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ENVIRONMENT-ZIMBABWE: Farmers Go to War Against Lantana Camara

Phyllis Kachere

HARARE, Jun 12 2009 (IPS) - Armed with picks, axes and hoes, a group of enthusiastic villagers break into song: "Randana kamara wakaipa, Randana kamara wakashata.Watora ufuro hwezvipfuyo, wauraya mombe." ("Lantana camara, you are evil. You have taken over grazing land for our livestock, you have killed our cattle.")

They lash out at their common enemy, lantana camara, an invasive exotic plant, also known as black cherry. The shrub, which can grow more than two metres tall, is threatening to take over their fields and grazing land.

Lantana camara forms a dense and impenetrable thicket that suffocates indigenous vegetation. The plant also smothers trees, impacting on local bio-diversity and reducing the amount of food available to livestock or wildlife. The shrub has heavily lined itself along the Nyahoko river, a branch of the Mazowe River, and alongside other small streams in Shamva district of Mashonaland Central province.

"We have to take action because our very life is under threat. This plant is dangerous. See how it has taken over our grazing land and how it is threatening our sources of water. See the havoc it has created on the Nyahoko banks," lamented Chief Shaw Bushu.

"Since we spotted [lantana camara] here in the late 1980s, we have lost count of the number of cattle that has died after eating its poisonous leaves and branches," he further explained.

To fight the invasive plant that is killing their livestock, villagers have organised themselves into groups that take regular turns to remove the menacing plant.

Schoolchildren, in support of their parents, sing along and pull out small lantana camara shrubs with their hands. In fact, teachers at the local primary school have started educating pupils about the dangers of what they commonly call the "monster plant".

Although official estimates of the size of arable area taken over by the black cherry plant could not be obtained, Chief Bushu said the area now covered by lantana camara was big enough to threaten the livelihoods of members of his community.

"When we first spotted it here in the 1980s, it was only a few shrubs, but now whole parts of grazing land and crop fields have been chewed up. The rivers and streams have not been spared," he explained.

Threatening biodiversity

Introduced to the country from Argentina in the early 1920s, lantana camara was widely used as perimeter hedge to protect vegetable gardens against livestock. But soon, the once favoured hedge encroached onto the very gardens it was meant to protect, while cattle that consumed the evergreen but poisonous leaves died in droves.

"I first used lantana camara to fence off my field from stray cattle and goats in 1991, but little by little, the shrub encroached into my field. The agriculture extension officer told me that I will end up with no field at all. And this field is what my family's livelihood is based on," said Esinath Swiza, a widow whose field has to feed her five children and two orphaned nieces.

Revesai Mhembere, another farmer, says that although only one cow from his herd of eleven died after eating lantana camara last year, other neighbours had lost three or more animals.

"Reports of more than ten cattle deaths per month were common. Now it is down to two or three. I think the cattle have become clever and avoid eating it," Mhembere told IPS.

Killing livestock

Not only is lantana camara killing livestock, it has taken over vast swaths of arable land and is threatening local riverbanks where it grows lavishly. It is even threatening Zimbabwe’s world heritage site, the Victoria Falls.

In a speech to mark International Biological Diversity Day, on May 22, Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Management, Francis Nhema, said lantana camara had not only reduced grazing land around the country but is threatening the rain forest at Victoria Falls.

He explained the Zimbabwean government lacked resources to efficiently fight the plant: "In 2000, the national park [authorities] in Nyanga and Chimanimani estimated their annual budget for control of invasive species to be $3,600, while the timber companies were using up to $100,000 annually to manage invasive alien species on their estates."

In collaboration with seedling and nursery officers of the local forestry authorities as well as Agriculture, Research and Extension Services, Chief Bushu ordered some of his headmen to organise teams of ten that take turns to axe and burn off the dangerous shrubs, while other teams dig up its roots.

Communications officer of Harare-based non-governmental organisation Environment Africa, Deliwe Utete, lauded the vilagers’ initiative, saying lantana camara was destroying entire eco-systems.

"Rural people depend on the land and livestock for their livelihood, and if that is to be destroyed by invasive plants like lantana camara, we have serious trouble. Unfortunately, because of the economic situation Zimbabwe finds itself in, chemicals to fight the plant are not [available]. So the best method for now is to physically remove it," she explained.

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