Sunday, February 2, 2014

Oiling Malawi's Household Food Security Situation through Permaculture

Malawi's local farmers have, through experience, come to learn it the hard way that to embrace agriculture is to accept a world of contradictions.

Since time immemorial, agricultural practices have been so replete with certainty and uncertainty, balances and imbalances, and progression and retrogression that it has become a norm to accept years of bumper yields along with skinny years. This variation in conditions has, in effect, made it natural to refer to materials used in plant and animal production as ‘variables’ due to their changing nature.

Nevertheless, this shadow of positives and negatives, enthuses Peter Mazingaliwa- Acting National Coordinator for Malawi/US Exchange Alumni Association (Museaa) - offers room for reflection.

“The time when people used to accept situations as they came is long gone; modern scientific discoveries offer us room to devise ways through which we can tame some of the unfavourable conditions. Science has proven that the positives from agriculture can be sustained, and the negatives arrested,” says Mazingaliwa.

This leads to the question: Is it possible to tame the variables in agriculture, and, at least, attain some level of sustainability?

“Sure, it is possible to achieve sustainability in, say, food production in agriculture. It just needs favourable policies, unfazed commitment, continuous research, and responsive communities. One of the ways to achieve food sustainability, for example, is to promote permanent agriculture, or permaculture,” says Mazingaliwa.

The term ‘permaculture’ is itself a challenge to agriculture- an area long-associated with the eternal flux of opposites- because it introduces new approaches to natural systems. In fact, the whole concept is premised on the idea that it is only through paradigm shifts in agricultural systems’ theory and holistic organic ecology that the world population can achieve a balance and, therefore, stability.

Mazingaliwa says this is the reason Museaa, which acts as a platform for national and international networking among Malawians who have studied in the United States as one way of contributing towards national socio-economic development, has been conducting capacity building programmes in addressing issues that impact on agriculture productivity.

“One of these issues is that of climate change. Climate change, various studies have shown, is contributing towards global food insecurity. But problems associated with climate change can be mitigated by promoting ideals of permaculture,” says Mazingaliwa.

Museaa has, with US$23,900 (about K3.8m) funding from the US State Department Alumni Affairs Division, been implementing a climate change programme aimed at encouraging communities to develop permaculture as one of the effective adaptation techniques.

Among others, it is promoting an understanding of climate change as a concept, in terms of its causes and effects, and promoting awareness of human activities that contribute to climate change, including deforestation, urbanization and desertification.

Working with agricultural extension workers, field supervisors from NGOs working on environmental issues, smallholder farmers, Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Water Development, among others, it has engaged community leaders and pupils on permaculture techniques and assisted in forming permaculture clubs in secondary schools.

Permaculture, as a climate change mitigating tool, discourages overdependence on rain-fed agriculture by promoting water-harvesting methods. Mixed cropping (different crop types and root systems) is preferred over mono-cropping, and it also encourages the use of local materials such as organic manure.

“It is important that we promote these things, starting with the youth. This is the reason we have been carrying out climate change programmes on Adaptive Agriculture techniques among Malawian youths in both primary and secondary schools. Because young people are yet to experience the ‘rest’ of life, they are better-placed to absorb new knowledge and change their world,” said Mazingaliwa.

“We need permaculture to sustain food productivity. For your own information, Malawi has not yet attained food security, despite pronunciations to that effect, and this is because we depend on rain-fed agriculture and one type of crop, maize. We are thus more vulnerable to climate change and, unless we adopt permaculture, on the verge of perishing,” he said.

He, however, urges Malawi to continue being part of international community efforts on climate change. Mazingaliwa notes that, so far, Malawi has been a keen participant at international meetings, a process that started some 17 years ago and reached a climax in November 2009- when world leaders met for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climatic Change.

Climate change refers to conditions characterized by persistent shifts in the general patterns of the elements of weather. These shifts may be observed as clear trends for some of the elements including temperatures, but may also become random or unpredictable. A good example of this involves the onset of the rains.

However, Mugove Walter Nyika- one of Malawi’s climate change experts, and senior official at the local NGO Rescope- notes that climate change is as old as the planet earth itself, but says current changes in climate are unique and different from anything that has been experienced before.

“In the past, climate changes were associated with natural cycles such as sunspot activity. The sunspot activity is a change that takes place in the chemical activities on the surface of the sun, which determines the amount of energy that the sun sends outwards to us.

“(But) other changes in climate in the past have been less predictable. These include changes that were caused by the impact of meteorites smashing onto the earth, or the impact of massive volcanic eruptions, both of which sent clouds of dust into the atmosphere which blocked part of the rays of the sun,” says Nyika.

Meteorites are large pieces of rock that are moving in space and which, at times, may collide with the planets. The blocking of the sun’s rays by the dust clouds led, in the past, to periods in which global temperatures drastically dropped.

Nyika warns of dire consequences if communities and governments do not care: “Previous changes in climate had a big impact on life on earth. Some changes led to the extinction of some forms of life such as the dinosaurs. Some changes led to the cooling of the planet, resulting in large sheets of ice covering the surface of the earth.”

He notes, however, that current changes in climate are due, mainly, to human activities’ impact on the earth. For example, the industrial revolution, fuelled by fossil fuels such as coal and oil, has been the main driver of climate change. Other activities, like deforestation and chemical farming, have also accelerated the changes in climate.

But it is the later activities that have started to feature prominently locally.

This could be attributed to recent findings by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) that, while the main source of global food remains the soil, the climate that influenced rainfall patterns has really changed- the sort of change that honours no human boundaries.

WMO indicates, for instance, that the year 2010 was the warmest on record. It also says that the years between 2000 and 2010 have registered the warmest period in time since records began. Among others, communities from across the globe are experiencing unusual weather patterns and more frequent incidents of extreme weather events.

“All these will impact on agriculture productivity,” he says.

That is where permaculture, as one form of climate smart agriculture, comes in. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, climate smart agriculture entails activities that increase productivity, resilience, removes greenhouse gas emissions, and enhances national food security and development goals.

Among other approaches, this is achieved by revolutionizing the management of soil, water, landscapes, technologies, and genetic resources to ensure higher productivity and resilience, while reducing the greenhouse footprint, according to Bunda College of Agriculture Environment and Development expert, Dr. David Mkwambisi.

Mkwambisi openly hopes for a balanced world that will reduce the trade-off between productivity (output) and emissions per unit of agricultural product.

“Global experts on environment and development have realised that agriculture can be a critical tool to solve problems associated with climate change and weather variability in many countries,” says Dr. Mkwambisi.

What is clear, in the end, is the fact that climate change has sired a son called hope: the hope that, while climatic patterns may change, at least agricultural productivity cannot!

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