Monday, 7 October 2013

Planting water: sustainable agriculture in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has a long tradition of 'ecological' and 'sustainable' agriculture. There are many organisations, perhaps most notably PELUM, the participatory ecological land use management association, that have supported low external input sustainable agriculture initiatives over many years. A new blog has also been started to document some of these experiences, and it includes videos, case studies and more. It is well worth a look, as the examples highlighted show how smallholder agriculture can move ahead, often without the type of inputs and investments that are often assumed to be essential.

One of the first people I met when I went to Zimbabwe in the 1980s was Zephaniah Phiri Maseko of Msipane area in Runde communal area near Zvishavane. Through the connections with Dadaya School, where his father had worked, and his earlier association with Ken Wilson, he came to work on the growing array of activities that became linked to the PhD projects that Ken initiated and I joined in nearby Mazvhiwa communal area. Visiting his home was a revelation. Here was a lush, green land in an area that received barely above 500mm of rainfall. He had broken every rule in the Rhodesian handbook of agricultural practice (like farming in or near a vlei and water source, avoiding traditional contours and more), and it was working amazingly effectively.

In 1987, thanks to support from Oxfam and the EEC, Phiri founded Zvishavane Water Projects. Its mission was to share the experiences of 'planting water' that Phiri and his family had developed at their home over the years to a wider community in Zvishavane and beyond. As NGOs, farmer groups and individuals have taken up these ideas – harvesting water in a variety of ways to improve soil moisture and agricultural production – the impact has been incredible. The now famous 'Phiri pits' can be seen scattered across the landscape.

Mary Witoshynsky documented the remarkable life and work of Mr Phiri in a fantastic book published by Weaver Press, The Water Harvester. There are also numerous articles profiling his work (for example, here, here and here – the last from 1988, written by Phiri, with Ken Wilson and myself). Many such articles were collected together for the 'book of life' presented at the UZ lifetime achievement award ceremony in 2010. Here too is a video of him explaining his water harvesting systems at his home. Phiri certainly has been an inspiration to me, as many others. The possibilities of dryland farming, without complex technologies but with an ecological understanding of water and land, are extensive.

Now in his mid 80s, Phiri is now old and infirm, suffering badly from the injuries inflicted at the hands of the Rhodesian regime when he was under house arrest and in leg irons. But his work continues through ZWP and many other initiatives. Indeed when I was at his home last year, his visitors' book was full of comments from people from across Zimbabwe, and indeed beyond.

As more and more of the country is farmed by smallholders following land reform, Zimbabwe needs more Mr Phiris, and more similar initiatives to exchange ideas, technologies and practices. The new blog will be an important source for many, and hopefully will encourage others to experiment and innovate.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland