Back to our mountains
How the indigenous communities recovered their land in the Highlands after independence, and organized themselves to manage their land in a sustainable way, recovered ancestral techniques and developed a local economy in Zimbabwe.
Laura ARNALTE, October 2006
A difficult land issue in the post-independence of Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe is a landlocked country in Southern Africa, with a population of almost 13 million people, 70% of which live below the poverty line. Its recent history has been strongly influenced by a colonial period which lead to great inequalities in terms of wealth and land distribution. White settlers, supported by the colonial government, took property of large areas of fertile land, forcing local people to move to marginal lands. The Independence War also called the Second Chimurenga, from 1971 to 1979, led to the country’s Independence in 1980. Since then, the Zimbabwean government has taken several approaches to the land issue. The first resettlement schemes were for war veterans and occurred on land abandoned by white settlers after the war. The land reform process has continued, culminating in the controversial land reform implemented in 2000, which has driven the country to an economic and social crisis.
The case of the Chimanimani Mountains, in the Eastern Highlands of the country, and specifically the Nyahode Union Learning Centre, is an example of a resettlement scheme carried out just after Independence, and the evolution of this organization since then, to give response to the different constraints faced by the local communities throughout time.
Shylet Muchayi works as a trainer on sustainable agriculture and permaculture, within the permaculture training activities that the Learning Centre carries out with smallholders as part of the approach to develop local sustainable economies in this mountain area.
Return to the land and territory
During the colonial period, most of the fertile well watered areas of the Chimanimani Highlands were acquired by the white settlers, forcing the local people to move from their traditional land to less fertile dry land, which often was already crowded, dispossessing them of their main livelihoods and their dignity.
In the early 1980s, after the country’s Independence, former farm workers, demobilized guerrilla soldiers and people whose families had originally been evicted from the Nyahode Valley, at Chimanimani Foothills, began to move back. This valley had become a “liberated zone” during the war, given that the white settlers had either left or died, leaving behind their commercial farms. In 1985 the Government declared the “Nyahode Valley Resettlement Scheme”.
Building up a mountain economy
Before Independence, traditional agriculture by the indigenous mountain people (“mountain agriculture”) had been confined to the Chikukwa Communal Area, a small area of land where the Chikukwa people had been concentrated after displacement, and by the people of the Rusitu Valley, which was too remote for the colonial settlers. In these areas they managed to keep alive a remnant of their traditional peasant mode of production, although very overcrowded and ecologically stressed.
Mountain agriculture in this area is characterised by the difficulties to work land in an ecologically sensitive environment. But, at the same time, the rain-fed land offers potentially productive agro ecological conditions in terms of water availability, fertile alluvial soils and indigenous forest.
The main priorities of the people that moved back into the valley were to re-establish their traditional small scale mountain agriculture systems and to receive the education and training to do so. To achieve this, nine “Collective Co-operatives” were created in the valley, taking over infrastructure from the former commercial farms, refurbishing mills and grazing lands, ploughing fields, establishing tree nurseries, orchards and piggeries. The aim was to re-build a strong local economy based around mountain agriculture. The co-operatives were registered and formed the Nyahode District Union.
Education, an essential tool for development
Alongside the need to organize themselves for production and economic activity, the re-settled communities needed education services, on adult literacy, agriculture and co-operative management. For that purpose, Nyahode Union Learning Centre (NULC) was created in 1985, as a community based organization (CBO). Today this Centre has evolved into a Community Technical College and Secondary School which focus on technical subjects such as agriculture, mechanics, clothing technology, building and carpentry.
From 1990, NULC’s involvement in “mountain agriculture” adopted permaculture as a methodology, as it enables smallholder farmers, especially in mountainous areas where land is limited and terrain irregular, to design their available area with some precision. Permaculture is the practice of integrating and connecting indigenous resources with available appropriate technology in diverse and productive systems which mimic natural ecological processes. The approach enables farmers to maximize productivity with respect to local ecologies, using participatory training techniques to embed knowledge into the communities. This approach is well accepted by indigenous Zimbabweans, as it reaffirms many traditional land and animal care practices.
Following this methodology, NULC facilitated the creation of Permaculture Clubs amongst farmers and co-operative members in the valley. These clubs evolved into the first farmers association organized around sustainable agriculture, which is called “Ruzivo Smallholder Farmers Association” (RSFA), and the Centre provides technical and management advice to it.
Engaging farmers into food processing and recovery of the traditional food biodiversity
NULC, provides technical assistance and services to the association, and continually develops new projects to respond to the problems farmers encounter as they continue to pursue their goals in the valley.
Recently, they started providing training and facilities for food processing. Farmers were finding difficult to sell their surplus fresh products locally and had to rely on intermediaries that came to the area to buy the products at very low prices, as poor road infrastructure has lead to high transport costs, limited market access and poor market knowledge. Now, with processing facilities and skills in place, farmers are able to process their diverse produce into jams, marmalades, peanut butter, syrups, cakes, dried fruits, etc. This project has lifted many farmers from poverty to subsistence, as it provides them with some extra food and income, which often makes the difference between being able to send the children to school or not, or being able to buy clothing.
Another example of new initiatives is the Seed Saver Network, focused on traditional food biodiversity, which came just on time when many species were about to be lost. They had been preserved by old people, Chiefs and Spirit Mediums, and families, who even took some species when they were forced to move away from their land, and kept propagating them throughout time. The Network organizes annual Seed Fairs, where farmers exhibit their species, and the diversity they have managed to achieve, competing for the prize for the best farmer. They have learnt how to select and store their own seeds, assisted by the service providers (NULC) and following ancestral traditions of selection, cleaning and storage. The success of this initiative is reflected in the increase of number of different species exhibited at the Fair every year, from 12 in 1998, to 160 in 2006. This has resulted in a widening of the nutritional base of the community, as staple crops different to maize are introduced (cassava and yams), and different vegetables, fruits, nuts and fungi come back into the culture. It also benefits the productivity of gardens, as crop rotations become more effective, all this to the benefit of the local mountain agriculture.
Building a strong voice for smallholder farmers
Smallholder farmers need to be empowered and recognised by the government. Their voices, culture and way of life need to be heard and valued. The Ruzivo Smallholder Farmers Association, from Nyahode Valley, is a founder member of the East and Southern Africa Smallholder Farmer Federation (ESAFF) in Zimbabwe. As such, they are being recognised and are gaining a voice at local, regional, national and international level.
At regional level, smallholders in the Chimanimani Highlands are starting to claim for their traditional territories, which are occupied by Parastatal timber companies, with the support of service providers like NULC, who gives them with legal advice. Land in the area continues being a controversial issue at the moment, as people in the mountain are only allocated 2.5 hectares, which is not enough for big families. At international level, ESAFF Zimbabwe has been accepted as the emerging La Via Campesina Chapter in Zimbabwe, so it will allow smallholder farmers to take their voice to international forums.
Interview to Shylet MUCHAYI, Trainer on sustainable agriculture and permaculture in the Nyahode Union Learning Centre (NULC), member of Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Zimbabwe
Address: Nyahode Union Learning Centre, PO Box 9, Chimanimani, Manicaland Province, ZIMBABWE - Phone: (+263) 2622451.
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