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SWAZILAND: Greatest Threat to Reform Is a Short Memory

James Hall

MBABANE, Jan 30 2008 (IPS) - Did Swaziland learn nothing from last year’s devastating drought? Some relief agencies and agricultural officials are shaking their heads in dismay that 2007’s devastating crop failures did not spark reform in the way land is utilised in this small country of less than one million people.

"There was hardship from last year’s drought, but also an opportunity. I fear we have lost the will to seize that opportunity because now the drought appears to be over," said Nathan Dlamini, an agriculture ministry field officer in the central Manzini region.

Eighty percent of crops withered and died in the fields of some regions, and all four provinces experienced drought-related crop failures last year. Rains ceased in Dec. 2006, and only resumed sporadically after the key stage of the maize plant’s development had passed. Maize is the nation’s staple food – grown by four out of five Swazis.

"At the crucial time in the maize plant’s development, there was no nourishing water, because few of the farmers have irrigation," Ben Nsibandze, chairman of the National Disaster Management Council, told IPS. "There had never been such a widespread lack of rainfall in our modern history," said Nsibandze, whose office gauges the number of people affected by emergencies and provides data to local and international relief organisations.

This year, rains have returned, and are steadily moistening fields and gradually replenishing depleted lakes and reservoirs.

"No one is talking about water rationing any more," said Dlamini. "Because of the electricity crisis everyone’s attention has turned to power shortages. We are lurching from crisis to crisis without doing anything to fix fundamental issues," he said.

The effects of the great drought of 2007 still linger. Forty percent of the population is dependant on some form of food assistance to survive – from school children whose only complete meal each day is eaten at school and provided by the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to food-short families who receive monthly packages of maize meal, soy blend, and cooking oil from the World Food Programme (WFP).

At the beginning of the planting season – September though November – subsistence farmers were reluctant to commit their seeds to soil, fearful of a repeat of last year’s drought. Lack of rainfall had persisted in areas like the eastern Lubombo region for 15 years. Another reason was welfare dependence – traditional leaders and others are decrying some farmers’ apathy to grow crops because they knew they would be fed by the WFP.

Late January finds the fields green again with two-metre high maize stalks – – their brilliant translucent green leaves shading budding cobs that signal plentiful harvests come May.

"Everything is back to normal – nothing is being done to protect us against the next drought, even though there was a big Agriculture Summit last year to seek such solutions," Amos Ngwenya, a farming implement dealer in Manzini, told IPS.

"We must find ways to ensure food security for the nation," said Minister of Agriculture Mtiti Fakudze in August when he opening government’s Agriculture Summit in Manzini. Other government officials, relief organisations, commercial farmers, and traditional authorities echoed Fakudze’s sentiment.

Critics in the Swazi media have expressed concern that the summit was another costly "talk shop" that provided a photo-op for politicians, but would result in no concrete action.

This month, Swaziland Livestock Technical Services, an agricultural consultancy firm, expressed dismay that even a long-overdue preliminary report with recommendations is locked up in government.

"One reason farmers continue to grow maize is they find no market for other crops. Maize can be stored and eaten by the farmer’s family later, but not vegetables, eggs or milk, which government has encouraged farmers to diversify into," said Ngwenya. "There was a lot of talk at the agriculture summit about establishing markets for local production and cut down dependency on imports from South Africa, but that is all it was, talk."

Abdoulaye Balde, country representative to Swaziland for the WFP, told IPS, "There are places where they should not grow maize. Other crops would do better. But it is hard to break the cycle of growing the same crops."

Over the years, Swazi farmers have remained conservative, but not resistant to opportunities. Cotton was grown as a drought-tolerant crop in the late 1980s, but failed to take off for lack of a distribution system for the raw cotton fibre. In the 1990s, farmers rode a boom in sugar cane prices and sugar became Swaziland’s top export – earning the nickname "the real Swazi gold."

Many farmers followed government’s suggestion to form cooperatives and pool their land resources for sugar cane cultivation. The relevant ministry even changed its name to the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. But a drop in sugar prices dampened profits, prompting grumbling that "you can’t survive on sugar cane."

While government concentrated its poverty alleviation efforts on foreign direct investment in urban projects like manufacturing, no dent has been made in U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) data showing two out of three Swazis live in absolute poverty.

On small farms agricultural production remained identical in the 21st century as when the nomadic Swazis settled down to cultivate fields in the mid- 1800s.

The answer may be to acknowledge that the single-family farms may never be economically viable, and should be viewed as mere residences where some family food is grown, weather permitting.

"The fields are too small. Over the years the population has grown and arable land has been divided and subdivided. Even a bumper crop won’t be that profitable because of size – maybe ten surplus bags of maize per household," said Dlamini.

If Swazis cannot achieve food security and end poverty by reforming subsistence family farms, a solution may be found in Agri-Industry, which employs farmers to cultivate fields and pays them wages to support their families.

Two large-scale Agri-Industry schemes were announced late last year, located in the drought-stricken southern and eastern areas of the country. Both involve the cultivation of biofuel crops, which would be distilled into ethanol and other biofuel products within Swaziland. Three thousand people would be employed to grow biofuel fodder and work the distillation plant. The government will provide the land, and no farmers are to be displaced from their ancestral homes. In fact, farmers were invited to grow biofuel crops to sell to the distillery.

"This may be the way to go. Turn subsistence farmers into wage earners so they can support their families, while they remain at their rural farmers," said Dlamini.

The success of the approach will not be seen until next year, when biofuel production is scheduled to begin.

Meanwhile, Swaziland requires agricultural reform now as much as when crops were failing a year ago.

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