion of land on the family farm, located on communal Swazi Nation Land administered by traditional chiefs, to build a home, cultivate maize and graze cattle.

The effects of relentless subdivision are beginning to be felt in a country where about 80 percent of the population reside in rural areas, under the rule of sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, King Mswati III, a staunch traditionalist.

"If you divide a meal into smaller and smaller pieces to feed more people there comes a time when everyone goes hungry," said Samuel Dlamini, 25, a farmer in the central Manzini region, 70km east of the capital Mbabane.

"When we were children there were eight of us living off this small farm," he said. Dlamini is married with two children, but his three older brothers, their wives and children, and one of his two sisters all still live on the family homestead.

"Now there are 19 people. When we took our wives our father gave each son part of the farm. We must support our families on the parcel, but it's not possible," he said.

Sedentary living is a relatively new concept; in earlier times a pastoralist lifestyle saw Swazis migrating to various seasonal grazing pastures, and it was not until the 1800s that maize, now the staple food, began to be cultivated.

The number of people has finally caught up with the land area available. "There are no new places now for young people to go," Dlamini said.

The growing scarcity of land is moving the goal of achieving food security further out of reach, and a drought in 2007 made nearly half the population dependent on donor feeding schemes.

"It's true; we've noticed what Mr Dlamini is saying. Even the people we give seeds to, they tell us their farms are one hectare or 1.5 hectares, and we ask, 'Is it worth it?' They can't feed themselves," said Olga Tsabedze, of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's Swaziland office.

The land under cultivation is also diminishing. During the 2001/02 season, 71,000 hectares were cultivated with maize, in 2004/05 this dropped to 56,000 hectares, and in 2006/07 - the last year statistics for which were available - the amount of land under maize cultivation fell to 51,000 hectares.

"We see that the farms are shrinking all the time; we are seeing more and more land going over to housing. We are seeing less cattle production, with less rangeland due to deterioration caused by overgrazing," said Bheki Bhembi, head of the research department at the Central Bank of Swaziland.

"People feed themselves more by growing maize than raising cattle. With cattle it is more of stock-wealth issue [wealth and status are measured by the number of cattle owned] instead of food production," Bhembi said.

A Swaziland Central Bank report noted that "Prospects for maize production, like all other dry-land agricultural produce, are not encouraging. This bleak outlook is due to unpredictable and unreliable weather conditions. Output will also be negatively affected by rising input costs, coupled with the inherent risks of dry-land production."

Even with good rains, the shrinking size of farms as each new generation carves up the land into smaller slices heightens the threat to food sufficiency. "Some of the agriculture ministry extension officers are encouraging small landholder farmers to pool their land and resources," Tsabedze said.

Eric Simelane, a government agricultural extension officer, said: "It's economy of scale - if the farmers can patch their fields together to the size they once were, then farming would be more efficient and yields would increase."


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