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Bleak outlook for food security

Maize hung up to dry in Madagascar
Maize hung up to dry in Madagascar (Guy Oliver/IRIN)

Archaic agriculture practices and erratic rainfall in the recent planting period is expected to lead to an increase in food insecurity for most of Swaziland’s 1.1 million people in 2012, says a government agriculture official.

“Generally crop production prospects for the 2011-12 season have been severely compromised and the overall picture is just a bad one. The country will slide back into the need for food assistance for a majority of the population,” Thembumenzi Dube, an Agriculture Ministry economist, told IRIN.

Rains failed during the October planting season in the usually productive central middleveld, as well as the generally drought-prone eastern and southern regions. The virtual absence of irrigation systems makes the country all the more dependent on the right amount of rain falling at the right time.

Crops can still be planted in December, although in recent years the first quarter of the year has often seen extreme weather patterns, from flooding to bouts of searing and sustained heat.

At Mpaka, a railhead in eastern Swaziland, after a month without rains, localized flash floods on 14 December washed away subsistence farmers’ young maize plants.

Thuli Thwala, a widow with two children, watched the effects in despair. “We have been praying for rain all this time. Now we have nothing,” she told IRIN.

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In the 1970s Swaziland was a net exporter of food, but since the early 1990s the country has been dependent on donor assistance to greater or lesser degrees. In 2010 about one in 10 Swazis depended on food aid.

“The last three to four years had already shown signs of steadily increasing staple food crop production but this season will be bad compared to last year. Of course in some cases farmers can still grow other food crops such as sweet potatoes and sugar beans but the risk remains high with limited rainfall,” Dube said.

About two thirds or more of the population rely on subsistence farming, although agriculture accounts for only 7.9 percent of gross domestic product.

Chiefs hampering modernization

“The problem is that 70 percent of the population live as peasant farmers on communal Swazi Nation Land [SNL] which is operated under a system of chiefs. They practice the farming methods of their ancestors. No irrigation and little by way of fertilizer. They just drop in seeds and hope for rain. The failure to modernize will have its effects felt again this year,” Charles Ndwandwe, a manager at a food distribution centre in the central Manzini region, told IRIN.

''They practice the farming methods of their ancestors. No irrigation and little by way of fertilizer''

About 10 percent of the country is arable, and less than 1 percent of this land is used for export crops like pineapples and sugar cane.

The remaining arable land lies on SNL, where small-scale farmers depend on rain-fed agriculture. People live on the land without secure tenure or title deeds, and chiefs can evict people at will.

Without title deeds, SNL farmers cannot use their land as collateral to secure loans for irrigation equipment or other land improvements. Land reform proposals call for Swazis to be “owners [of land] rather than squatters” with the aim of driving forward agricultural modernization.

However, land reform faces stiff political opposition: King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, imposes his authority through the chiefs’ system, and providing secure land tenure would undermine his rule, according to analysts.

Tractor problems

Agricultural services provided by the government are also diminishing, as the country grapples with a dire financial crisis. The provision of subsidized government tractors and drivers has been disrupted by a lack of spare parts and the inability to pay fuel costs. Apart from lower costs, the operators are trained in cultivation techniques.

“Private owned tractors on the one hand are not in good condition in most of the cases and the drivers are usually not well trained. The unavailability of government tractors was just adding salt to the injury as the rains were already delayed. The unpreparedness this season due to various reasons may have played a major role also [in food production] but more than anything it just compounded an already fragile and compromised situation,” Dube said.

Maize is subjected to price controls, which makes it unattractive for cultivation by commercial farmers.

“It would do no harm to deregulate the maize marketing process and let market forces determine producer prices. Guaranteeing local producers the prevailing maize market prices would be an incentive for farmers who have access to irrigation infrastructure to produce dry maize. The country would be able to produce green maize throughout the year [if irrigation systems were in place],” Dube said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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