IN Concession, some 55 kilometres from Harare, Hazvinei Mangwena, a subsistence farmer, looks at what remains of her crop in a field perched on a hillside.

Downhill, in what used to be part of her field, a sprawling settlement has emerged and is engulfing more fields, pressuring subsistence farmers to look for other pieces of land suitable for cultivation.

Swathes of land have been cleared from a host of nearby hills as farmers are slowly pegging more farmland.

“At least no-one can disturb me, telling me that I am cultivating on their residential stand. It’s peaceful,” she says.

Farmers are now cultivating on hilly land in response to a raging conflict between agriculture and urbanisation, which is projected to worsen food insecurity.

Zimbabwe is grappling with effects of the El Niño-induced drought, which has seen more than 2.7 million vulnerable to starvation.

‘Mountain fields’ — named after their location, because they are perched on hills, have gained popularity in Mazowe, Concession and other parts of the country, with residential areas and mining rapidly taking over arable land, sparking tensions.

For Mangwena, this new form of cultivation has come with new challenges. For instance, her yield has dwindled, a trend that she says is likely to be worsened by the El Niño-induced drought.

Her once lush-green maize crop, now brown due to the relentless sun, now faces further damage due to the approaching winter.

“I formerly used to yield about two tonnes, but now I am producing less than half a tonne to sustain me and my extended family throughout the year. The fields are inaccessible, we use hoes and axes to clear the land as tractors and cows fail to reach the fields even if we afforded them,” she says.

“We are now injecting far more fertilisers on our crops as compared to our former fields and hardly produce half of the normal yield, we would roll our crop downhill and manually collect our harvest at the bottom.”

Transporting the harvest from the hills is difficult.

“Many people think we roll sacks full of maize downhill, but it is not always the case. We have to lift then downhill, dodging large boulders. These boulders can easily tear sacks, causing loss of the maize if rolled all the way to the bottom,” she says.

Another farmer from Concession, Locadia Danger, says crops on hilly land are more susceptible to erratic rainfall than plants on flat fields.

She has been forced to cultivate only one type of crop, maize, as conditions have it is difficult to rotate other crops due to the unforgiving terrain.

“If we receive low rainfall, the crops will die. If we receive normal rainfall, the water will flow downhill and the crops will still die and if we receive high rainfall, our crops will be destroyed as the roots will be holding onto a small layer of top soil which can be easily washed away,” she said.

Another farmer, Earnmore Sikweya, has a patch of farmland on a hill close to her home. She says farming has become more difficult and strenuous than it used to be.

“There are no advantages associated with mountain cultivation. Climbing the mountain is tough, the ground is pebbly, we are limited to cultivating maize only as other crops such as beans, soyabeans and groundnuts are consumed by wild animals and insects before budding,” she says.

“We cannot wait until our crops dry, we will have to reap earlier than usual as we will be conflicting with mice, monkeys, birds and other wild animals.”

Research shows that mountain farming is less productive.

According to a 2017 paper by the United States’ National Library of Medicine, tens of millions of smallholder mountain farmers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America who earn US$1–2 per day do not have access to peer-reviewed knowledge of best agronomic practices, though they have considerable traditional ecological knowledge.

Terrace farmers also lack access to affordable farm tools and inputs required to increase crop yields.

A digital solutions think-tank, Source Trace Systems, in its research titled An Uphill Task: Producing Food in the Mountains, says weather and soil conditions heavily impact mountain farming, cutting yield by at least 40% compared to farming on plains.

“The gradient and the undulations in the terrain make it difficult to use conventional agricultural machinery. But despite mountain farming being so much more laborious and far less productive, for the communities that inhabit the mountains, agriculture has always been central to life,” it says.

“Even so, there is no clear-cut definition yet of highland or mountain farming. It is generally understood that farming at an altitude of 200m to 7 500m above mean sea level is mountain farming.”

Smallholder farmers say the problem is worsening in rural areas. For instance, farmers under the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers’ Forum (Zimsoff) say mining has factor contributing to the displacement of farmers in areas like Mutoko.

“Displacement of smallholder farmers in rural communities has become very common due to ‘development’ such as growth of townships as councils are generating revenues by selling residential stands,” said Ngoni Chikowe, an agricultural technical officer at Zimsoff in Mutoko.

“Also, mining is favouring the Chinese foreigners, which is resulting in displacements. Policies to do with land tenure need to be scrutinised in a way, such as as offering title deeds, to protect rural smallholder farming communities.

“Mining companies should be fined when they do not follow laws of the land. Individuals also must be fined for doing injustice to environment. I suggest that there be environment committees in villages to be watchdogs and be reporting such issues.”

Climate change expert Lawrence Mashungu says there is a need to ensure that legislation governing mining and urbanisation is synchronised with the constitution.

“I think it’s a constitutional issue, especially considering that the Mining Act takes precedence over everything else. That is the question we may want to ask ourselves. A person with a mining claim is prioritised over any person carrying out other activities,” Mashungu told The NewsHawks.

“So the other question is: How are we taking the right to life over everything else? There is also need to have some regions categorised into special farming zones, especially those which are prone to effects of climate change.”

For Mangwena, the land lost can never be replaced.

“This is the only option left. Whenever I need another piece of land, I will simply clear another piece of land in the hills,” she says.  — NewsHawks

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