Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries with an estimation of about 6.5 million people facing acute food shortage this year.
Hunger in the country is a constant fixture with most of the country’s 17 million people facing a daunting task of feeding themselves each year.
Life for many Malawians, mostly farmers, has become a routine struggle. As the rain season approaches, the majority shift their attention to their gardens. For three months, they toil in their fields hoping to get enough food to sustain them for the rest of the year.
Sadly, their hope for a bumper harvest is crashed after realising that the soil they so trusted with the responsibility of flourishing their dreams has failed to give them enough food compared to the investment they made at the beginning of the farming calendar. Quickly they become food insufficient.
The circus is on and on such that more rural families do not produce enough crops to last them the whole year. They also have no income-generating activities to help them raise money to buy food. As a result, reports indicate that a big percentage of the country’s population runs out of food only three months after the harvest
However, farmers themselves are also to blame for the dwindling of crop production. Most of them are fond of employing poor farming methods such as burning of their fields as a method of preparing their land for the next season. This is said to be contributing to damaging top spoil, thereby making it permeable.
Burning of fields also divest the top soil of the organic matter which is a key component that help the soil to retain water and nutrients required for crop production.
According to 52- year Nickson Davide of Mpinganjira Village, Traditional Authority (TA) Chimwala in Mangochi, burning of fields is still deep-rooted among Malawians despite now that land is not available as was the case in the past.
“When the country’s population was smalle,r we could burn the land and cultivate it for years before leaving for another fertile land, leaving the soil to recover its fertility. This was practical that time because we had a lot of land. But now we no longer have the land as it was before,” Davide says.
Increase in the country’s population has also negatively contributed to the country’s low crop production as it leads to over-farming due to limitation of land.
Sadly this is also leading to poor yields because the soil becomes bare, making it unable to support crops with the much-needed nutrients.
It might be easy to blame local farmers for their own challenges resulting from poor farming practices. But when one considers the plight of most Malawians, this blame can easily be shifted elsewhere.
In Malawi, life has, of late, become a struggle. At least 90 percent of Malawians struggle to get access to food. Education opportunities for most Malawians are rarer, making more people simply frantic to get even a simple knowledge of how to farm without damaging soils and the surrounding environments.
Following these and other human activities damaging the environment, Malawi is currently said to be losing an average of 29,000 kilogrammes (29 tones) of top soil per hector each year according to the 2015 Poverty and Environmental Initiative Study which the country conducted.
This is scary considering that if the situation is left unchecked for the next 10 years, experts say the country is at risk of becoming a desert. Most of the lakes, rivers and other water bodies the country boast of will not be available.
John Mussa, Director of Land Resource Conservation in the Ministry of Agriculture, explains that human beings have been the major culprits for the current unprecedented erosion of the top soil, which has also resulted in siltation of the Shire River and some parts of Lake Malawi.
“The only biggest challenge is that as a country, we do not have laws that directly protect the environment or, indeed, laws that can bring fear among Malawians who are found guilty of engaging in practices, something which poses a threat to the environment,” Mussa observes.
Mussa says Malawi cannot afford to lose top soil the way it is happening at the moment, adding that the situation calls for urgent need to find a solution because the soil which is being washed away is fertile and suitable for agricultural production, the country’s main source of income.
He points out on the need for holistic approach to interrogate ways of transforming the country’s agricultural systems in order to conserve the land that the country now seems to have no control over it.
With funding from the government of the United States of America, through Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and channelled to selected non-governmental organisations (NGOs), Malawi is implementing a three-year Environment and Natural Resources Management (ENRM) project which intends to address problems of aquatic weed infestation and sedimentation in the Shire River to overcome immediate hurdles of siltation and weed infestation limiting power generation by Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom).
One of the organisations working on the upper side of the Shire River is Catholic Development Commission in Malawi (Cadecom) under Mangochi Diocese, which, among other things, is working with local farmers to influence behaviour change among communities living on the upper Shire River as a means of reducing siltation in the river.
Recently, Cadecom took some lead farmers from its impact area in Mangochi to Mulanje on a study tour to learn how fellow farmers are promoting conservation agriculture as a means of ensuring that there is minimum soil disturbance and maximum soil cover.
The farmers’ sentiments, however, have revealed that there is a general feeling among them that all Malawians, rich and poor, should take the blame for the country’s environmental degradation. Hence, they should also be willing to take part in restoring things to their original state.
“We have been struggling to produce enough food for our crops because the land is no longer able to support most of the farming activities due to lack of proper nutrients. But, on the other hand, we are encouraged by our friends who are now harvesting enough crops because of employing conservation farming methods,” Davide says.
He cites the use of manure, mulching and pit planting as some of the outstanding methods that have helped to reduce harmful soil activities, hence increasing the profile of the soil.
Alex Mpaka of Nlumpha Village, T/A Nkumba in Mulanje agrees that Malawi has reached at a stage where farmers need to integrate into a single-farming method several sustainable agriculture practices, such as rainwater harvest to overcome challenges associated with climate change.
He says initially they thought it was the responsibility of government to reverse the effects of climate change which is limiting crop product.
“We are busy engaging ourselves in practices that destroy the environment and yet we are not willing to take the blame and solve the things. As farmer, we have taken it upon ourselves to see to it that we are changing our bad behaviour and start taking the environment as our friend,” Mpaka says.
Thotho Chimbiya, Project Officer for a consortium comprising Cadecom, Ossedi and We- Effect, acknowledges the importance of encouraging behaviour change among communities to reduce their overdependence on natural resources such as trees as their source of income.
To overcome the current alarming rate of environmental degradation, Chimbiya says farmers need to be allowed to start using methods that can maximise crop yields from the small pieces of land which most substance farmers are using now that land has become scarce.
“There is a heavy reliance on trees by most local people because their income base cannot sustain them throughout the year. It is high time farmers diversify their income-generating activities into other avenues such as beekeeping, Village Savings and Loans, which in turn can help reduce the abuse of the environment,” Chimbiya says.
As a general long-term solution, Chimbiya says farmers need to adopt new farming techniques in order to improve their food security and incomes generated from agriculture, which in the end can reduce environmental degradation that is being blamed for silting the Shire River.
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