MWAZIPEZA CHANDA, Lusaka
TRADITIONAL knowledge can help turn the tide against deforestation and poverty in Chongwe as more farmers become environmentally conscious and turn to â€˜green farmingâ€™.
Most communities in Chongweâ€™s farming area are experiencing low crop yields due to decreased soil fertility and unpredictable rain patterns over the years.
Rampant tree cutting has caused deforestation that has also seen dams and streams dry up, but farmers are now being advised to turn to their ancestors to once again see their crops thrive and their homesteads flourish.
Through the Green Entrepreneurship project, an international non-governmental organisation, HIVOS, has established a training and empowerment programme to assist farmers undertake a more sustainable and environmentally friendly approach to farming.
â€œWe want to move farmers from worrying about their crops to using tested and proven technologies that will assure them of an income,â€ HIVOS project manager Wesley Wakungâ€™uma says.
The initiative is being undertaken in partnership with Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre, the Dairy Association of Zambia and Micro Bankers Trust.
Mr Wakungâ€™uma says that through the Chongwe Green Society initiative, it is hoped that more farmers will take up sustainable farming to improve their productivity and incomes.
The main idea behind the scheme is to encourage farmers using their available resources and proven practices to ensure better harvests while protecting their environment and ensuring the well-being of future generations.
Most farmers in Zambia concentrate on mono-cropping, usually of maize, but poor yields and delayed payments have forced many rural Chongwe inhabitants to turn to charcoal burning and trading to make ends meet.
This has left a trail of destruction as erosion and desertification is taking hold leading to a perpetual cycle of poverty and environmental degradation.
According to a 2010 report by the government and the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD), the main drivers of deforestation in Zambia have been identified as charcoal and wood fuel production, logging for timber, expansion of small-scale agriculture and unsustainable agricultural practices.
Chongwe district agricultural Co-ordinator (DACO) Charles Simulunda says the town has now taken up the unfortunate mantle of being the â€˜charcoal capitalâ€™.
During a recent open day conducted at Chongwe market, partners in the Green Entrepreneurship project showcased various initiatives and benefits of green farming.
Mr Simulanda, in his remarks, said the collaboration between the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock and the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre has seen nine agricultural camps take up conservation farming which will see them less dependent on chemical fertiliser and pesticides.
He says a green approach to farming can also help farmers access the market for organic products, which would see their incomes go up.
He cited that the growing middle class and proximity to Lusaka meant that farmers could supply organically grown crops and animals to a guaranteed and available market.
The Green Entrepreneurship scheme, through the Chongwe Green Society project, was initiated in 2013 and is currently being implemented in Kasenga, Kanakantapa, Mpango, Njolwe and Chinkuli areas of Chongwe district.
Through co-ordination with the ministry and partner organisations, sensitisation was undertaken in various farming communities and 183 farmers received training upon which they became eligible for loans.
The project is aimed at promoting the integration of dairy farming, clean energy (biogas and solar), sustainable farming, agro-forestry, agro processing and provision of microfinance.
So far, the majority of loan recipients have opted to go into dairy farming, probably bearing testimony to the falling attraction of growing maize.
The trainings and field visits under the scheme are aimed at encouraging farmers to practice alternative and effective forms of farming.
Grassroots Trust executive director Rolf Shenton, who is an advocate for green farming, says a lot of knowledge from traditional practices can be applied to retain soil fertility and improve water retention.
â€œWhen you cut a tree, the root still has life and it throws out shoots, if you prune them you get new trees growing that help retain water and improve soil fertility.â€
In the past, the practice of chitemene (slash and burn) saw farmers burn chopped tree shoots to provide ash and nutrients to the soil ahead of planting.
Traditionally, farmers in the north rotated their crops in different fields while also practising mixed farming. The crop of choice was cassava interspersed with beans, pumpkins and other domestic crops.
The ash from the burning of wood contains potash, potassium, nitrogen and calcium in greater quantities that are found in commercial fertiliser stock.
However, the mistake that has been made over the years is not allowing woodlands to recover.
Mr Shenton cited Nigerâ€™s successful reforestation scheme as an example of how agroforestry and green farming can help improve farmersâ€™ yields as well as improve soil cover and water retention.
Following a bad drought in Niger in 1984, farmers who still had trees standing found that their harvests increased. The trees provided shelter to the fields, preventing the top soil from drying up and blowing away. When others saw this, they began to protect seedlings on their own land.
Farming groups in the desert-prone North African nation have been practising farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), where wild trees in and around fields are not cleared, but coppiced instead. Encouraging these naturally occurring trees helps to bring nitrogen and humus (from fallen leaves) into the ground and stop erosion of topsoil by the wind. Birds, reptiles and amphibians find a home in the trees and act as predators of insects which eat the crops.
Some farmers in Niger also plant trees alongside their crops and because the trees are natives of dry conditions, they do not compete for water and instead also help to fertilise the soil.
Mr Shenton said initiatives such as the Chongwe Green Society provide an opportunity for more farmers to find sustainable ways of making money from farming as well as restoring old traditional practices in a more positive manner.
Chongwe district commissioner Kebby Kashinamilunda says deforestation has hit Chongwe hard and innovations such as the one introduced by HIVOS are inspiring.
â€œI was born here, I grew up here and what we see now can make you cry â€¦ we need to get communities to protect their land.â€
Mr Kashinamilunda said Government is committed to supporting development schemes that are sustainable and promote diversification amongst farmers.
He said that with the negative evidence of deforestation, green farming and shared learning could once more return Chongwe to its former glory.
He urged farmers under the loan scheme to take the trainings seriously and equally commit to repaying their loans to ensure more people benefit from the HIVOS project.
The Green Entrepreneurship project may just hold the key to a greener Zambia and more money in the pockets of farmers.
MWAZIPEZA CHANDA, Lusaka