JACK ZIMBA, Petauke
â€œMANY years ago, by this time our maize would have been this tall,â€ said Boxan Nyendwa of Chief Nyamphandeâ€™s area in Petauke district, Eastern Province, as he gestured with his hand to the level of his knees.
A lot has changed in this land and the 79-year-old, who has lived in the area all his life, has been a witness to that change.
When Mr Nyendwa was a young man, this land had many trees and was flowing with rivers and streams with a predictable rainfall pattern. The first rains usually fell in October, and by mid-November, the farmers would be weeding their fields.
But the land has now been stripped bare of trees and many streams flow only seasonally. And the first rains in the district this year did not come until November 16.
â€œThe streams here during the time of our forefathers were surrounded by trees, and they never used to dry up, but now those trees are gone, and the streams only flow for a few months. Our forests are now destroyed,â€ said Alice Mwanza, a young mother of Ndombi village.
And as water becomes more scarce in the district, farmers have to trek many kilometres to give drink to their animals, while others share the little water drawn from drying boreholes.
At these water points, both cattle and people clamour for a drink.
â€œPreviously our animals used to drink water from rivers and streams, but now they drink from boreholes,â€ said Mr Nyendwa.
Farmers are also losing farmlands and grazing lands for their cattle.
The villagers, who previously were skeptical about climate change, have now awakened to the reality of the phenomenon. Many of them now talk about Ku sintha kwa nyengo in the local dialect, Nsenga. Directly translated, it means â€œchanging of timeâ€.
Drive further east to neighbouring Katete district, and the picture is much less the same. Here, too, the land has suffered the devastating effects of deforestation.
In many parts of the district, the most prominent tree species is the mango tree.
In Mtukuzi, on the border with Mozambique in Katete, some villagers are now said to be opening fields across the border because the land on the Zambian side has been degraded to the point of being infertile.
Most of the trees are felled to drive the devastating charcoal trade, while land clearing for farm use is also a major contributor.
In Petauke, in particular, the breweries have also been identified as contributors to deforestation. There are currently four breweries in Petauke, all of which use firewood.
But no area in this entire region presents a sadder picture of environmental degradation than Kagoro in Katete.
Kagoro offers a frightening prospect of what can happen if nothing is done to prevent environmental and land degradation.
Here, deforestation has caused large-scale soil erosion, with gullies the size of streams.
The area has now become a case study for researchers, who warn that left unattended to, Kagoro will turn into a desert in future.
Hopefully that will not happen.
There is now more information available to the villagers about environmental degradation and climate change, thanks to organisations such as the Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf).
The organisation is currently involved in a project aimed at protecting the environment in the two districts.
â€œWe are trying to empower communities to be the ones to take the leading role in trying to address the environmental challenges that they have been facing in the communities,â€ says Nervious Siantombo, who is Panos communications manager.
Mr Siantombo said Panos chose the two districts because of the massive deforestation that has taken place there.
The organisation distributed 20 bicycles and as many radios in the two districts.
â€œAs Panos,Â a communication for development organisation, we view radio as a formidable tool that we can use to empower communities to participate in whatever processes of governance that concern them,â€ he says.
Previously, the organisation distributed battery-powered radios, but these proved impractical as villagers could not easily replace the batteries once they were used up.
Panos also distributed recorders for the villagers to record their own programmes, which can then be aired by the local radio stations.
The organisation works with local radio stations in the project.
The environmental project, dubbed â€˜Deepening Community- Based Resource Managementâ€™ works on the principle Listen, Discuss, Act.
Patrick Daka is the station manager for Breeze FM in Petauke and also coordinates the project in the district.
He says the response from the public is â€œquite positiveâ€.
Mr Daka said radio helps to disseminate information on new methods of farming, especially that extension workers are usually not enough to cover the district.
â€œThe radio clubs are the best way to disseminate information,â€ he said.
Petauke district has over 300 radio farm forums.
In Katete, the organisation is working with Mphangwe Radio.
Mr Daka wants more village headmen to get involved in programmes aimed at sensitising villagers about issues of climate change.
He said there is need for more radios to cater for more clubs in the district.
â€œThis is an old problem, but we were helpless, we did not know how to overcome this problem. But now we are happy that these people from Panos have come to educate us on how to take care of our environment,â€ said Kaluopa Zulu of Munkonthi village in Petauke.
Apart from sensitising villagers in the two districts about climate change, Panos is also promoting conservation farming, as well as tree planting.
â€œWe need to grow trees for our children and grandchildren,â€ said old Mr Nyendwa with a contemplative look.
Perhaps the villagers can learn a great lesson about conserving trees from their forefathers, even in their death.
For in this region, the dead have proved to be better guardians of the forests. Wherever there is undisturbed forest with old-growth trees, look carefully and you will see gravestones. It is taboo to venture into the graveyards and cut a tree, so the trees there are well preserved.
JACK ZIMBA, Petauke