Traditional ways under threat: African farming know-how is fading


MASSAVASSE, Mozambique – In this typical farming community in southern Mozambique, farmer after farmer speaks of favorite local seed varieties lost to flood and drought, and of family life torn apart by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Experts fear that the loss of farming know-how and traditional seed is putting into jeopardy the very future of the only livelihood most Mozambicans have.
Washed away. “Yes, it’s true. I have lost a lot of seed,” said Antonio Nhabanga, indicating how high the flood waters reached in 2000 by pointing to the top of his house.
“Two rice varieties we had adapted to this area that needed only water to grow well are gone.”
His wife, Berta, adds: “We had a type of bean that was very productive. And we had a yellow maize that we loved very much because it was resistant to drought. All gone.”
Families affected by the epidemic – an estimated 22 percent of people in the district have the AIDS virus – are finding it difficult not only to grow enough food for survival, but also to pass on their farming know-how to their children.
A study undertaken by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations documents this trend: Almost all the interviewees cited parents or other close relatives as the continuing key source of learning on farming and seed.
Knowledge loss about local varieties was already evident: 25, 27 and 33 percent of younger adults interviewed could not name any local variety of groundnuts, pumpkin or cassava respectively, compared to only 12, 10 and 19 percent of elders.
A current U.N. project, LinKS, is a regional effort in southern Africa aimed at raising awareness about how rural men and women use and manage biological diversity.
The project is called LinKS, because it is exploring the linkages between local knowledge systems, gender roles and relationships, food provision, and the conservation and management of agrobiodiversity.
Downward spiral. “When the children are here on school holidays, they go to the field and learn farming by doing, not regular training,” confirms Johana Alfredo Ubisse, 43, a farmer who is ill with HIV/AIDS.
“I can’t vouch for their level of farming knowledge.”
“Since I have been sick I am not personally able to go to the field,” he said. “My wife is doing her best by herself. The difficult part is preparing the fields for planting. Plowing with animals is a man’s job – so she is breaking the ground by hand. Production is going down.”
“We depend on agriculture for all our income so we are having serious problems getting enough to eat,” he adds.
HIV ravages. The HIV/AIDS epidemic shows few signs of abating, according to Luis Maxinho Baloi, traditional leader of Maxinhe, a rural community of 500 households in which 115 orphans were reported to the local health clinic between 2000 and 2003.
“The number of infections is increasing, even in children,” he said, in front of his house in the village founded by his father.
“The main activity here is agriculture. If the family is dying, then the seeds are dying too.”
A widow’s story. Rameca Mungwe, 44, sits on a mat in front of her house in Maxinhe, dressed in black clothes and scarf, in contrast to the vibrant African colors worn by her neighbors.
She is in mourning for her husband, who just died of AIDS.
Her story is a typical one:
“My agriculture is very traditional. I work with a hoe and my basic seeds are maize, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, beans – several types – and some vegetables like tomatoes. I know how to select and keep seeds from previous years.
“Because of the drought, the children were hungry and crying and I had to cook the seeds for them to eat.
“My three children come with me to the field. I need their help and that is how I teach them. Although since I got ill, I go very little to the field. But I still believe strongly that my daughter can be a good farmer some day.”


Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!