Omicron for Christmas: what was the experience in rural Zimbabwe?

Guwini open air market, Chikombezi

The Omicron wave peaked in Zimbabwe just before Christmas. With people moving about for the festive season and large numbers coming back from South Africa and elsewhere for the holidays, the fear was that the spread would be dramatic, with devastating consequences. Border restrictions were maintained, curfews imposed and the lockdown was extended.

As we reported in our last blog on 20 December, many had already reported that the infection was proving relatively mild, a finding subsequently supported by hospital evidence from South Africa, the UK and Denmark. And, just as the spread of Omicron was dramatic and fast, its decline has similarly been sudden, although cases still persist. Across our sites in the last few weeks, multiple cases have been reported, but way down on the situation a few weeks back. No deaths have been recorded in our sites in the past weeks. A few of our agricultural extension colleagues went down with Omicron around Christmas, but they all isolated and quickly recovered.

A festive mood

Although Omicron presented more uncertainties to contend with for the holidays, people across our study areas reported that they were not going to be put off. People were in a festive mood, relatives had returned after a long gap and there were parties to be had. Many large gatherings were reported, including the return of large church services. In towns and business centres large crowds gathered, bars were open and there seemed to be little social distancing, there was reduced mask wearing and people were sharing calabashes in communal drinking sessions.

The now familiar ‘bakosi’ markets were in full swing across our study sites, especially in locations further south. These sprawling open air markets usually operate once a week and sell everything from food to clothes to hardware and more. Huge numbers attend, perhaps several thousand at times, and of course are potentially major infection hot spots. But they also serve important economic and social functions: they are places to gather, to meet people, to exchange ideas and goods, and are now an essential part of rural economic life, and no matter what the potential risks people were not keeping away over the holidays.

Open air market Guwini, Chikombedzi

Despite the caution of the public health authorities, the people were not going to let the virus get in the way of a holiday mood or the need for business. Fear had receded of COVID, perhaps because of the experiences with Omicron in the previous weeks of relatives and others both in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Changing remedies and home treatments

As we have reported many times before, local remedies and home treatments have become the way people have coped. People fear quarantining and forced isolation now more than the disease. Because Omicron presents differently – more ‘flu-like symptoms, with a combination of nose and throat congestion and a dry cough, rather than the impact on breathing and the chest as in previous waves – the treatments have changed.

The most recent, circulating widely on family Whatsapp groups, is a concoction of Coca-Cola and chilli, which is supposed to work wonders. Others reported include a mix of lemon, cooking oil and onion. And of course the full array of other herbal treatments we have discussed on this blog before. The important point is though that with an effectively new disease in Omicron, with different symptoms, people have experimented, learned and shared new remedies – literally in a matter of weeks.

Mrs CF holding her traditional medicine
Mr F. Soko from Mvurwi at his nursery: lemon trees are selling fast because of the pandemic

Nurses in clinics across our sites reported that it was a busy time over the holidays, but many were not coming to the clinics if they thought they had COVID as they feared quarantine. They would prefer to treat themselves at home, while self-isolating. Having a variety of treatments to hand people argue, is a more effective response. It seemed that the nurses (informally) agreed as they noted the problems in the public clinics.

A plural health system: fostering resilience

Meanwhile, public health interventions continue focusing on vaccines. There was a big spike in vaccine take-up in the rural areas over the holiday period. This was apparently due to people coming home from town, and choosing mobile rural clinics over the urban ones where they normally live. The rural alternatives were quicker, easier and more accessible it seems. Even diaspora relatives took up the opportunity, and many younger workers from town were persuading their parents and others to join them at the clinics.

During the pandemic a network of health professionals has emerged to support rural people’s response to the disease. These include of course the doctors, nurses, vaccinators and village health workers, part of the public health system, but the wider health system also includes herbalists (those with specialist knowledge of particular herbs), n’angas (spirit mediums with treatment powers), and family based health specialists (often individuals within a wider family recognised as especially knowledgeable). And supporting them there are the wide range of collectors of herbal products, those who process them and the vendors who sell them, often with street advice on how to prepare presses, teas or other concoctions.

Susan, a traditional healer from Mutomani village, Chiredzi, with her husband

 A plural health system has therefore emerged, partly out of necessity as the public system is inadequate, but partly out of the need to respond in a diversified way, recognising that many people have expertise in a fast-changing pandemic setting, and there is no one right way, especially as the virus changes. With such a plural system, innovation, learning and sharing can happen quickly and effectively. Some of the remedies may not work that well, but others might, and people will respond accordingly.

In March 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic, in the first contribution of this now long series on COVID responses in rural Zimbabwe, we argued that rural Zimbabwe might offer some level of resilience, having been able to manage turbulence and uncertainty of different sorts for many years, despite the obvious ‘fragility’ of the state. Resilience is not a single property; it is relational based on how people, individually and together, respond to unfolding events. This requires flexibility, responsiveness and collective sharing. As we have seen now over nearly two years, these are all features that have been central to rural Zimbabwe’s (largely informal) pandemic response.

Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba and the team in Mvurwi, Matobo, Chikombedzi, Masvingo and Gutu for contributions to this blog.

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

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As Omicron sweeps through Zimbabwe, how are people responding?

It was just a few weeks ago that our last report noted the arrival of a new variant identified in South Africa. In the interim Omicron has swept through the country. This initially resulted in panic, with a rush to get vaccinated and the government swiftly responding with further lockdown measures. As someone recalled, “it was like the world was about to come to an end”, so panicked were both officials and many in the population.

The rapid spread is reflected in the case data that is officially reported, but the real figures are massively higher. Across our rural sites, people report that about 50-60% of villagers have been struck down by a virulent ‘flu in the past weeks, suggesting massive under-reporting in official figures.

Just two weeks ago we were hearing reports of a ‘flu in our site in Chikombedzi, in the far south of the country near the border with South Africa. On 5 December, our research team member reported via Whatsapp that many people in the villages had been coming down with ‘flu, but no deaths were being recorded. Since then, the same reports have come from all sites as the variant has spread north and across the whole country.

However so far, just as observed in Guateng in South Africa, which has been the epicentre of the Omicron epidemic, there have been very few deaths. Indeed, in our last review across sites over this past weekend, no local deaths have been reported and the only COVID related burials have been of those who have died elsewhere – all in our Chatsworth site near Gutu, with four bodies returned from South Africa and one from Chiredzi.

Omicron seems to cause a debilitating flu, involving a severe headache, joint aches, body weakness and severe fatigue, together with a running nose. People say it’s like malaria, with hot and cold sweats. It is extremely transmissible and very often whole families are down with it together. Indeed one of our research team members has been suffering from it over the past week, but the whole family has now thankfully recovered. It affects all ages, and vaccinated and unvaccinated people are all affected. However, recovery rates seems extremely good and it lasts about five days, slightly longer for older people.

Rapid spread, rapid learning

While in the first days at the beginning of December people were seriously worried, as they have experienced the disease over the last couple of weeks and been able to treat its symptoms, people have become more relaxed. With such rapid spread, the learning cycle in this pandemic is speeding up. The remedies used in previous phases have all be deployed, but this time the focus on body aches and fatigue has meant new innovations. The long used medication from China called ‘Tsunami’ (an aromatic oil, as shown by Mr Mutoko from Mvurwi below) is in high demand, as it can be applied to joints and even drunk in a tea. Equally, onion compresses are widely used to help with body aches and cold symptoms.

While many have taken up the offer of vaccines (20% fully vaccinated, 27% with at least one dose), few think that this is enough. An interesting argument emerged in discussions across our sites about the importance of having lots of different responses so that new variants can be tackled on many fronts. A single response – just focusing on vaccines as the government is emphasising – is not enough, people argued: “You can be doubled vaxxed even have a booster and still get Omicron… the variant needs many things to fight”. “Treatment responses must be wide and varied and this must include local remedies”, was a wide consensus as expressed in one discussion.

The sharing of remedies and treatment responses has been as rapid as the spread. Those in the border areas near South Africa experienced it first, and shared information about symptoms and remedies to relatives and others elsewhere. Whatsapp messages and Facebook groups are full of advice on how to tackle Omicron. Each family and village has a different set of responses, but the sharing of options is widespread. There are many, diverse prongs of attack. And (so far) it seems to be working.

Major disruptions

With whole families out sick for a week, and with the rapid spread sometimes half a village at a time, this has seriously disrupted the beginning of the farming season. The rains have finally (it seems) come, with steady rain falling over the past days. This is the time to be in the fields to plough and plant, as timing is all. Omicron is causing havoc with farm labour and this may have knock on effects into the harvest. The need for labour for land preparation is heightened this year as many livestock have perished due to January disease (known as cattle COVID locally), and so draft power is scarce.

However, what is causing most disruption and what was the centre of people’s commentaries was the return of lockdowns. People are just fed up. They have no livelihood options, people are poor. Kids have been out of school for months and are really suffering. Social problems are building up. Noone can face another round of lockdowns, especially with what appears to be a mild disease. And for this reason, very few are reporting sickness to clinics with the fear of being quarantined. As someone observed, “getting locked up is worse for you; you don’t have the support of your family, you cannot use your local remedies”.

The politics of control

Perhaps more than in previous phases, or at least with a different accent, there is a political critique of the current response and a demand for freedom and liberty, with an abandoning of a standard, centralised response to the pandemic. “We must learn to live with the disease, just as we have before with AIDS, and so many other diseases”, someone argued. “It’ll always be there, so we need vaccination alongside our own methods”, another said. “Who profits from this very standard way of responding – vaccines, vaccines, vaccines?”, someone asked rhetorically, answering: “it’s the big businesses who make a profit, and the governments who want our resources. A vaccine may be free, but it isn’t really”. People are very aware of the vaccine politics being played out in Africa and they don’t like it. In commentary across sites, there was a widespread critique of the top-down response to the pandemic:

It’s government, the WHO, corporations who are in control. The powerful. The messages come one-way from them to the masses. We are bombarded with messages and instructions, which require adherence without question.

The restrictions of endless lockdowns were getting to many: “It’s just don’t, don’t, don’t; it’s terrible for us, we are trying to live. How can we live a life of lockdowns? We are not comfortable with this”. Another informant observed, “We are not scared now of this disease; the only challenge are the lockdowns. We are approaching Xmas, but we cannot do any business, we are stuck.”

Even those enforcing lockdowns are fed up. One police officer commented, “We are tired of this, but we have to enforce the law. We need a compromise”. Lockdowns, as we have discussed before, lead to businesses collapsing and people seeking other forms of income. Corruption and crime are rife. Civil servants have not been paid a living wage for years, so as someone observed “it’s no surprise that people steal and get involved in corrupt practices like the police….It’s the same with the rise in petty crime. People are desperate.”

Collaborative approaches

So what’s the way out of this endless cycle? There were some interesting ideas expressed about ‘living with the disease’ in discussions in our sites during the last week:

We have to do this together. We cannot have government just saying do this, do that, the top-down control doesn’t work. We have to find a way to discuss. After all it’s us who must ultimately respond to the disease in our own localities”.

A more collaborative approach, taking account of local needs and knowledges, was advocated:

We have our own ways of dealing with the pandemic, we don’t like being controlled. Those in charge don’t know what we do, let us do it. Yes, we need the vaccinations and the drugs from the clinics, but let’s recognise the many other responses. We have to work together”.

This may be an important lesson for other countries too as a wider social contract emerges about how to deal with what inevitably will be an ongoing response to a disease (or now seemingly a variety of diseases), even as it settles towards an endemic state across the world, with inevitable new variants and new surprises in store.

This is part of a series of reports, starting in March 2020 on the unfolding COVID-19 situation in Zimbabwe. It is based on reports from the field team led by Felix Murimbarimba based in Mvurwi, Chatsworth, Wondedzo, Masvingo, Hippo Valley, Chikombedzi and Matobo.

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

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Zimbabweland is ten years old!

It’s (more or less) the tenth anniversary of Zimbabweland. I had no intention of carrying this on for a decade, but by now there are rather amazingly 433 posts, representing nearly half a million words and cumulatively 450,000 views from all over the world.

Not surprisingly, most of the readership is from Zimbabwe and South Africa, but the US and the UK are also spots where there are many regular readers. But, in addition to these four, there are a remarkable number other countries too with Zimbabweland readers, as well as all those who read and share via Twitter and other social media platforms. The blog is also republished on quite a few other media platforms, including The Zimbabwean, The Standard, The Chronicle, The Herald and others.

Across the political spectrum therefore there’s much interest and, as long as the original source is credited, I am more than happy for the blog to be republished (although sometimes it’s odd to be designated a ‘correspondent’ on a government newspaper when I haven’t been in touch with anyone!).  I am also pleased that others make use of the material and share it. I noticed recently that the Commercial Farmers’ Union is reposting, and my own institution, the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex always shares to a wider ‘development’ audience.

Usually this time of year, I do a festive top-20 hits of the year, but I thought I would do the top-20 of all time on this occasion. The results are at the end of the blog. Of course biased towards older posts, it’s the ones on livestock and agricultural entrepreneurship that continue to be top hits, reflecting the strong readership from those involved in farming in Zimbabwe.

Looking back, looking forward

Looking back, the blogs have changed quite a bit over time. They are longer these days, with more hyperlinks and now have lots of photos. Over the past few years, I have done a few popular series on themes that we’ve been working on – such as small towns, young people, pfumvudza, irrigation, soils, and agricultural entrepreneurs (among others) – as well as summarising our longitudinal studies across our sites. Most recently, the sequence of blogs on COVID-19 responses (now over 20 since March 2020) has been an important experiment in real-time reflection on an unfolding story. With the Omicron variant sweeping the world and dramatically affecting Zimbabwe already, we will have a further update before Christmas.

Although I mostly pen the blogs, they are more often than not a collective endeavour, emerging out of discussions with the brilliant team, ably led now by Felix Murimbarimba who took over after Blasio Mavedzenge’s untimely death. This sort of research-based writing is very useful as a precursor to more in-depth, elaborated academic pieces. A lighter style and more immediate publishing means that the results of our work get shared and, although there are not many direct comments on the blog, the feedback we get is incredibly useful as we craft other academic publications or define new research directions.

The blog was originally established to provide context and response for our book, Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities, which came out with James Currey and Weaver Press in 2010. By 2011, I was so depressed (and annoyed) about how people seemed to dismiss the findings out of hand, without any engagement with the data. The BBC did what was generally a very good piece in the ‘Crossing Continents’ series reflecting on our work, but had to ‘balance’ it with completely unsupported and misleading commentary, not grounded in research data. Such biases were not confined to the British press, who have been notoriously bad at reporting on Zimbabwe. Sadly, it also included fellow researchers, who seemed not to have read the book and wanted to make political rather than properly researched academic points.

Building on empirical engagements, encouraging debate

The febrile atmosphere of that time has thankfully subsided and there is a more engaged commentary on the good and bad of land reform (as there are of course both). Much more research has emerged since, importantly from Zimbabwean researchers. They had to confront, as had we, how land reform had transformed the agrarian landscape. This body of research is now substantial, and I am pleased to learn that many up-and-coming researchers find the blog and its now extensive archive useful (many blog views are to my surprise of old pieces that come up in searches apparently; the search facility on the blog works pretty well too). I equally try and offer occasional summaries of new published material on the blog, giving profile to this important new empirically grounded work. Researching Zimbabwe’s land and agrarian setting should always be a collective, collaborative effort, and it is one feature of working in Zimbabwe that is immensely rewarding.

I hope that the blog continues to provide insights that are relevant to civil servants, policy makers, NGOs, donors, diplomats, academics, students, as well as farmers in our sites and beyond, offering a different, but more grounded, perspective to the mainstream. I know donors subscribe and discuss it, but often don’t follow through, so ingrained are the biases and prior assumptions about Zimbabwe. The same applies to Zimbabwean government officials, but for different reasons. But at least there’s a more informed debate, and I hope readers will continue to share and discuss the blogs published here, even if they disagree.

I am not sure how long it will carry on as it’s quite a lot of work and not officially part of my day job, but there’s always something new to stay on Zimbabwe’s agrarian challenges – and occasionally other themes impinging on Zimbabwe’s fast-changing context. And, post pandemic (hopefully), we are hoping to re-energise our field research once again during 2022. So expect more results and commentary from the field.

Zimbabweland’s top 20 hits (by number of downloads since 2011)

1 Policies for land, agriculture and rural development: some suggestions for Zimbabwe
2 Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs I: pig production
3 Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs II: Poultry
4 Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector goes from ‘bread basket to basket case’? Or is it (again) a bit more complicated?
5 Zimbabwe’s beef industry
6 Zimbabwe’s new agricultural entrepreneurs III: irrigators
7 Panic, privilege and politics: South Africa’s land expropriation debate
8 Zimbabwe’s poultry industry: rapid recovery, but major challenges
9 Reconfigured agrarian relations following land reform
10 Abbatoirs and the Zimbabwe meat trade
11 Rural cattle marketing in Zimbabwe
12 A hot commercial success: growing chilli in the eastern highlands
13 What role for large-scale commercial agriculture in post-land reform Zimbabwe: Africa’s experience of alternative models
14 Command agriculture and the politics of subsidies
15 Farming under contract
16 Irrigating Zimbabwe: time for some new thinking
17 Gender relations and land reform in Zimbabwe
18 Tractors, power and development. Mechanising Zimbabwean agriculture
19 Land tenure dilemmas in Zimbabwe
20 The Politics of Zimbabwe’s Global Political Agreement

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

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New COVID uncertainties in Zimbabwe

The unfolding drama of the pandemic continues. With a new variant identified in the region (Omicron) thanks to the effective work of South African genomics monitoring, Zimbabwe has been subjected to international travel restrictions. However, despite the global concern about the potential spread of what may be a highly transmissible, immune-escaping variant, things on the ground feel very different. So far at least. After the sky-high infection rates and substantial deaths of a few months back, rates subsequently declined dramatically again. Will the new variant upset this? No-one knows of course.

Conversations with our team across our sites suggests that people have been getting back to ‘normal’ life, despite some remaining lockdown regulations. What does this new normal feel like? Some quotes from across our sites illustrate. “We are now not afraid, it’s not like the early days. We know how to prevent, treat and manage the disease”. “We have indigenous remedies at our disposal. We have made so many discoveries, and now know how to fight the pandemic”. This confidence may yet be shattered by the new variant, but for now a new version of normality seems to have settled in.

While people may wear masks on transport and mask wearing gets enforced during visits to town, the situation in the rural areas is much more lax. “These masks are far too hot in this season”, someone explained. Large gatherings have started again. Political rallies are the most noticeable as electioneering starts up already in advance of the 2023 vote. “It’s the politicians who are the biggest law-breakers”, someone noted. Churches, farmers’ fairs and so on are also being held, with few restrictions and little social distancing. Curfews too, people report, are barely acknowledged especially in the rural areas. It feels, at least on the surface, pretty normal, with people making judgements about risk not in fear but with knowledge about the trade-offs and consequences.

But of course such knowledge is not certain. All can be upset with a new variant, as it has been before. And the wider context has changed too through the pandemic as livelihood possibilities have been restructured and attitudes and practices towards health and disease have changed.

Local knowledge and innovation

People repeatedly mention their discoveries of local treatments that have given the confidence in the face of disease threats. “We have done so much research”, someone observed, “we really know the situation now”. As well as COVID-19, this applies to what people call ‘cattle COVID’ too (January disease) that has struck people’s herds in dramatic fashion, often resulting in greater impacts on livelihoods than coronavirus. “We have mixed grasses, mutsviri ash and water, soaking overnight… and it works for cattle”. We are trying mutsviri ash with lemon for humans too. Along with the many remedies from local herbs to boost immunity (such as ndorani) and for COVID treatment (like zumbani), as well as the range of mixes of garlic, onions, ginger and lemon, people have a battery of treatment meaning that for now they no longer worry about the disease as they once did.

Uptake of vaccines goes hand-in-hand, with supplies now good and queues small as people take up vaccine offers. This is far from universal and to date only 18.3% of the population have received two doses. But this combination of local systems of containment and disease management with external medical intervention is seen as efficacious, and the way forward for navigating on-going uncertainties.

As experience has increased with COVID, with different waves and different impacts on different groups of people, people’s local epidemiological knowledge has increased. The seasonality of the disease is often commented on (“now it’s hot, there’s much less disease, we are not inside”); the dangers of close proximity and crowded places is clear (“even though it’s hot, I wear my mask on the combi, but not around the town”); and the dangers to those who are already vulnerable is clear (“it’s the diabetes and the BP that’s the killer – we have to eat better and consume our indigenous foods”). The revival of debates about appropriate diet (millets, not processed maize, less meat and so on) has been part of the local conversation about the disease over time.

With this knowledge comes the ability to make choices. As people commented, “in the beginning we had so much conflicting information on Whatsapp, on the internet, from friends, we didn’t know who to believe”. Now people make judgements made on experience after 18 months of the twists and turns of the pandemic, taking account of local circumstances and not taking anything at face value.

Our conversations last week happened before the new variant was identified, and this of course presents a new uncertainty that may yet shatter local confidence, returning things to dark days of just a few months back. Such is the experience of the pandemic: continuous change, continuous uncertainty.

New livelihoods

No matter what a new variant throws at Zimbabwe’s rural population in the coming weeks, the pandemic has affected the structural conditions by which people remain healthy or become sick.

Due to repeated lockdowns and the parlous state of the Zimbabwean economy, people must make livelihoods in new ways. Many businesses have closed, jobs in town are scarce and people must increasingly rely on local provisioning, especially through agriculture. There are also many new opportunities that have emerged, which have been documented in this blog series before. In urban and peri-urban areas for example, the demand for COVID treatments is met by a proliferation of new gardens, growing key ingredients. Ginger is now widely grown for example, and no longer imported from Mozambique or the Eastern Highlands. While transport has returned and farmers can move their crops to market, many have adopted new market networks, spreading risk and going for shorter transport distances, as the predatory police presence on the roads is still a problem (and a cost).

As we have documented before, many have returned to rural homes, seeking out a plot from a relative or a parent, when jobs have dried up in Zimbabwe’s cities or in South Africa. Agriculture, and especially in the land reform areas where there is more land available, is a vital source of resilience in pandemic context.

Some have taken up new agriculture-based business, switching from a town job to intensive horticultural irrigation for example, or in the case of women vendors in Chikombedzi moving into goat rearing and trade to South Africa on a huge scale. Time will tell whether this is a more permanent restructuring of the economy, but the shifts are significant and will be important for thinking about post-COVID recovery.

Autonomy and resilience

Across the commentaries from our informants in all the sites, there is a great emphasis on autonomy, and how this brings resilience. People have learned and innovated on their own. They haven’t been reliant on the state or international donors. Indeed, they have not been able to provide – the government and party doesn’t care, the donors are not interested in Africa are frequent refrains. And the competition between the Chinese, Russians and Americans over vaccines and COVID response is seen from afar with disgust.

The emphasis in local commentaries is on local adaptation through experimentation and way of responding that is localised and seemingly effective. Knowledge is shared through local networks, through Whatsapp, but is sifted now more carefully as options are considered. As people confronted the information on a new variant this weekend, according to informants there was a mix of scepticism and stoicism, but equally a sense that people were on their own as before but now with the capacity to innovate and respond.

A politics of the ‘new normal’

These new social and economic patterns of the ‘new normal’ occasionally confront the emergency focused public health efforts from the state. The emergency mode is relinquished slowly, as it serves certain interests: both political control in a volatile context and also opportunities for corruption and enrichment as lockdown laws are enforced.

There is however a distinguishable shift in our informants’ attitudes in the last month or two. With the relief that the massive peak had passed, state-enforced public health is become less accepted. Before, public health was paramount, and people mostly accepted often quite top-down, heavy-handed state intervention. The government was getting high approval ratings. It was after all a crisis, and through the news from the UK or South Africa, people also knew how bad it could get and how limited the resources in Zimbabwe were to cope with it. “We saw it on the news, we were scared.”, someone commented.

Now with less fear and more grounded knowledge along with much more experience, there is a more circumspect view, with people prepared to make judgements about risk and assess trade-offs. In the end, basic survival and the sustaining of businesses and livelihoods is important. How the arrival of a new variant will affect the assessment of risk and collective responses is of course still unknown.

Vaccine mandates

These dilemmas reflect experiences elsewhere where the limits of state intervention are being tested. There are no mass protests as has been seen in Europe and other regions, but people are also asking where does public health stop and individual liberty start? A core focus of this debate is the vaccine mandate for civil servants. In one of our study sites, a district agricultural extension office lost a significant number of staff as they refused the vaccine due to their religious beliefs being members of one of the Apostolic churches. They were put on indefinite, unpaid leave, and so effectively fired.

This has caused reverberations among civil servants, in part because for some their workload has doubled, but also they are asking whether this is fair and just. Some labour unions are contesting the decisions in the courts arguing that the vaccine mandate is anti-constitutional. Others relay concerns that this is simply the exertion of authoritarian political control, linked to a surveillance state that has no concern for liberty.

Uncertainties are everywhere

If there is one thing that this pandemic has taught all of us it is that uncertainty is everywhere and we don’t know the future. But how uncertainties are navigated and how risks are perceived does change, and we have seen this clearly through our tracking of the pandemic in Zimbabwe since March 2020 (see the previous 20 odd blogs in this series). In the last months, there has been a tangible shift in ways people are going about their lives and how they see the disease. This may yet change if the new variant strikes hard as some fear.

However, for now at least and despite Omicron dominating the headlines, most people in our rural sites across the country currently don’t spend much time thinking about COVID, as the rains have come and it’s time to plant and get on with the agricultural season. There are always other uncertainties to contend with.

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COP26: Some reflections from Glasgow

The COP26 marathon is finally over and on Saturday the Glasgow Climate Pact was agreed. Over ten pages there is lots of urging, noting, inviting, acknowledging, stressing and so on, but few decisions, beyond agreeing to meet again next year (more international travel, more per diems) and have dialogue on loss and damage. Nevertheless, the important momentum around the Paris Agreement remains, and the role of civil society’s protests and lobbying in assuring this is widely acknowledged.

There were a few unexpected additions to an otherwise bland statement, notably the focus on coal, which now the international community agrees to ‘phase down’ (rather than ‘phase out’ thanks to a last minute intervention by India).  But there were also gaps. Coal is rightly in the spotlight, but what about oil and shale gas? Loss and damage (compensation for climate change to those most affected, but least polluting) is acknowledged, but where is the funding (beyond some from Scotland and a limited offer from some philanthropists, there is nothing on the table)? And, with all the good talk about tackling deforestation, a lot of the action is wrapped up in dodgy deals around offsetting and net-zero accounting. I could go on.

Attending a few days of the COP in the first week was certainly very weird, so contrasting were the divergent positions. I didn’t see the Zimbabwean delegation (they didn’t have delegation offices nor a ‘pavilion’), nor did I get invited to the drunken beach party (in November… really?). Like most African delegations they were marginalised and peripheral to the main action. President Mnangagwa was not the only head of state to speak to a near empty hall or be shunned by attempts at diplomatic rapprochement.

Instead, the COP negotiation action was centred on horse-trading between the US, China and the EU, with a few interventions from the likes of India and the oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia, while the small island states and ‘least developed country’ coalitions made effective noise from the margins. That any agreement was made at all is amazing, and the result of enormous hard work, including by the UK’s Alok Sharma as chair of the conference (although backing from the wider UK government was half-hearted at best).

Will this make a difference? I remain sceptical, as the fundamental challenge of addressing climate change – through the fundamental transformation of capitalist economies – remains untouched. Indeed, with corporate greenwash on show to such a sickening extent, much of the agenda has been captured through the slick jargon of carbon markets, offsets and net-zero targets. All these are approaches that fail to address the root causes of the problem and attempt to retain the status quo. They protect capitalist interests through a greenwashed ‘transition’, while very often exporting the problem elsewhere with devastating consequences.

Given that climate change is perhaps the biggest challenge humanity faces, Glasgow was disappointing. But it was the energy, radicalism and commitment in the spaces outside the main conference that give me hope. On my way home from Glasgow – in a state of exhaustion and with feelings of anger and frustration – I penned another piece for The Conversation with my reflections. This is reproduced below.   

COP26: Two worlds talked past each other – or never even met

Delegates arrive at the COP26 climate summit on November 4, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Ian Scoones, Institute of Development Studies

At the 2021 UN climate change conference in Glasgow, moving between the corporate slickness of the official “Blue Zone” (a UN-managed space which hosts the negotiations) and the wider fringe was quite a disconcerting experience for me. These were two different worlds. Everyone was committed to saving the planet, but there were highly diverging views about how to do it.

A welter of announcements on everything from coal to methane to forests dominated the opening days. Large numbers were discussed and ambitious targets were set. The bottom line was keeping alive the Paris agreement to pursue efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C, while assuring a ‘transition’ to a low-carbon future.

The contradictions were all too apparent at this year’s conference, known as COP26. The hired exhibition spaces in the conference centre were hosted by fossil fuel polluting countries and sponsored by large corporations. Corporate spin, also known as greenwash, abounded. There were a few African delegations with their own space and a vanishingly few civil society voices in the main venue.

Meanwhile, the discourse was very different in parallel fora. Here the talk was of inequality, climate justice and reparations. The focus was on radical transformations of systems of production and consumption. Many were critical of business-led and market-based solutions to climate change.

There was passion, commitment and a real sense of anger and frustration about the main conference. Huge suspicion around the corporate takeover of the climate agenda swirled, with much commentary on the double standards of the UK hosts, still proposing a new coalmine and oilfield as part of a so-called ‘transition’.

Unlike a decade ago, there was no climate scepticism on show. But how to address the underlying causes of climate change in capitalism remains the big, unaddressed challenge.

Pastoralists’ perspectives

As a researcher working on pastoralism as part of a European Research Council funded project, I was at the COP together with a delegation of pastoralists from different parts of the world, all linked to the World Alliance for Mobile Indigenous Pastoralist Peoples. We were definitely on the fringe of the fringe.

We hosted a photo exhibition exploring pastoralists’ own perceptions of climate change and uncertainty from across the world. We engaged in a dialogue with Scottish farmers and food groups, focusing on the future of livestock production under climate change. And our ‘sheep for the climate’ action brought a group together to discuss why livestock are not always bad for the planet, together with some fine rare breed sheep.


Read more: Cows and cars should not be conflated in climate change debates


When I managed to find a few events in the Blue Zone (not an easy task) relating to our research, they were mostly extremely disappointing. There were parallel conversations going on. If climate change is genuinely a shared challenge for all of humanity, dialogue between different viewpoints is vital.

Within the main conference, there was much talk about trees and ‘nature-based solutions’ across multiple sessions, for instance. The mainstream media hailed the agreement on deforestation, but a significant part of this simply replicates the failed programmes of the past. Under such programmes, forest protection in the global south is used as carbon offsets for large polluting companies and rich, consuming publics in the north.

The huge ecosystem restoration efforts being proposed potentially cause real problems for pastoralists. This is because large areas of open rangelands are earmarked for tree planting and biodiversity protection through exclusion. These so-called nature-based solutions are frequently new forms of colonialism, opening the gates to ‘green grabbing’, where land and resources are appropriated in the name of environmental conservation.

Methane was also a hot topic. The huge reductions in emissions proposed under the Global Methane Pledge have major implications for livestock production. Yet a session I attended was obsessed only with technical solutions -– feed additives, methane-reducing inhibitors and vaccines, seaweed supplements, even face masks for cows.

Once again, livestock systems were lumped together, without differentiating between highly polluting industrial systems and more climate-friendly extensive systems, such as African pastoralism. Indeed, many of the solutions proposed are already being practised in extensive grazing systems. The problem I guess is that these practices could not be patented and sold by agribusinesses.

Climate and capitalism

So how do these two worlds intersect? Everyone is keen on nature, no-one wants catastrophic climate change, but why are the solutions so divergent? At root, the two camps (and many in between) have different views on the role of capitalism in climate change.

For those in the Blue Zone, a long-term shift from reliance on fossil fuels is (largely) accepted. But capitalism in its new green guise, many argue, can save the day through technology investment and market mechanisms – and notably through the plethora of offsetting schemes that make up the net-zero plans.

By contrast, critical civil society and youth voices argue that capitalism is the root cause of the problem, together with its handmaiden colonialism. The only solution therefore is to overhaul capitalism and dismantle unequal global power relations. But how, through what alliances?

In a recent paper –- climate change and agrarian struggles – we explored the challenges of ‘eroding capitalism’ to create structural transformation and climate justice. However, in Glasgow I missed these crucial, political debates about ways forward. Are new styles of multilateral negotiation possible? Can genuine inclusion occur, going beyond the performance of participation where an ‘indigenous’ person or ‘community’ leader is co-opted? Can a true dialogue emerge about our common future?

I of course had very limited exposure to the thousands of simultaneous events. But my sense was that there was little meaningful interchange between different positions. Two worlds talked past each other or – because of restricted access, problems with visas and the high costs of attending –- never even met.

Ian Scoones, Professorial Fellow, Institute of Development Studies

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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COP26: why a more sophisticated debate on livestock and the climate is needed

COP 26 Blue Zone, Glasgow (Ian Scoones)

Last week I was in Glasgow at COP26, shuttling between events in the Blue Zone and the fringe across the city. It was overwhelming, with a cacophony of conflicting voices and views.

The first week including a flood of announcements on coal, methane and forests. Ambitious targets were set and large numbers were bandied around. Meanwhile the negotiations continue behind closed doors as protestors marched over the weekend, urging more radical and concrete action.

I was with a delegation of pastoralists, members of the World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous and Peoples and Pastoralists network. We were aiming to highlight the more complex story around the links between livestock and climate change – going beyond the standard narrative that all meat and milk is bad.

WAMIP sheep for the climate action, Glasgow (Ian Scoones)

We hosted a photo exhibition exploring climate change and uncertainty in different parts of the world, and at another event with Nourish Scotland discussed the future of livestock systems under climate change with Scottish farmers and food groups. Our ‘sheep for the climate’ action gathered a group (with some fine Hebridean sheep) in Govan dry docks to highlight our recent report, which asks the question, are livestock always bad for the planet?.

An article in The Conversation summarised some of the main points and is reproduced below (under CC license). Also, do check out the full report, plus the briefings and information sheets (in eight languages) at this link: https://pastres.org/livestock-report/  

Cows and cars should not be conflated in climate change debates

Cattle driven into the Kenyan capital Nairobi for new pasture amid a severe drought navigate through city traffic. Simon Maina/AFP via Getty Images

Ian Scoones, Institute of Development Studies

With world leaders gathered for the COP26 summit in Glasgow, there is much talk of methane emissions and belching cows. The Global Methane Pledge, led by the US and EU and now with many country signatories, aims to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030. This is seen as a “quick win” to reduce global warming and will have major implications for livestock production.

Livestock have become the villain of climate change. Some researchers claim that 14.5% of all human-derived emissions come from livestock, either directly or indirectly. There have been widespread calls for radical shifts in livestock production and diet globally to address climate chaos. But which livestock, where? As a new report I co-authored argues, it is vitally important to differentiate between production systems.

Not all milk and meat is the same. Extensive, often mobile, pastoral systems – of the sort commonly seen across the African continent, as well as in Asia, Latin America and Europe – have hugely different effects to contained, intensive industrial livestock production.

Yet, in standard narratives about diet and production shifts, all livestock are lumped in together. Cows are misleadingly equated with polluting cars and beef with coal. The simplistic “all livestock are bad” narrative is promoted by campaign organisations, environmental celebrities, rich philanthropists and policymakers alike. Inevitably, it dominates media coverage. However, a much more sophisticated debate is needed.

Delving into data

Our report delves into the data and highlights the problems with using aggregate statistics in assessing the impacts of livestock on the global climate.

Some types of livestock production, especially those using industrial systems, are certainly highly damaging to the environment. They generate significant greenhouse gas emissions and cause serious water pollution. They also add to deforestation through demand for feed and expanding grazing areas, for example. And, reducing the amount of animal-source foods in diets, whether in the global north or south, makes much sense, both for the environment and for people’s health.

But industrial systems are only one type of livestock production. And aggregate emission figures do not pick up the nuances of this reality. Looking across life-cycle assessments – a technique widely used to assess the impacts on climate change from different agri-food systems – we found some important gaps and assumptions.

One is that global assessments are overwhelmingly based on data from industrial systems. A frequently quoted paper looking at 38,700 farms and 1,600 processors only focused on “commercially viable” units, mostly from Europe and North America. However, not all livestock are the same, meaning that global extrapolations don’t work.

Research in Kenya, for example, shows how assumptions about emissions from African animals are inaccurate. Such livestock are smaller, have higher quality diets due to selective grazing and have physiologies adapted to their settings. They are not the same as a highly bred animal in a respiration chamber, which is where much of the data on emission factors comes from. Overall, data from extensive systems are massively under-represented. For instance, a review of food production life cycle assessments showed that only 0.4% of such studies were from Africa, where extensive pastoralism is common across large areas.

Another issue is that most such assessments focus on emissions impacts per animal or per unit of product. This creates a distorted picture; the wider costs and benefits are not taken into account. Those in favour of industrialised systems point to the high per animal methane emission from animals eating rough, low-quality forage on open rangelands compared to the potential for improved, methane-reducing feeds in contained systems. This misses the point: a wider, more integrated systems approach must encompass all impacts, but also benefits. For instance, some forms of extensive grazing can potentially increase soil carbon stocks, adding to the already significant store of carbon in open rangelands.

Then there’s the fact that methane and carbon dioxide have different lifetimes in the atmosphere and are not equivalent. Methane is a short-lived but highly potent gas. Carbon dioxide sticks around in the atmosphere effectively forever. Reducing warming can be addressed in the short term by tackling methane emissions, but long term climate change needs to focus on carbon dioxide. It therefore makes a big difference how different greenhouse gases are assessed and how any “global warming potential” is estimated. Simply put, cows and cars are not the same.

It also matters what baseline is used. Pastoral systems may not result in additional emissions from a “natural” baseline. For example, in extensive systems in Africa domestic livestock replace wildlife that emit comparable amounts of greenhouse gases. By contrast, industrial systems clearly generate additional impacts, adding significant environmental costs through methane emissions from production, the importation of feed, the concentration of livestock waste and fossil fuel use in transport and sunk infrastructure.

Climate justice

A more rounded assessment is necessary. Extensive livestock contribute to emissions, but it’s simultaneously true that they produce multiple environmental benefits – including potentially through carbon sequestration, improving biodiversity and enhancing landscapes.

Animal-source foods are also vital for nutrition, providing high density protein and other nutrients, especially for low-income and vulnerable populations and in places where crops cannot be produced.

Across the world livestock – cattle, sheep, goats, camels, yaks, llamas and more – provide income and livelihoods for many. The world’s rangelands make up over half the world’s land surface and are home to many millions of people.

As countries commit to reducing methane emissions, a more sophisticated debate is urgently needed, lest major injustices result. The danger is that, as regulations are developed, verification procedures approved and reporting systems initiated, livestock systems in Africa and elsewhere will be penalised, with major consequences for poor people’s livelihoods.

Ian Scoones, Professorial Fellow, Institute of Development Studies

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Zimbabwe’s bumper harvest: what explains the success?

As farmers turn to the next season with the beginning of the rains, the country is in a good position having reaped a bumper harvest in 2020/21. An estimated 2.7 million tonnes of maize were produced, triple the amount in the previous season. Given COVID-19 and the endless lockdowns and restrictions, this is remarkable and witness to the possibilities of significant production if the rains are good.

For too long the narrative has been that after land reform in 2000 and the decline of large-scale commercial farming, Zimbabwe has shifted from a breadbasket to basket case, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary documented repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere.

However, the harvest this last season has been spectacular. Does this mean that the biased commentators can finally abandon this tired narrative? What are the factors that have contributed to this success?

Good rains make a big difference, but how reliable?

Well, obviously good rainfall makes a massive difference. In the last season, this was substantial and well spread. Without significant irrigation support, most farmers must produce on dryland fields, so good rains are essential.

However with climate change this is far from guaranteed, and the recent period has shown much variability. Often unexpected extreme events such as mid-season droughts, floods, even hailstorms, destroy the crops, even if on average the season is OK. Climate change predictions suggest that this is likely to be the pattern into the future, meaning mechanisms of climate adaptation are essential.

Planting in pits: the Pfumvudza/Intwasa programme

One response to uncertain rainfall has been the Pfumvudza/Intwasa programme – a system of zero tillage cultivation involving the construction of small pits allowing water and fertility to concentrate. The government reports that yields on such plots increased from on average 1.2 tonnes per hectare in extensive dryland fields to 5.3 t/ha on Pfumvudza plots.

This is impressive, and certainly our early assessments suggested boosts, although perhaps not quite as much. In some areas waterlogging and intensive weed growth hampered crop productivity and for some a lack of labour meant that digging pits in the required format was impossible.

Overall, there is little doubt that where such intensification occurred many people across the country, especially smallholder farmers in the communal areas, gained significant yields, even though these were on very small areas per household.

Indeed, scaling up Pfumvudza techniques is very difficult without mechanisation, as it is so labour intensive. As a focused gardening technique to guarantee outputs it works well (and the adaptations that people have adopted this year, such as combining with winter ploughing, changing the pit design to avoid water pooling, often even better). But Pfumvudza will not solve Zimbabwe’s agricultural production challenge given the still relatively limited areas involved, even when these are multiplied by millions of plots.

It is difficult to tell, but it’s very unlikely that Pfumvudza such plots contributed massively to the big total harvest given the areas involved. Pfumvudza has been important at the margins, especially for poorer, smallholder farmers, and of course as a result has become central to early electioneering by local politicians. Instead, this year maize outputs from larger farms across bigger areas were key contributors to the total.

Command agriculture

Here the government’s other favoured programme – Command Agriculture – probably came into play. The programme has been plagued by corruption scandals, poor delivery and costs a small fortune due to poor repayment patterns. Through the ministry of agriculture and with military support, programme offers loans to mostly to larger-scale farmers, often in the resettlement areas (mostly A2), including seeds, fertilisers, fuel and other inputs.

Not surprisingly, such support boosts yields and on larger areas in a good rainfall year, this results in big outputs, which have to be channelled to the state Grain Marketing Board to facilitate loan repayment. In terms of aggregate food production Command Agriculture certainly delivered in the last season, although the economics of this achievement can be seriously questioned.

Of course, only relatively few, often well-connected, farmers gain full access to Command Agriculture packages. Even if a wider group may get some elements, there are multiple complaints that delivery is delayed, the input packages are incomplete and that there is so much corruption in the system, it’s difficult to navigate as a normal farmer. Many in our land reform study areas don’t bother and prefer to go it alone.     

Land reform boosts food security

My hunch is that it is the large numbers of land reform farmers, often farming on relatively small areas (around 5 hectares of arable) in the so-called A1 areas, who have made the difference, and are the major contributors to the harvest success. Twenty years on, they have settled into a rhythm of successful, small-scale production, with selective use of inputs but on areas significantly larger than their communal area counterparts, who may have a hectare or less of land to farm.

Supplementary irrigation in small plots may help, assisted by the massive growth of small pumps and irrigation pipes. Although such areas rarely focused on maize, except for early green maize in gardens, the possibility of emergency irrigation in some plots is there, although not required in the past year.

We have been studying land reform areas now for 20 years, and the results are interesting yet still poorly understood. Production of course varies massively between years, across our sites (from the high potential areas of Mvurwi to the dryland areas of the Lowveld around Chikombedzi) and between people (some highly commercialised, with increased mechanisation and others much more subsistence producers).

Overall production is significant as this is on large areas (a total of around 10 million hectares across A1 and A2 farms nationally). A boost in yield as happened this past year can make a huge difference in aggregate, offering opportunities for sustained national food security, with surplus grains either stored or invested in value addition activities. The massive increase in poultry production across our sites reflects this, again having positive benefits across communities.

In the past year, government stopped imports of food and has planned significant storage of surplus grains for future years. Perhaps more importantly, it is the local food networks between land reform areas generating surpluses and communal area neighbours and town dwellers that is important.

Such networks, facilitated by informal trade often centred on small towns and business centres, are central to boosting food security. In the past year, with movement restrictions, closed shops and disrupted value chains due to COVID-19, these informal, yet again poorly understood, networks have been essential. This is the case in all years, but has been especially so during the pandemic.

With land reform and the emergence of a networked food economy, people have something to fall back on. This is in stark contrast to South Africa, where with a loss of jobs, the closing down of the economy due to COVID and multiple restrictions imposed, people suffered extremely with hunger rife. As we have seen, this can lead to desperation and unrest.

In our study areas, many Zimbabweans have returned home, as with some land it’s easier to survive. People are carving out new plots, reclaiming land in the communal areas and getting subdivisions in the resettlements. Land reform not only provides food security, but also social security and political stability.

Structural shifts, new potentials

While much commentary focuses on the technical responses to crop production – with much partial boosterism around particular ‘solutions’ – it is this wider structural shift in land and agriculture brought about through land reform that is perhaps more important in explaining the harvest success in the past year.

And linked to this is the new food economy, connecting informal networks of trade, involving lateral exchanges between areas via urban areas, often circumventing the old, formal centralised system altogether (although this past year there were more deliveries to the GMB as payment systems have improved).

However, as the painful experience of the past 20 years since land reform has shown so clearly, such gains are not necessarily sustained. A very poor year can follow a good one with disastrous consequences. Nevertheless, the potentials of the new structural relations of land, agriculture and food that have followed land reform have been demonstrated this past year (as indeed before). What is needed is major investment in agriculture and rural development – beyond the technical programmes, despite their benefits – to ensure that these potentials are built upon for the future.

Photos by Felix Murimbarimba (planting pit digging in Masvingo; Mr Mapurisa delivering maize to Nyika GMB depot, Bikita)

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Biodiversity and climate change: why tree planting schemes may not be the answer

The first phase of the delayed Biodiversity Convention of the Parties (COP15) ended last week. There has been much talk of linking the twin crises of biodiversity and the climate. Grand plans for protecting 30% of the planet by 2030 have been hailed, and so-called ‘nature-based solutions’ are all the rage.

Massive tree planting schemes are being suggested, supported through significant new finance for ‘offset’ schemes to meet net zero obligations. The areas involved are huge. In 2011 the United Nations’ Bonn Challenge for example proposed that 350 million hectares of land would be ‘restored’ through tree planting by 2030. National governments and regional blocs too have massive plans for more trees, including notorious projects such as the Sahelian ‘Great Green Wall’. The AFR100 initiative, funded by multiple international donors including the World Bank, has committed to afforesting 100 million hectares in Africa over the coming decade. And not wanting to be outdone, the World Economic Forum is proposing the planting of a trillion trees.

Restoration myths

But is this always a good idea? Not necessarily. Many of the areas earmarked for tree planting are rangelands, areas of biodiverse rich grassland with scattered trees present such as in the savanna ecosystems that dominate southern Africa. Estimates vary but many millions of hectares of rangelands have been identified by the World Resources Institute (WRI) based in Washington DC and the Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich for forest ‘restoration’. This assumes that these are ‘degraded’ forests in need of rehabilitation, rather than highly productive, biodiverse ecosystems that support many livestock and people. According to Joseph Veldman and colleagues such global restoration assessments may massively overestimate the climate mitigation of tree planting schemes.

In a 2019 paper, called ‘the trouble with trees’, William Bond (a prof from UCT) and colleagues showed how the areas identified for tree planting overlap with grassy biomes (including rangelands), wildlife species richness and livestock production. In fact, as Veldman and colleagues show, 40% of the WRI map – some 1 billion hectares – was focused on grassy biomes, highlighting an ‘inconvenient reality’ for large-scale restoration plans. As Catherine Parr and colleagues argue, tropical grassy biomes remain poorly understood and are under threat. In particular, ‘restoration’ through tree planting in such areas would have major negative consequences for wildlife, biodiversity and pastoral livelihoods.

Grassland ecosystems and carbon dynamics

These forest restoration assessments – and the resulting interventions such as the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative – result from a basic misunderstanding of rangeland ecosystems that exist across more than half the world’s surface. This is simply ‘bad science’. Rangelands are what Bond calls ‘open ecosystems’, variegated mixes of trees and grasslands existing together in savannahs and parklands. These are maintained by grazing, fire and human actions, and are some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet.

Grasslands may also fix carbon more effectively than forests, although estimates vary wildly. In the geological past, the expansion of grasslands may have locked up so much carbon it resulted in a cooling of the atmosphere, precipitating an ice age. Grasslands have extensive root systems and high turnover with dead vegetation matter regularly incorporated into the soil, often assisted by grazers. Grasslands can be more reflective of solar radiation too compared to darker forests, and so may act to cool the earth. Yet carbon forestry schemes focus on the above-ground biomass, and tree biomass is much more visible and measurable than the poorly understood below-ground carbon dynamics among root networks and in the soil. In other words, these are not degraded lands in need of restoration to a ‘natural’ forest.

Forest obsessions

This obsession with closed forests has a long history, seeing grasslands or savannas as ‘degraded’ forests, and forests as the desirable protector of environments. Many of the current well-meaning attempts to advocate reforestation replicate colonial discourses, where foresters from northern climes influenced nascent forest departments across the world.

For example, the idea of the taux de boisement normal – the percentage of forest cover required by a ‘civilised’ nation – took hold in the French colonies from the 1800s, and since then tree planting has become part of what Diana Davis describes as a civilising mission to offset ‘desiccation’ and the assumed ravages of desert advance. Equally, the negative description of rangelands as ‘wastelands’ in India has framed attempts at environmental rehabilitation from the colonial era to today.

These basic misunderstandings of rangeland ecologies persist today, and are promoted by the likes of WRI along with multiple well-meaning projects and agencies through their advocacy of ‘forest restoration’. These efforts reinforced and in turn commoditised by the panoply of carbon forestry projects under schemes such as REDD+ and through investment projects available through growing voluntary carbon markets, seen as central to meeting ‘net-zero’ commitments globally.

The problems with tree planting in rangelands

So what are the problems with tree planting? Here are seven points (see also this excellent article by Forrest Fleischman and colleagues, as well as a recent paper on India and associated Twitter thread).

  • Most tree planting projects focus on exotic, fast-growing trees. These are assumed to produce the most carbon the quickest. But fast-growing trees planted in rangelands can quickly become a problem. Ask many across Africa about the issues they have with the invasive Prosopis juliflora, which was originally introduced by aid programmes to provide fuel wood. Exotic tree planting also eliminates existing grassland ecosystem biodiversity, which has emerged over millennia through the interactions of vegetation and herbivores.
  • Carbon projects require managed tree planting to claim carbon credits against an assumed degraded baseline. The easiest approach is the planting of large plantations. These are easy to manage and the carbon credits can quickly be calculated and cashed in. But plantations exclude people, livestock and wildlife and can seriously undermine plant biodiversity too. A rush to net zero through tree planting, Oxfam argues in a recent report, could have major implications for land rights and food security.
  • Rushed planting of trees in unsuitable environments can lead to large losses of planted trees. The incentives to earn a quick buck on carbon credits can result in huge damage. Areas are cleared, trees are planted and then they die, with no benefits to anyone. In the odd calculations of carbon credits, this may have resulted in ‘avoided deforestation’, but the consequence is often the laying waste of environments.
  • Tree planting in grasslands, aiming for a managed, stable forested area, runs counter the natural ecosystem dynamics of such areas. In tropical grassy biomes the amount of trees and grasslands fluctuate, with patches of each increasing and decreasing because of rainfall, fire and other factors. Imposing a regularised regime of management on such a setting, assuming baselines and calculating carbon gains makes no sense.
  • Tree planting schemes where people and animals are excluded can result in the massive build-up of flammable herbaceous material. Without regulated ‘cold burn’ fires, the consequences of forest fires can be devastating, as seen around the world in recent months. This can result in huge losses of carbon – exactly the opposite of the plan.
  • Water cycles may be disrupted by tree planting schemes, as fast-growing trees need a lot of water to grow. By contrast, grasslands have high levels of infiltration and are important in maintaining hydrological systems. Carbon schemes however do not put a price on water, so trees win out.
  • The landscape value of tree plantations – serried rows of exotic trees – may be lower than that of long established grassland systems, where cultures of livestock keeping and wildlife use have created a lived in landscape. Rangelands may be anthropogenically created, but they are not necessarily degraded and in need of rehabilitation.

Enhancing dynamic ecologies: putting people first

Trees are natural elements of grassland landscapes and of course have many benefits for people and environments, providing shade, fruits, browse, leaf litter and so on. In some cases, new planting may be desirable, but more often encouraging regrowth of existing trees as part of variegated landscapes makes much more sense as a route to capturing and sequestering carbon to meet the climate challenge. As Susie Vetter explains:

“Tree planting should enhance and diversify local livelihoods, avoid the transformation of tropical grasslands and savannahs, promote landscape heterogeneity and biodiversity, and distinguish residual carbon stocks from those derived from reforestation and afforestation.”

Many current pronouncements tout massive tree planting schemes with huge targets for areas to be covered, linked often to major finance for ‘carbon offset’ initiatives to meet net-zero climate obligations. These are vigorously backed by powerful international conservation organisations in alliance with big business, sometimes the worst fossil fuel polluters themselves. But we should be sceptical. So-called ‘nature-based solutions’ need to involve people first, otherwise they will fail; tree planting is of course a social and political issue.

This article was written by Ian Scoones. An earlier version was posted on the PASTRES blog.

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The politics of control in Zimbabwe’s COVID times

The COVID-19 situation in Zimbabwe has improved since our last report, with infection rates and deaths declining in all areas. The alert level has been reduced to Level 2, with restrictions relaxed. At the same time, the vaccination drive has continued apace, with the government now mandating all civil servants to take a shot. So far just over 20 percent of the population has received at least one vaccine – mostly from China – although there are big variations across locations and age groups.

The period of Level 4 lockdown during the most recent wave has taken its toll. During this period, lasting up to 7th September, many businesses closed and most public institutions, including schools and colleges, were shut. This had a big effect on the local economy and many suffered badly. This included farmers across our sites, who complained bitterly that schools, colleges and other businesses they supplied food to were slow to open up after the shift to Level 2. This particularly affected horticulture farmers in Chatsworth and Wondedzo who rely on vegetable sales for livelihoods at this time of year, with large amounts of produce rotting.

COVID controversies

Controversies around COVID-19 continue to be central to discussions across our sites. COVID has become a symbol of control, a centre of power struggles and local politics; much more than just a disease. This has been especially evident around the vigorous vaccine campaign that the state has led.

Many, particularly younger people, still dismiss the disease: “It’s just a strong ‘flu”, one commented. “We have our own remedies for it, we don’t need the vaccines”. The view that COVID is being used by the state to control people is widespread. A number of younger informants observed that the vaccines may be used by the government, in alliance with foreign powers, to control the population, making people infertile. While conspiracy theories can be dismissed, their existence must be taken seriously as they reflect the politics of COVID times and the deep lack of trust many, perhaps especially younger people, have in authority.

Geopolitics comes into it too. “Why is this government accepting vaccines from unfriendly states like the US when they impose sanctions on us…. It seems very fishy”, one informant observed.  Others argue that it’s odd to get a free vaccine from China when health centres have no other drugs “not even paracetamol, no basic drugs, no ambulances, yet these are all free and supplied by the government. We smell a rat… there is something not right…. What deals are being made about our future?” “It’s all about making money and controlling people”, one young person commented, “COVID is destroying our lives and economies”.

Trust and the politics of control

All sorts of theories are debated, but the common theme is the little trust in the state and its solutions. Many see politicians capitalising on the COVID moment, recognising that elections are just around the corner. Other local leaders are using the requirement of the state to vaccinate to control their populations, with chiefs and headmen threatening the withdrawal of food aid if people don’t get vaccinated. Vendors wanting to sell in local bakosi markets have to be vaccinated in some of our sites, again giving more powers to local leaders. Local officials keep lists of those vaccinated and not, creating new forms of local surveillance.  Government departments have until 15 October to get their staff vaccinated, otherwise they must go on ‘unpaid leave’ until they do. All our team who work in the agricultural extension service have got vaccinated, for example.   

Others resist the state vaccination efforts completely. For example, the Vapostori church followers refuse to take them. They say that COVID like other diseases is just punishment from God. It should not be resisted, and any requirement to stop praying in large groups should be resisted lest the Almighty is angered. God will answer and find a solution, they argue. Other churches, such as the Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic and others, urge their followers to get vaccinated.

Among traditional religious leaders, such as the svikiro spirit mediums, there are a variety of opinions across our sites. Some argue that COVID reflects the anger of the ancestors for not following local customs and rules. They promote traditional practices for curing and healing, and some herbalists have joined others in prescribing herbal remedies for teas/infusions, gargling and steaming. The massive growth in demand for local treatments that arose especially during the most recent deadly wave has reinforced the power of herbalists and traditional healers within local communities.

Recourse to ‘tradition’ and the rejection of modern ways, around food in particular, is a common refrain. The argument that foods made from rukweza, mhunga (finger and pearl millet) and other traditional products give strength and help people resist the disease has been much repeated. This has strengthened the hand of traditional healers, mediums and some local leaders over their ‘modern’ replacements in local power struggles in a number of our sites.

There is a gender, generational and locational divide too. Women are getting vaccinated far more than men, according to those working in the local clinics across our sites. Older people too are much more likely to get vaccinated than the youth, as they have seen old people get sick and die. Parents complain that they cannot persuade their children to get vaccinated and follow the regulations on distancing, mask wearing and so on. Finally, those in town are more likely to sign up as they too have seen the effects of the disease in recent waves – some even travelling to rural homes to get their shots as there is more availability of vaccine.

Controlling daily life

COVID times have created many tensions centred on the control over daily life. Tensions play out between the state and normal people; across generations, between youth and older people; within families, and between spouses; among colleagues who are civil servants; between church followers of different denominations, within villages and even within families; between the living and the spirit world; and between local leaders and their followers within rural areas. All these tensions are refracted through local politics.

While vaccination has often been the central, immediate focus, these tensions are therefore about much more; a window on contemporary rural society in Zimbabwe. These disputes are about the politics of control, over defining freedoms and limits and the role of the state and other authorities in relation to citizens. They are about faith and belief, interpretations of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ and the trust in state authority and science. And they are about wider politics around which foreign powers can be trusted with people’s health and well-being.

We all know that the pandemic is political, but it now permeates all aspects of daily life in Zimbabwe’s rural areas.

Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba and the team from Chikombedzi, Matobo, Wondedzo, Chatsworth, Mvurwi, Hippo Valley and Masvingo for the ongoing reflections on life across our study sites

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

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Challenging simplistic land degradation and restoration narratives in Zimbabwe

In the last blog, I reviewed the results of our land use analysis using a combination of Landsat satellite imagery, document/archival analysis and field interviews from Mvurwi area in northern Zimbabwe from 1984 to 2018, now out as an APRA Working Paper.

A number of themes emerged. The research showed how in this miombo savannah environment there were cyclical shifts in land use between woodland, grazing areas and arable fields depending on a set of intersecting factors. These including demographic pressure, but also included economic, social and political dimensions. Shifts occurred often quite dramatically at particular moments, when a confluence of factors combined. Such factors were often uncertain and contingent, with the result that linear, secular change in land use and the environment was not seen.

Instead, there were often cycles, a waxing and waning of different land use combinations, depending on the context. This was the case in the post-land reform period, where the land is dominated by a mix of smallholders and medium-scale farms. Today there is only one large estate remaining, contrasting with the pre-land reform period when the Mvurwi area was dominated by white-owned large-scale commercial farms.

There are some important wider implications that emerge from such an analysis that gets to grips with longitudinal environmental and land use change and its intersecting drivers. In the following sections, I identify four themes.

Non-linear, dynamic change

Unlike as is so often assumed, environmental change is non-linear and dynamic. This has important implications for how we understand ‘land degradation’, or ‘desertification’.

Degradation is often assumed to a be a negative shift from an assumed pristine (or wild) state. But what if this state doesn’t exist, and in dynamic ecologies there are more variations – whether from herbivory, fire or human intervention? Assessing degradation depends on defining an ideal state that is departed from, but the ideal may be something that is already transformed: like farmland or grazing areas – which expand and contract depending on a range of variables.

In this sense, the linear notion of degradation (and its equivalent, desertification) has little meaning in such variable environments.

Intersecting drivers

Environmental change is usually the result of intersecting drivers. As we saw in Mvurwi, change is not the consequence of a single, secular pressure, as in the Malthusian narrative so often imposed on environmental and land use debates.

Demographic factors intersect with economic, political, social and other dimensions too. And this means that change is not inexorably in one direction. There are key moments when changes happen – conjunctures when an array of factors combine, which are inevitably contingent and always uncertain.

Predicting environmental change is not an exact science, and the doomsday narratives that forecast environmental disaster may often be widely off the mark. Trees may increase, but also decline. It all depends on complex, intersecting and dynamic drivers of change, which have to be understood.

Beyond the closed forest obsession

Land use analysts have an obsession with closed forests. They are easy to see from space (large blocks of red on the satellite interpretations) and they fit the popular focus on deforestation as the major indicator of environmental damage.

But most forested areas are not closed forests (as in the Amazon for example), but open forests and woodlands, savannahs and parklands, where trees may dominate but are interspersed with different types of vegetation, including open grassland. This is the ‘natural’ landscape of much of Africa, although of course maintained over millennia by grazers, fire and human activity.

Classifying such landscapes is tricky on satellite images. Is it forest…or is it bush, or grassland or cropped land, or a mix? Trees are in all of these classificatory ‘types’ and often in significant numbers, but often are not spotted in the push to decide on a classification across the forest/not forest binary.

The sooner the grip of the standard, closed-forest image of ideal landscape gives way to a more variegated, patchy, complex understanding of temporally and spatially variable savannah ecosystems the better. We need more savannah ecologists and fewer foresters (or those obsessed with a particular type of forest) in this line of work.

Meaningless baselines in carbon assessments

The focus on ‘forests’ (or more particularly closed forests) has implications for how we assess baselines in environmental assessments for carbon markets, and increasingly popular approach to mitigating climate change through ‘offsetting’ and land ‘restoration’.

Gaining benefits from the carbon market through protecting forests to fix carbon assumes that there is a baseline of protected forest. Carbon premiums are then paid on this basis, paying out to protect the forest from damage that would otherwise occur. This all assumes that a closed forest is the ideal, and that protecting such areas (or when ‘degraded’ reafforesting through tree planting) will be beneficial.

But, in open ecosystems like savannahs, the dynamics of carbon sequestration are such that grasslands combined with woodland give the highest benefits, and the idea that a successional endpoint of a closed forest is somehow best is mistaken. The idea of a ‘baseline’, so central to carbon forestry schemes (like REDD+), simply doesn’t make sense, as we saw in studies in Hurungwe.

Again, it is the linear view of environmental change, the obsession with the idea of a closed forest and a lack of understanding of land use change dynamics that such schemes are premised on – and which a large and growing carbon market is defined by. These are shaky foundations for environmental protection, and it’s no wonder that so many such carbon forestry schemes don’t work despite the hype. 

Dispelling simplistic linear ideas of environmental change

All this is why the sort of fairly basic but cross-disciplinary perspective that we pursued in our study in Mvurwi, now published as an APRA Working Paper, is so important to dispel simplistic ideas about linear environmental change and usher in more sophisticated and appropriate measures for environmental protection and land use management for such dynamic settings.

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

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