African small-scale farmers need more than just land to survive climate change

The import of climate change is lessened by teamwork
The import of climate change is lessened by teamwork

When drought hits a region as dry as northern Namibia, subsistence farmers can weather the crisis better if they have more than just their land to depend on for food or a source of livelihood. Many communities do better if they can rely on state support or a family member sending wages back from an urban economy. How people on the Namibian-Angolan border are coping with the current drought gives vital lessons for how small farming communities in southern Africa need many layers of support if they are to adapt to a hotter, drier climate, writes LEONIE JOUBERT*

It was cloudy and cool on the day when a team of researchers met Berina (not her real name) in the summer of 2017. She was standing near the rusty carcass of a car that was abandoned beneath the giant baobab that had become the regular gathering point in Onesi, a district capital in northern Namibia, about 25km from the Angolan border. 

Berina was tall, her skin darker than the locals, her hair woven in a tightly braided spiral. She had the distinctive colourful earrings and necklace that suggested she’d come across the border from Angola. Her frame was wrapped in a blanket, and she clutched an ostrich leather purse.

Yes, she said, she was from Angola, she told the researchers. She comes here regularly, when things are difficult back home. When there’s no food in the house, she travels down to Onesi to get work in the fields; she’ll usually stay for about two weeks, taking one of the lower paying jobs that the local Namibians won’t do.

She’ll accept cash or food as payment, she says, and will take this back to her cousin’s home in Etoto, where she lives with her extended family. Berina says she has responsibilities back home that she can’t neglect: crops to plant, and her small children to take care of.

Berina is amongst the growing number of Angolans who the local authorities say are moving in and out of the Onesi constituency during the rainy season, as the drought across southern Africa worsens. Their presence is marked by the makeshift tents that spring up on the outskirts of the town, where they sleep rough in the veld.

When researchers from the University of Namibia (UNAM) and the University of Cape Town (UCT) visited here in February last year, they found a marked difference between the way Angolan migrants like Berina coped with the drought, and how the Namibians who live in the area did.

‘The Angolans who were moving across the border into Namibia were doing so as their last resort, when there was no food at home after the rains had failed,’ explains Dr Dian Spear from UCT.  The Namibians in Onesi, who were living in communities that were only about 50km away from their Angolan neighbours, were better able to absorb the shock of the drought, because they had other options to get through the crisis. In addition to family members sending money home from urban areas, elderly rural Namibians receive state pensions, while Angolans do not.

The situation in villages in Onesi constituency is typical of rural settlements in north central Namibia. The Namibian homesteads are scattered fair distances from one another, with most families dependent on the natural environment so they can grow some crops and keep livestock.

They might also collect fruits from the veld, or make baskets and pots. But in all cases, the Namibians that the researchers spoke with here said that they had a family member who had gone off to a nearby town, or to Windhoek, to get work. 

‘Both the Angolan and the Namibian communities were typical agricultural economies; both there trying to ride out the same severe drought. But the stark difference between these two is that the Namibians had state support, and the Angolans didn’t,’ explains Spear.

People in southern Africa have always used their ability to travel and move as a way of coping with environmental shocks, like this sort of drought. Like Berina, they might move elsewhere temporarily to find work. Some gather their herds and track the rains so they can find new pastures.

Others will collect resources from the veld, like firewood or wild foods, and sell them in a nearby town.  In this case, when the environment can’t support people any longer, they turn to other aspects of the regional economy, things that are not agriculture-based, in order to find alternative ways to cope.

These semi-desert parts of southern Africa are already hot and prone to drought. According to the climate modelling coming from the UCT, rising global temperatures are going to hit here faster than many other places on the globe.

This part of the region is likely to see much higher temperatures, greater heatwaves, and longer and more intense droughts. There will be occasions of intense rainfall, resulting in flooding, but the overall trend is towards drying conditions. 

‘What our research tells us is that for people to stay on the land, governments need to find ways to support rural economies and communities so that they have many different ways to make ends meet during times of drought. They need more climate-resilient agricultural methods and economic opportunities for livelihoods outside agriculture.’

Rural communities in dry regions need access to State support during drought - but in a way that doesn’t create a dependency relationship and leave communities waiting for government to do something.

Spear says that communities need to be supported so that they have a sense of agency, which will allow them to help themselves by self-organising, self-mobilising, creating self-help groups, and being more innovate so that they don’t only rely on government handouts. People also need alternative livelihoods. One way to enable this is to ensure that rural communities have access to rural and urban economies, so they can sell their produce or find work and support themselves.

‘Older Ovambo people are going to stay on the land. They want to stay on the land,’ says Spear. ‘And if they can have other ways to support themselves, other than just the land, they will be able to weather these storms.’

While Spear and her team were mingling with the Angolans under the baobab tree that day in February 2017, a small farm truck pulled up and many of them hopped on the back, including Berina. 

Berina said she was amongst the poorest in her village of Etoto, which is why she’d been doing this throughout the course of the recent drought, travelling down to Onesi to work in the fields, and travelling back home a few weeks later to take money or food back to feed her children.

Spear didn’t get a chance to speak with her again. Before long, the driver revved the engine of the vehicle, and pulled away, taking Berina and her fellow Angolan labourers off to the nearby fields. 

*This article was funded by ASSAR (Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions), a research consortium looking at climate change in semi-arid parts of Africa and India.

This editorial is the sixth segment of a six-part series written by South African science writer and author, Leonie Joubert

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