Tag Archives: FAO

Soils for life: Some cautionary tales for the International Year of Soils

You may not know, but 2015 is the International Year of Soils. Soils are of course vitally important for agriculture and livelihoods, but they often go unsung and are routinely uncared for. The Year of Soils, promoted by the FAO, is aimed to put soils into the spotlight. The Director General of the FAO, Jose Graziano Da Silva, puts it nicely: “”The multiple roles of soils often go unnoticed. Soils don’t have a voice, and few people speak out for them. They are our silent ally in food production”.

The recent high-profile Montpellier Panel report pulls together much of the science, and makes a strong case for taking an integrated and holistic approach to soil management to promote soil health. If we lose soils, then we lose the basis for life, it argues. While climate change, correctly, has gained the international spotlight, making sure the basic substrate for human survival is in a good condition may be equally important.

If you want to learn more about soils you can attend an event virtually every week somewhere in the world this year. A highlight is the ‘Global Soil Week’ in Berlin next month, when soil science and policy will be discussed in a number of sessions. The organisers have produced a ‘Soil Atlas’, a compilation of infographics, which projects the data and the importance of soils.

Yet we must be careful when making the case for soils that we do not simplify and overstate. This is always a temptation when trying to raise the profile of an issue. To generate attention, headline grabbing statistics are always helpful. But they may not actually be useful, as they can distort responses and obscure understandings. Thus, while I agree with virtually everything in the new Montpellier report, I was disappointed to find that the old and much disputed figures of global soil degradation and nutrient loss are trotted out yet again.

There is no doubt that changes in soil structure, losses through erosion and soil fertility decline are important issues. But these global figures are derived from some dubious calculations that are often rather meaningless. Aggregated up from multiple small studies, they say nothing about how soil and nutrients move around landscapes; they say nothing about how soil nutrients are made available in different settings; and they say nothing about the net effects on livelihoods given people’s adaptive capacities.

These endless presentation of these dubious figures irk me especially because we spent a long time in the late 1990s and early 2000s trying to generate a more sophisticated debate about soil fertility in African agriculture. In 1999, Camilla Toulmin and I asked whether nutrient budgeting has any use for policy. In the same year, we did a report for DFID on the subject. In 2001, a major book, Dynamics and Diversity: Soil Fertility and Farming Livelihoods in Africa, (pdf here) followed. This offers an overall summary of the extensive field research from Ethiopia, Mali and Zimbabwe. The follow-up 2003 book, Understanding Environmental Policy Processes: Cases from Africa, (pdf here) offered reflections on the politics of policy around soils and land degradation, with cases again from the same countries. These issues were further debated in 2008 as part of a Future Agricultures Consortium convened e-debate.

In a series of four forthcoming blogs, I will highlight some of the issues raised and draw on the discussions in the e-debate. These remain as pertinent today as they did then. The bottom-line message is that we should base our understandings and response on what is happening on the ground, not on simplistic, aggregated assessments based on problematic nutrient accounting techniques or soil erosion and degradation measures calculated at inappropriate scales, often based on remote sensing and mapping that cannot get to grips with the variegated patterns of soils.

Instead a social and technical analysis is more appropriate a farm and landscape level, where we can gauge how people use and manage soils, and find ways to improve soil quality – including soil organic composition, structure, biodiversity, and nutrients (macro and micro). Soils are immensely complex ecosystems, and so are management responses by farmers, who have deep and intimate knowledge of these vital resources.

Rejecting the headline numbers and questioning the rhetoric about soil degradation (and desertification and the rest) does not mean to say that I do not think that these are pressing and important problems, as some have tried to argue in the past. Quite the opposite. I just think that an appropriate diagnosis of the problem leads to better solutions, and that the alarmist, generalised, disaster oriented statistics can lead to the wrong, and often highly damaging, responses.

There is a long history of this in Africa and in Zimbabwe in particular. The 1930s dustbowl in the US provided a clarion call for colonial scientists to intervene in what they saw as fast-degrading peasant agricultural systems. The soil engineers designed ridging systems and so on to protect the soil from erosion, and these were often highly inappropriate and widely resented. Indeed in Zimbabwe, the top-down enforcement of soil erosion measures was the basis for mobilisation by freedom fighters in the liberation, so resented were they. To this day, the grumbling we hear around the ‘dig and die’ conservation farming impositions result in similar resentments. It’s not as if farmers reject the idea of soil management, but they argue that these are not always the right responses. And indeed there are many scientists who agree.

Alternative innovations for managing soil, nutrients and water in farm systems are plentiful, but not part of large-scale programmes, as Mr Phiri’s experiments in Zvishavane graphically show. The diagram below was drawn with farmers in Chivi as part of our earlier work (and appears in the book). It shows how soil nutrients flow around the farm, and are managed. This response is not simply responding to an aggregate soil nutrient deficit, but takes into account income, labour, asset ownership (livestock, carts and so on), topography, agroecology and farm management priorities, and so on, to come up with a system of soil management that is highly sophisticated, and site specific. It involves both organic and inorganic sources of nutrients; it uses application techniques that maximise plant uptake (fertilisers can be applied in microdoses with teaspoons, for example); it differentiates between different soil types (often variable within a single field); it matches soil improvement with farm and household priorities; and it combines an outfield arable production system with intensive gardening.

soilsa
Above all, most smallholder farms in Africa use an integrated approach to soil management. Farmers are not concerned with the ideological positions of ‘agroecology’ versus ‘chemical agriculture’, organic versus inorganic, and so on. In most farms, fertilisers are combined with manure, with waste and compost, and directed in ways that maximise their value. Farmers are not concerned with the labels adopted by NGOs and policy advocates. Too much of the debate about soils and farming does not connect to the field realities and livelihood challenges of real farmers. Too often the debate is played out with misleading statistics, aimed more at raising money and profile than revealing complex realities, and in ideological ghettos that create unhelpful fundamentalisms around what should be done (in an unrealistic ideal world), rather than what makes sense.

In the next few weeks – marking the International Year of Soils – this blog will explore some of these issues in more depth, with the hope that we can get beyond the unhelpful divides and inappropriate responses that have characterised thinking about soil management in Africa over too many years.

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

 


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Comparing communal areas and new resettlements in Zimbabwe I: An introduction to a short blog series

One of the things people have asked us about our research on land reform in Zimbabwe is: are people better off in the new resettlements, compared to the communal areas? We made the case in the book by comparing our results with published data from nearby communal and resettlement areas, and argued that indeed the new settlers were better off: producing more, accumulating more assets, and investing.

But to probe this question in more depth, in 2012 Blasio Mavedzenge, Felix Murimbarimba and Jacob Mahenehene and I decided to undertake a survey in some nearby communal areas in parallel with the resurvey of the land reform sites. Exactly the same questions were asked of 120 households evenly spread over four sites, each of which were near the A1 sites we had been studying since 2000-01. With one exception, these were sites we had done surveys in during 2006, as part of a study of livestock production in the province, and we used the same sample. This was drawn to represent a range of households, with cattle ownership used as the main indicator. A ‘success group’ ranking confirmed an even spread of households in each of the 3 ‘success groups’. Although necessarily a small sample (due to budget and logistics), we believe it is broadly representative of the communal area settings.

The sites were in Serima (near our Gutu sites, in fact adjacent to Lonely A farm), Gutu South (close to our Masvingo district sites in Wondedzo), in Ngundu south (along the road from our Chiredzi sites at Uswaushava) and in Chikombedzi area (near our Mwenezi sites in Edenvale). The Ngundu site in southern Chivi is probably the least comparable to its paired resettlement site, as it benefits from a particular micro-environment, and regularly has better crops than the more dryland site along the Chiredzi road. But overall, the sites have many similarities in terms of basic agroecology, proximity to markets and so on.

The question was whether, a decade after people had moved – often from these very places – to the new resettlements whether they were doing better, worse or much the same. This is an important question for a number of reasons. Clearly critics of land reform argue that new, backward, hopeless communal area settings are being recreated in the new resettlements and that things are no better, perhaps worse. Some instead argue that the communal areas are not so bad after all, and investments should have been focused there, leaving the new land for more commercial, larger-scale endeavours – or indeed keeping the status quo. Others argue that there is a new dynamic emerging in the new resettlements, especially the A1 areas where access to land has provided the opportunity for people to move beyond ‘subsistence’ and move towards ‘market-oriented’ growth. Some thought that land reform offered the chance to ‘decongest’ the communal areas, and allowing those left behind further opportunities, moving the communal areas from ‘reserves’ to productive areas as land became available. Still others argue that we need to understand the relationships between communal areas and old and new resettlements, both A1 and A2 in an area if the real economic benefits of land reform are to be realised.

All of these debates are relevant as discussions unfold about how to support agriculture and rural development after land reform. For example, major investments by donors – including for example the UK’s Department for International Development in partnership with FAO and others – have premised their programme’s design on assumptions about agrarian structure, patterns of accumulation, and the opportunities for investment and growth between different types of farmers and different areas. So solid data on what is going on where and what the potentials are really does matter.

In the 1990s, Bill Kinsey and colleagues did systematic studies between the now ‘old resettlements’ and communal areas, and found that those given resettlement lands fared significantly better on most criteria, although there were some interesting contrasts too.

So, what is the story for the 2000s resettlements in Masvingo province? As ever, the story is complex.

There are clear limitations with our survey (sample size, comparability, lack of counterfactual of no exits to resettlements and so on), but we believe there is some interesting evidence that emerges. In our analysis we concentrated on the comparison between the communal area sites and the A1 villagised/’informal’ sites in our larger sample. These seemed to be the most relevant groups to compare, as 62% of new settlers in our sample in these sites came from nearby communal areas. This was less in the A2 and A1 self-contained sites which had 12% and 39% respectively.

In the next few weeks on this blog, I will present some of the headline results under some different headings: people and places, focusing on demography, household composition and movements; land and cropping, focusing on land sizes and crop production; asset accumulation, focusing on asset ownership and investment, including of livestock; and off-farm income and diversification, focusing on the range of other income activities people are engaged in, including reliance on remittances.

We are writing this up more formally as a journal article, but in the meantime we thought blog readers would like a taste of the results. So please do check in each Monday for the next month for an update.

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

The on-going Masvingo study research is conducted by Ian Scoones, Blasio Mavedzenge,

Felix Murimbarimba and Jacob Mahenehene.

 

 

 

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Are livestock destroying the planet?

Livestock are essential to rural economies and livelihoods across Africa. On Zimbabweland there have been many blogs on this theme focusing on Zimbabwe’s livestock and marketing systems. But are these animals contributing to planetary destruction through greenhouse gas emissions?

A special issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on livestock and global change late last year offered some new data, and generated a minor storm of controversy thanks in large part to the Economist weighing into the debate. The Economists’ summary of a paper by Mario Herrero from CSIRO in Australia and colleagues from IIASA and ILRI suggested that the solution to the high climate change impacts of traditional livestock rearing was to abandon free range pastoralism and shift to a form of intensive factory farming. The answer The Economist believes is “intensive livestock farming, which is more efficient and environmentally friendlier than small-scale, traditional pastoralism of the sort beloved by many greens”. Why is this position adopted? The Economist explains:

… More acres are given over to feeding animals than to any other single use. Meat accounts for a sixth of humanity’s calorific intake but uses roughly a third of its crop land, water and grain. Producing a kilogram of grain takes 1,500 litres of water; a kilo of beef takes 15,000 litres. A fifth of the world’s pasture has been spoilt by overgrazing….livestock farming produces 8-18% of greenhouse-gas emissions. It is the main contributor to the build-up of nitrogen and phosphorus in the world’s soils, producing too much ammonia (which is caustic), nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas) and dead zones in oceans (the result of excess phosphorus). A fifth of the world’s pasture has been spoilt by overgrazing….

Extensive livestock production it seems is bad news. This was in part the argument of the FAO’s controversial book from 2006, Livestock’s Long Shadow. And it has been picked up by many since, including another FAO publication published recently that provided a rather more rounded perspective than its predecessor. So should Zimbabwe and other countries in Africa be abandoning livestock production to save the planet? Are intensive systems of ‘factory farming’ the answer?

The debate is actually hopelessly confused, and confusing. The data in the PNAS article is clear. Inefficient feed systems result in more greenhouse gases being produced during production than more intensive systems (essentially more belching and farting). And white meat (pigs and poultry) are better than red meat and milk in this regard.

But the assessment does not account for the costs of the other inputs of industrial farming, including fossil fuels used in feed production, housing, transport and so on. Traditional livestock systems are often very ‘low input’, with little fossil fuel dependency, and linked into markets not reliant on massively long supply chains.

Such systems make efficient use of marginal land and resources; as Tara Garnett puts it a ‘livestock on leftovers’ approach focused on adapting existing systems rather than the simple focus on efficiencies. The trouble with studies such as the PNAS one is that the results and conclusions depend crucially on what ‘the system’ is, and what is being compared with what. These choices are crucial and can inject fatal biases, or encourage wayward misinterpretations.

Simon Fairlie produced a brilliant book a few years back, Meat: a Benign Extravagance. It even got George Monbiot to change his views on meat eating. The book argues – with masses of data and careful argument – that meat production if done in an ecologically sensitive and humane manner is fine on a whole range of counts, and should not be discounted as a form of production and source of livelihood. It just depends on who produces it and how. The same applies in the great climate and environmental impact debate, a theme that is picked up in the book, and in a recent paper that questions many of the data assumptions used in FAO’s livestock climate assessments.

In the exchange of comments following the Economist article Mario Herrero distances himself from the claims made by the Economist, arguing that they never claimed that “we should get rid of pastoralism” (they didn’t!). Instead he argues that small-scale intensive systems are the best way forward, as part of a diversity of approaches.

This is all well and good, but how then can the extensive savannah grasslands of Africa be best used? This is not where intensive small-scale systems are likely to emerge. Should they be turned over for carbon sequestration as some argue, or wildlife, with people and their environmentally destructive animals forced off the range? What then happens to the many livelihoods of often very poor people who are dependent on livestock? And if livestock are not consuming the grass, fires or termites might result in less production and perhaps even larger emissions.

The problem with studies of this sort – and perhaps especially the media and policy commentary that follows – is the way that complex systems are simplified. First is the way the accounting is done, with often limited data and missing out key aspects. What is included in the model and how it is bounded makes a huge difference. In this case focusing only on food conversion efficiency gives a distorted picture of climate impacts of different livestock based production-marketing systems.

Second is the interpretation that focuses on the accounted for measure – in this case greenhouse gases – and excludes the complexity of the wider system. Any assessment of costs and benefits must look at the whole picture, including the array of opportunity costs and trade-offs, and so crucially must involve the people concerned who know these best.

Third is the way uncertainties are dealt with, often put to one side (or in very long appendices of supplementary data). In the case of aggregate global pictures across all livestock systems, uncertainties can be massive. Inadequate data plagues agricultural policymaking, and particularly for extensive livestock. Add to that the uncertainties associated with climate change predictions and the data problems are compounded.

And fourth is the way alternatives are defined as part of policy narratives that are developed through such modelling efforts. By defining (narrowly) a problem, a solution (again narrow) is defined. Too often dramatic alternatives to the status quo are recommended, without thinking about the consequences.

Pastoralism is a way of life adapted to dry non-equiibrium rangelands, and is a massive contributor to livelihoods and economies, as well as providing a route to land management. Our book, Pastoralism and Development in Africa, highlighted through many case studies the way pastoralism contributes to development in the Greater Horn of Africa. A similar case could be made for the livestock dependent areas of Zimbabwe, as I and many others have long argued.

Surely the most appropriate response is to seek out more climate-compatible forms of livestock development, based on existing systems, and working with people and their animals, rather than seeking a dramatic transformation that would result in increased poverty and growing inequality in already poor areas of the world. The models may help think through the options, but they are no replacement for engaging with the realities on the ground.

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

 

 

 

 

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Appropriate technologies? Why neither tractors nor conservaton agriculture may be the right solution for Zimbabwean agriculture

A few weeks back I had the opportunity to discuss technology options for Zimbabwean farming with two different groups. They had very different ideas about what was appropriate. And neither seem to have asked farmers themselves. Nor have they taken account of the particular technological challenges of Zimbabwe’s agrarian structure. Both, for different reasons, seemed, to me at least, inappropriate technologies for the vast mass of Zimbabwean settings.

The first was a discussion around ‘Conservation Agriculture’ (CA) in Wondedzo Extension, a villagised A1 scheme in Masvingo district where CA is being promoted by an NGO, Hope Tariro. This low-till approach, involving digging planting pits by hoe in small areas to concentrate moisture and fertility inputs, is being pushed by donors in Zimbabwe in a big way. It is central to programmes led by the FAO, as well as across numerous NGOs. It is supported by the EU and DFID among other donors, and is backstopped by a range of technical support agencies. These include the River of Life Church and the Foundations for Farming, where CA is inspired by ‘callings from God’ and the Sustainable Agriculture Trust, led by a group of former white farmers and supported by substantial EU-FAO funds, as well as CGIAR Centres like CIMMYT and ICRISAT.

I talked to the local extension agent in the area who was preparing for the planting season with his demonstration farmers. He estimated he spent around 60% of his time during the farming season on supporting CA activities in the area. He was politely equivocal about the approach, but he was clear it was diverting his time from other activities. It is an extremely intensive gardening approach, which requires an area to be fenced off and all crop residues returned to the land. Farmers refer to it as ‘dig and die’ due the back breaking work involved, but they are glad of the free seeds (and in some cases fertiliser too). But is this an appropriate technology for the new resettlements?

On very small areas, with substantial labour inputs, yield increases are clearly possible, but this is not an approach which will deliver sustained growth in farm production in the larger arable plots of the new resettlements. Designed for micro garden plots, it may be appropriate for some areas, but not many. In a discussion at the nearby irrigation scheme, we raised the idea of testing out CA there. A woman immediately jumped up and exclaimed: “No! We will not do this! This is our cooperative irrigation. If we have the NGO here, they will make us irrigate with buckets!” There was general agreement: the NGO imposed ideas were fine to get hold of seed and could be done on small areas near the villages, but they should not disrupt their core economic activities on the irrigation scheme. The discussion moved to the problems of CA, and the usual list spilled out. Too much labour, small areas, burning of crops with concentration of fertiliser and so on.

The next opportunity to discuss farm technology came a few days later at the China Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centre , recently built by the Chinese Government on the campus of Gwebi College just outside Harare. This is being run by the agricultural machinery company, Menoble, an offshoot of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Mechanisation Sciences. The facility is impressive as is the shiny machinery in the courtyard. The Centre hosts regular training programmes for Zimbabwean farmers and extension officials. But with some exceptions, the machines are only useful for massive farms – of the order of 1000ha or so. The model, it was explained, is the large-scale commercial farms of NE China, where the company has its major market. What about the famous small-scale farms of China?, I asked. No, this is backward farming, not the future, it was argued by one official. Although later I was shown there are some maize and potato planters and harvesters appropriate to 20-30ha plots to show that ‘small-scale’ farming had not been forgotten.

Neither group had, it seems, thought about the demands of the new agrarian structure. Today, 90% of Zimbabwe’s farmers are smallholders, representing 80% of the farmed land. This is a dramatic change from the past. The argument of the donors and NGOs pushing CA is that many of these farms in the communal areas are very small – perhaps only one or two hectares. Here an intensive gardening approach may be appropriate, if the labour is available. But what about the new resettlements? The average holding per household in the A1 schemes is 30-40ha, with cultivated areas in our study sites in Masvingo increasing, now averaging 5-10ha. CA does not make sense in these areas. But nor does most of the Chinese machinery on offer at Gwebi. The Chinese company officials argue that production should occur on large, modern, efficient farms, equipped with the latest machinery (huge cultivators, combine harvesters and planters pulled by 15HP tractors). A familar tale about the supposed superiority of large-scale farming, and the need to transform a backward smallholder sector, forgetting of course how Chinese economic growth was supported by millions of smallholder farms following the reforms.

Neither the western donors and NGOs nor the Chinese seem to have thought hard enough about the contexts into which their technologies are supposed to fit. Nor have they discussed properly with their clients and customers. Of course Zimbabwean farmers are very polite, and will not turn away an NGO, in case its work can be redirected towards something useful. They are happy to take free inputs (worth around USD$40 per household), but, as with the outburst at the irrigation scheme and the derogatory nick-name for CA, they are reluctant to see this as a solution. Equally, extension workers and farmers alike will attend the Chinese training courses and marvel at the big machines, but will they take up the suggested technical options? Even if they could afford them, this is extremely unlikely. Only a small proportion of farmland is now over 1000ha, representing only a few farmers. Is this the target market for Chinese machinery, and could be basis for a long term business plan for Menoble? I doubt it.

So here we have two sets of inappropriate technology being pushed by two very different sets of donors, driven by particular perceptions and assumptions. Technology transfer has come back into fashion in the aid world, but all the critiques that Robert Chambers and others made way back on the problems with this paradigm still apply. In a new agrarian setting, there are some real technological challenges, but these will have to be met together with inputs from farmers and a much better sense of scale requirements and farmer needs and priorities. Perhaps the Chinese, the Brazilians (also offering tractors) and the ‘traditional’ donors could support this – focusing on rehabilitating Zimbabwe’s agricultural R and D capacity.

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

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Small farms, big farms

There is a classic debate in agricultural economics and development policy about the relative efficiencies of small and big farms. It is centred on what is known as the ‘inverse relationships’ which posits that as farms become smaller they become more productive per unit area, as costs – such as the supervision of labour – get reduced (or at least passed on to cheaper family labour arrangements). The argument is that small farms are the ideal, efficient solution to agricultural production.

Of course there are qualifications – and these are important, perhaps increasingly so in a globalised world. Very small farms, fragmented in different ways, are clearly not ideal, and suffer from many inefficiencies. Yet, what is ‘small’ and ‘very small’ is often not clear in the literature. Equally, there may be economies of scale in certain production-marketing systems, making larger farms more efficient. For example, getting high value products into international markets may mean complying with quality standards which small farmers would find difficult to adhere to.

This discussion remains at the centre of the debate about agricultural development in Africa. The African Union’s Comprehensive Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) makes a strong case for smallholders being at the centre of agricultural growth, as does the Gates-funded  Alliance for  a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). In a new book, Gordon Conway, of Imperial College in the UK, argues that smallholders must be at the centre of strategies to feed 9 billion people.

For decades, then, smallholder agricultural production has barely been questioned as the central pillar for agricultural development in Africa. But now there are some dissenting voices; and influential ones too. In a provocative paper for an FAO meeting on African agriculture in 50 years, Paul Collier – author of the best-seller, ‘The Bottom Billion’, and professor at Oxford University – and Stefan Dercon – now Chief Economist at the UK’s Department for International Development, and a well-respected research economist who has worked extensively in Africa – make the case that the advocacy of smallholder farming was sometimes wildly overblown, often inappropriately romanticised. They argue that the inverse relationship debate was misleading, and did not provide the definitive evidence sometimes supposed for smallholder farming, and that large farms are increasingly the way forward, for some commodities and in some places.

The arguments presented certainly have merit and deserve scrutiny, but they are also potentially flawed in important ways. The arguments for large farms are that economies of scale in today’s globalised world are such that smallholder farming can never really be expected to generate sufficient growth to facilitate the necessary transition out of agriculture into industrial-led growth trajectories. In Africa in particular access to global markets, and so positioning of agriculture near road infrastructure and ports is seen as crucial, if comparative advantages in a highly competitive market setting are to be realised.

Yet the argument ignores some key facts. First, smallholders have been very successful at producing a range of key commodities. In a review for a World Bank study on competitive commercial agriculture in Africa, Colin Poulton and colleagues found that “Large-scale agriculture has proven more competitive in export horticulture, sugar and flue-cured tobacco, whilst smallholders dominate in cotton, cashew and food staples. For tea and burley tobacco there are mixed stories. Second, markets are not all global, governed by highly stringent standards. Niche selling into such markets may offer good returns, but the costs of entry are high. Perhaps better is to produce for growing domestic and regional markets, and here the flexible strategies of smallholders in feeding urban Africa have long been seen to be effective. Third, the negative effects of large scale farming on local economies, food security patterns, environmental conditions and labour and employment conditions are not factored into these arguments. Large scale commercial farming does not have a universally good track-record, frequently resulting in enclave economic operations, with poor labour conditions and high externalities, focusing on single export-oriented crops, leading to negative impacts on the local food economy.

What are the implications of this debate for Zimbabwe? Following land reform, Zimbabwe has a radically reconfigured agrarian structure. Gone is the dualism of the past – with tracts of very large scale farming, separated off from the small-scale farming areas in the communal lands and resettlement. The limited ‘Purchase Area’ land was anomalous, fitting neither model, but not integrated either. Today, we have a huge mix of farm sizes, as Sam Moyo has described. Large-scale farms and estates remain, but the majority is now a mix of small and medium scale farms.

Crucially these are much more integrated, both spatially in terms of their proximity and economically in terms of their connections, of labour, marketing, skill and knowledge transfer and so on. The economic apartheid of the past, divided by racialised social and economic barriers, has given way to a more complex, integrated patchwork. While smallholder farming dominates, it is not the only farm type. It is the mix that is important, which is different in different parts of the country, depending on agroecology, market access, infrastructure and, of course, politics.

Getting to grips with this new farm size configuration, and the implications for economic development is an important challenge. Yet it is one that policymakers have yet to get their heads around. So fixated are people on the small vs large dichotomy, often with an implicit assumption that small is backward and big is better, that the potentials of the new agrarian structure are not being grasped. The small farm populists argue for peasant efficiencies, while the big farm advocates claim business and growth opportunities.

In my view neither is correct. But where the gains are to be had is in the mix: in the economic multiplier linkages between farm sizes, in the capturing of the comparative advantages of different farm configurations, in the growth of district level economies, in the sharing between groups of equipment, skills and knowledge, and in the flexible movement of labour in a certain area. None of these opportunities could be realised in the old dualistic agrarian structure, but today there are many potentials.

But it requires a different mindset: rather than thinking about the ‘ideal type’ farm (small or large), and fixed and outdated notions of what is ‘viable’, we should shift to thinking about processes of economic development based on agriculture in an area. A territorial approach to local economic development, as we argued in our book, is the way forward, and will help us shed the often unproductive and diversionary obsession with farm size.

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

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Conservation agriculture: the problem of donor fads

Conservation agriculture has become all the rage in Zimbabwe. It sounds like a good thing. Who could object to ‘conservation’, you ask? The particular version of conservation agriculture that has emerged in Zimbabwe involves a no-till approach to farming, involving digging shallow pits or planting basins. Intensive mulching should occur to protect the soil, and without tillage by oxen and tractors soil erosion is reduced. Since the pits concentrate water and nutrients higher yields are gained too. Sounds good?

Well, there are some important qualifications. Of course this takes a huge amount of time and effort. And it’s hard work. The programmes in Zimbabwe are nick-named by farmers, ‘Dig and Die’! Beyond the labour costs, for some this shift from extensive cultivation to small-scale gardening is regressive. Surely ‘real’ farming involves ploughing, clearing the land and creating clean fields, they say. And the mulch from crop residues is vital for livestock as a feed in a mixed farming system, livestock keepers argue. Since the famous agriculturalist E.D. Alvord was the chief instructor for ‘native agriculture’ in the 1930s, a mixed farming model, involving tillage had been the ideal. This was the science of ‘civilised’ agriculture. Why, then, have the NGOs, donors and the extension agencies changed their mind?

The answer lies in the complex politics of funding for agriculture in Zimbabwe, and the enthusiastic advocacy of ‘conservation agriculture’ by the FAO in particular. A no-till system has proved very popular in the large-scale agricultural systems of the Brazilian savanna, where reducing the use of herbicides and intrusive tillage makes much sense. But how does this translate to the Zimbabwean setting? Certainly, assessments show increased yields within the small areas where pits are dug. But how about labour and other costs? And what about total output, contrasted with a more extensive system? These answers are less clear, and evaluations from Zimbabwe tell a variety of stories.

However, much of this debate is not fought out around the technical-economic questions of costs, returns, yields and outputs, but in the arena of donor-led funding to NGOs. With a number of important donors (including DFID) backing conservation agriculture, this is an importance source of funding for NGOs who, due to ‘sanctions’, are the ones through whom aid money is channelled. Such NGOs are in the business of surviving in a difficult environment, carving out their project territories and implementing what the donors will pay for. Few have the technical capacity to assess the efficacy of such interventions, and monitoring and evaluation remains week. For some, conservation agriculture has become part of a prosletysing religion, linked to church organisations who see this as part of God’s work. Former white farmers in need of consulting income have been enlisted too, as part of EU support to the farming unions. And inevitably too government agencies are dragged into these programmes, as it is Agritex who has the personel on the ground. And without funds from elsewhere they must comply, as they see this as a route to carrying on some form of extension support. No questions – at least publicly – are asked (although privately many Agritex officers are bemused if not outraged by this recent obsession by the donors with conservation agriculture).

Farmers, as ever, are caught in the middle. In our study areas, we do not have the frenzy of NGO activity that is seen in the communal lands, as most donors do not allow operations in what are seen still as ‘contested lands’. But some do operate, perhaps not knowing that these are A1 schemes! Farmers are of course grateful for the attention. Having been ignored for so long, they are keen to engage with these new NGOs, in the hope of getting support for what they really need. But, in conversation, they are often deeply sceptical about conservation agriculture (hence the variety of nick-names!). As a way of gardening, pits and focused planting and fertiliser application, has long been part of soil and water management, so in many respects it’s not new. But as a way of creating significant output in their new lands, with very large amounts of hard labour and without oxen cultivation, the approach is seen as plain bonkers.

The pragmatic compromise is to accept the projects, but find ways around them. These are well practised techniques of Zimbabwe’s farmers, when top down measures are inappropriate.  Accept, thank the donor gratefully, and do something different. These are in Jim Scott’s terms, the ‘weapons of the weak’.  I have heard of cases where pit digging occurs near the road and the business centre where the NGOs congregate, but not further away. In other places, there are instances where communities come together to help older members so they can comply with the number of pits required to get the inputs. And of course, as with most input schemes, people will not necessarily apply the inputs in the places where they are supposed to, but elsewhere, arguing that concentrating fertilisers in small places can result in the ‘burning’ crops in such dry areas.

Jens Andersson, Ken Giller and colleagues have been having a proper scientific look at conservation agriculture in Zimbabwe, and remain, like farmers, sceptical. Have a look at http://www.pps.wur.nl/UK/CA/ for a short (4 min) video that introduces the scientific debate surrounding Conservation Agriculture for smallholder farmers in Africa, as well as a wider selection of publications. A recent set of assessment in Zimbabwe published in Field Crops Research concluded: “CA does not seem to overcome constraints on low-external-input systems”. Instead, “Good agronomy, and in particular timely planting and weeding, and adequate fertilisation and crop protection appeared central for obtaining high crop productivity rather than tillage and mulching”. In other words, good farming makes the difference. This is something farmers of course already know.

Going beyond the advocacy rhetoric of conservation agriculture, these are important results, which hopefully will be heard by the NGOs and donors. One of the many negative consequences of the withdrawal of aid support and a switch to an ‘emergency’ regime, has been the lack of rigour in assessing different intervention options. Conservation agriculture, while having important benefits in certain settings and for some people, has become a mantra, and a way of shifting funds via NGOs supposedly to benefit poor people. In the process, farmers and the government technical agencies have often been sidelined. They need to be brought back into the picture, and a far more rigorous debate about farming options developed.

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