Cyclone Idai’s warning – Shift to agroecological systems that work with nature or suffer more devastation

The washed away road and the flooding 1

Ranked as one of the worst tropical storms on record to hit Africa, Cyclone Idai made landfall in Beira on Thursday 15 March, before lacerating its way across central Mozambique and then on towards neighbouring Malawi and Zimbabwe.

Heavy rains, flooding and storm damage has resulted in devastation on a vast scale. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced, while the death toll continues to rise. ACB Board Chair, John Wilson, who lives in Zimbabwe, travelled through the lowveld part of Chimanimani, one of the hardest hit districts. Here are his reflections.

The days following the cyclone have been very emotional in this part of the world. The scenes from Mozambique – via news and the personal testimonies coming through – are horrific. I heard from a person who had to stay in a village for three days, before being able to move on, that people were falling into the water and had to contend with crocodiles, in addition to everything else. This was far upstream of where the media crews have been.

It will be weeks before the water drains, creating a breeding ground for mosquitoes and diseases. It’s too awful for words. The high rainfall areas were worst hit – around 700mm to 800mm came down in 48 hours – from the rough estimates I’ve been hearing.

Closer to home, the district I know best in Zimbabwe, where I once lived and still work – my son was born in a rural clinic there nearly 34 years ago – was very badly struck. You will no doubt now know the name Chimanimani from the news. It means ‘the very small way through,’ referring to the narrow gap in this mountain range that links to Mozambique.

Here, in the Rusitu valley, the traumatised village of Ndakopa – known locally as Coppa – has been reduced from 200 households to a mere 60 – the rest of the villagers were washed away and lost their lives on the night of Friday, 15th March.

On the following Tuesday, I drove through the lower part of Chimanimani to get a sense of the devastation, until I could go no further because the main road was washed away.

     


Photo Credit: John Wilson – The washed away main road in Chimanimani

At that stage none of the roads going through were passable. Chimanimani is topographically very hilly, encompassing ecological regions from one to five – from high altitude and high rainfall to lower altitude and lower rainfall regions – the only district in Zimbabwe where this is the case. And Chimanimani is the only district to have developed a climate change strategy, a joint effort of many stakeholders.

The near future must be concerned with dealing with the tragedies and needs of now. But thinking ahead, I’m hoping that we can find some kind of silver lining in the middle to longer term, through mobilising for a district-wide agroecology implementation plan, with a very strong emphasis on watershed management.

There will be more cyclones and even more damage if we don’t scale up the good work being done by small local organisations, working with very limited resources.

We need to stop fiddling and take much wider action. The people of Chimanimani have tragically experienced the destructive power of water above the ground, whereas water in the ground is productive and a blessing.

With support, there could be mobilisation to carry out widespread watershed planning and implementation to get that water into the ground, in the future. In parts of Australia, where housing has been developed to withstand cyclones, people welcome cyclones for the water they bring. This may be an unusual view but it’s true that cyclones do bring a lot of water. And anyway, they are coming all the more as climate change intensifies.

Two days after the cyclone hit, I was based just below the Bvumba Mountains, which are a little north of Chimanimani. Since these mountains are still largely forested, though there were the odd small landslides, with trees falling etc. it was not severe, from what I could see and what I heard. The best indicator of minimal damage were the streams I saw running with clean water off the mountains.

     
Photo Credit: John Wilson - Clear streams running off the Bvumba Mountains

While we have to keep fighting hard for climate justice and the reduction of fossil fuel emissions, we can’t sit back and wait for that to happen. Chimanimani could become an example in Zimbabwe, and to the world, in terms of a wide-scale transition to agroecology.

Agroecology is about developing integrated water management plans that understand the linkages between agriculture and ecology (agroecology).

While the industrial mindset may be very good at developing various technologies, this mindset cannot implement this kind of watershed plan.

This mindset is not able to develop landscapes of diversity and multiple use, founded on an understanding of the way water flows in all its intricacies – the way Zimbabwean master water harvester Zephaniah Phiri understood. Those who go to college are supposed to be learned but they learn little if anything about using land in harmony with Nature.

In Zimbabwe, much of that started with the arrival of the Missionary Alvord and his big push for the use of the mouldboard plough – in the 1950s you couldn’t be a ‘master’ farmer if you had a single tree in your cropping area – a practice the new Zimbabwean government continued in the 1980s.

And many smallholder farmers who do understand this have unfortunately been seduced into this industrial mode of farming, with its bare soil, lack of diversity and monocropping, no sense of land-use design, little earth care ethic, and so on.

I’ve been reading about some pioneering regenerative farmers in Australia who, over the last 30 years, have done some remarkable things to recover land in pockets of that country. They didn’t wait for the kind of ‘evidence’ that is being called for to start doing what they did. They changed their mindset because the industrial farming practice was not working and they realised that they had to understand Nature and work with Nature. They had to be humble and keep learning how to do this. They are still learning while they run successful, viable operations. They have replaced a simplified, reductionist approach with a growing understanding of complexity. They have also weaned themselves off buying the products from industry, which were putting them into debt while making industry rich.

A well-known case study closer to home is the Western Kenyan farmer Julius Esteve, who started with water harvesting to get every possible drop into the ground, through a variety of water sinking strategies. This fed the fish ponds at the bottom of his land, which brought good income fairly early in the transformation process. Then he started mixed planting based on his understanding of the way ecosystem processes (Nature) work.

Last week I also visited the Chiezas, an elderly couple living close to a bridge that is next to a road that was eaten right away. Understanding the principles of water-harvesting they had started at the highest point and dug a big ditch on contour to catch all the water from the over-grazed area above them. Then, lower down, they had a series of smaller, interlinked ditches, which meant their system held fine.

     
Photo Credit: John Wilson - The Chieza’s contour swales were dug by the couple

Nearby, the water harvesting ponds and small dams, and interlinked spillways and dead-level contours, of the organisation PORET’s newly established training centre , withstood the rain and the run-off from above. Both these places had around 220mm in rainfall over two days, which, while not as high as other areas, was still significant.

Agroecology is about bringing everything together in an integrated way. This includes planned grazing, which is critical to maintain ground cover and thus water in the ground – and for which industrial agriculture has few suggestions or plans.

The industrial world, which has made such a mess of land use, with its mechanistic approach and lack of understanding of Nature, keeps throwing, ‘we need evidence’ at us.

     
Photo Credit: John Wilson - PORET’s dams, small ponds and swillways/ swales sink lots of water

Are we going to keep scrambling for more evidence – often on their reductionist terms? Or, are we going to say, enough is enough, and start moving agriculture forward in an ecological way, which is what agroecology is all about, working with Nature. 

Images of what the next cyclone will be like in Chimanimani District, if serious widespread action is not taken, keep popping into my mind.

 

John Wilson was born and raised in Zimbabwe and lives there today. He is an agroecology stalwart and works to strengthen local civil society at various levels in this field in eastern and southern Africa, and sometimes in West Africa. John is currently the Chair of the ACB’s Board.