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Farming on Mulanje Mountain slopes: The land that no longer gives

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SAKWATA—I tried tea after noticing that the land was getting barren for maize

By Foster Benjamin:

On the slopes of Mulanje Mountain, near Makaula Village, lies a vast tract of land. They call it Gagadila.

On it, Elina Thunga works hard, sweating. As she tills, ridges of frustration line her face.

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Visibly, Thunga, 68, cuts out a dejected figure.

“Gagadila is no longer a good land,” she says, turning over brown, infertile soils beneath her feet.

“I’m not getting enough food from it,” she says.

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She narrates further, equally frustrated: “These days I just get five or six bags of maize only. Even if I cultivate cassava, it’s just a bag or two. Talk of nandolo [pigeon peas], it’s also a disaster. Is that life?”

All this wretchedness make her look back with fond memories.

“Life was good in the first years. Indeed, hopes were high. I could realize bumper yields during that time,” she recalls, referring to a time between 2001 and 2003.

At that time, people of Makaula, including Thunga and her husband, Lewis, went into war. They battled Lauderdale Tea Estate’s security guards over Gagadila—the then idle estate land the villagers claimed to be theirs. The battle had left Thunga’s husband dead—and herself injured.

And, still, she’s torn between grief over her man’s death and despair about her diminishing harvests.

“Every day is a struggle for survival, I tell you,” she laments, “I don’t know how I can turn things around, particularly in my farming.

“Actually, I don’t have money to boost it. I can’t even afford fertiliser as you pretty know it’s astonishingly too high. Where can I get K40, 000?”

In the eyes of Thunga, the Gagadila dream of a good harvest is unrealistic.

“I feel the dream isn’t yet achieved. Of course we’re still happy that we own this land; the land which was once a potential breadbasket. But now, Gagadila, our land, is not good. I think the land is just tired.”

She has a point. However, it is not only Gagadila which is a tipping point. Many other mountain areas are facing stark realities: losing their top soils.

Globally, it is said, 45 percent of the world’s mountain areas is not, or only marginally, suitable for growing crops and raising livestock, according to United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

It further says that land degradation in Sub-Saharan Africa is believed to be expanding at an alarming rate.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. The Gagadila situation has thrown other farmers, like Andreya Kandodo, into thinking big. They have moved away from subsistence farming to market-oriented agriculture to become food secure.

Kandodo, better known as Man, made a switch from maize and pigeon peas to tea and pineapple.

“When I realized that Gagadila had turned barren, I thought hard and looked into the future. Finally, I settled for smallholder tea production. I also diversified into pineapple farming. It worked well for me. Now, I’m food secure. In fact, I sell my leaf to one of the tea companies and I’m happy that things have changed,” says Kandodo, who once relocated to Machinga back in 2007 under World-Bank sponsored Kuzigulira Malo Programme.

He has since urged fellow mountain farmers to go commercial to sustain their livelihoods.

“Clearly, Gagadila is unable to grow food; this is undeniable fact. So, it’s high time farmers explored other crops such as tea or pineapples. This steepy land can absorb tea well despite its vanishing resources. Tea does well in high altitudes,” he points out, while tending to his tea field ringed with pineapples.

But growing tea requires enormous effort, reveals Dafter Sakwata, a Gagadila tea farmer.

Sakwata, who led the village warriors in 2003 Mulanje Land War, describes tea cultivation as “a mountain too high to climb.” According to him, the cost— in both time and money—of growing tea is huge.

“First, you purchase tea seedlings: K80 per plant. Then, you go on a consistent schedule; from planting to chemical application; from irrigation to mulching. You take a couple of years to start reaping off, unlike maize which is just a year,” he observes.

But, again, tea—Malawi’s second gold leaf—is not doing well due to changing weather pattern, according to Sakwata, who owns dozens of acreage.

“I heard it’s climate change that is choking us. It, really, hasn’t spared the tea sector. I think it might be true because these days we’re not seeing enough rainfall. This is October and there’s no any sign of rain yet. We used to receive patches of rain on Mulanje Mountain either early or mid-October. Unfortunately, rainfall has declined significantly,” he laments.

Soil experts argue that studying the potential productivity of the soils remains a key to boost farm outputs. According to Professor Patson Nalivata, soil chemist and head of Crops and Soil Sciences at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar), it is imperative for farmers like those on slopes of Mulanje Mountain to restore soil fertility through improved and sustainable land management techniques.

“Farmers should adopt measures and exploit variations in soils, climate and water availability to increase their yields. In the case of Mulanje farmers, they should introduce terraces on their sloping farmlands.

“In addition, they need to plant vetiver grass since it is good, as it controls soil erosion by less than 10 percent. Above all, they should also embark on climate smart agriculture which is proving to be effective in fighting climate change,” Nalivata told Malawi News.

This, however, remains a distant hope in the absence of extension workers on the hillside and surrounding areas. In the meantime, farmers like Thunga continue to struggle on the fringes of Mulanje Mountain, particularly in the wake of vanishing soils.

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