Green Conversations with Misheck Mhango –
When did it start? To the best of my recollection, it began creeping up on us small farmers in the 80s but really picked up speed in the 1990s, sweeping through the land and consuming everybody like an uncontrollable, high-wind bush fire in tinder-dry savannah.
By the close of the 1990s, it had so deeply woven itself into our psyche and practice that we had elevated it to the high status of “essential;” we could not do without it any more, it had become an integral part of our definition of farming success.
Let us momentarily step back in time and examine the decades before.
In the 1970s and prior to that, words like fertiliser, hybrid seed, pesticides, herbicides did not exist in our vocabulary.
For us in urban areas, it was common practice to have a field in the bush for rain-fed cultivation and a garden in the back-yard for all-year round vegetable production.
We used to produce the usual suspects – maize, ground nuts, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, cassava, some squashes and a few other crops.
Some, like my late dear mom, even ventured into rice production!
Whereas the ‘traditional’ crops were by default reserved for seasonal cultivation in the bush, in the back yards we were into more exotic crops such as rape, cabbage, Swiss chard, tomato, carrots, Irish potatoes, onion as well as bananas and citrus fruit.
In either case, more particularly for the ‘traditional’ crops, we relied on Mother Nature’s free biomass resources to make our land fertile for farming and always kept seed from our previous crop for replanting.
For the more exotic back-yard garden crops, we would sometimes purchase commercial seed but still directly depended on Mother Nature for the rest, only going as far as enriching the soil with chicken droppings from our back yard poultry projects.
Our rural relatives kept much the same practice, albeit on a larger, more intensive scale as for them this was their sole source of livelihood. Like our forebears before us, they farmed the land in a manner that would enable them to keep going back year after year for bountiful harvest.
Everybody was happy and we enjoyed our agro produce both in its raw form as well as processed such as munkoyo, chikanda and insemwa.
From as far back as the early 1970s, our First Republican President Dr Kenneth Kaunda – insightful and visionary as he always was – had started the back to the land call.
This was in response to rapidly rising urbanisation, which was becoming an increasing worry. Indeed, by default, once people retired from the mines and other economic sectors where they were formally employed in, they would go back to the land and continue the environmentally friendly age-old farming practices of our ancestors.
However, as we drifted into the 1980s, we began seeing some profound demographic changes.
Back in the villages, ancestral land was under pressure to accommodate all urban returnees. Inevitably, new retirees had to find alternative landing places.
In response government began opening up small holder farming blocks.
At the same time, the urban population was rapidly rising, touching off an increased demand for food.
Government deployed extension services.
The intentions were, and have always been, good: to find better, more efficient ways of farming for increased output and higher economic returns.
Nevertheless, the bushfire had been set alight.
In coming issues, we shall look a little more closely at this, examine its pros and cons and, more importantly, suggest ways in which it can be a force for a better agricultural and environmental future.
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