Lesotho is facing a food security crisis as changing weather patterns and poverty leave some smallholder farmers with no option but to abandon farming and sell their land.
Many subsistence farmers in Lesotho are still struggling to recover from heavy rains over much of the country in December 2010 and January 2011 that devastated crops and livestock.
Damage caused by the flooding reduced yields of maize, the staple food, by an average of 62 percent compared to the previous year, according to the 2011 Lesotho Food Security and Vulnerability Monitoring (LVAC) Report, by the country's Disaster Management Authority. Out of a population of just over two million, the LVAC report estimated that 514,000 needed humanitarian assistance in 2011, twice the number that needed assistance in 2010.
The flooding at the beginning of 2011 was followed by below-normal rains towards the end of the year during the crucial planting season, while in January 2012, the Disaster Management Authority warned farming communities to be prepared for above-normal rainfall during the first three months of the year.
In a country where nearly 60 percent of the population live below the poverty line, and some 40 percent live in extreme poverty, such weather extremes are pushing the coping mechanisms of families already devastated by the effects of HIV and AIDS to breaking point. Lesotho has one of the highest prevalences of HIV in the world. The epidemic has created a shortage of farm labour and left 130,000 children orphaned, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Malebohang Makhoathi, a 68-year-old widow, has over four hectares of land in Ha Makhoathi, just outside the capital, Maseru - more than enough for her to grow all the food she needs to feed the four grandchildren in her care, but she has not ploughed the fields for the last six years since her son, the family's main breadwinner, passed away. She has neither the money nor the manpower to cultivate the land and is contemplating selling it for short-term relief.
“The money will make some difference in my family, even if it’s for a short period of time,” said Makhoathi, who will have to wait another two years before she qualifies for a government pension.
|Too Poor to Farm|
Lejoetso Thekiso, 50, who lives in Ha Mosalla, 15km from Maseru, is among the lucky few subsistence farmers whose children are employed. “Had it not been for my son’s financial support, I wouldn’t be hoeing here,” he told IRIN, as he worked a field rented from a neighbour who could not afford the necessary inputs to cultivate his land. Although the late rains prevented Thekiso from planting until late December 2011, he is hopeful that his crops will survive.
Unused seed, fertilizer
Even among the more than 20,000 families countrywide who received free seed and fertilizer through the government and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), some have not planted.
“I wouldn’t take the risk of planting under this current weather which is very unpredictable; it would be like throwing the seeds and fertilizer away, and hiring a tractor is very expensive," said Lejang Tsotetsi, the acting chief of a rural area covering three villages, who showed IRIN bags of unused fertilizer and seeds donated by FAO.
"We expected rain in September or October and it never came," he said, adding that those who had planted late were in trouble because winter was fast approaching, "and the frost is coming".
Mofihli Motsetsero, a crop production officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, said merely handing out free seeds and fertilizer was not enough in a country where high rates of stock-theft had robbed many people - too poor to rent tractors - of their only way to plough their fields.
While farmers like Tsotetsi wait for the next farming season to plant and hope for better weather, they will have to buy maize to feed their families at an ever growing cost. The low production in 2011 pushed up maize prices, a trend that is expected to continue in 2012. According to the LVAC report, the price of maize rose by 10 percent between June 2010 and June 2011, while the cost of cooking oil and paraffin increased by as much as 25 percent.
According to Motsetsero, the number of smallholder farmers who have not planted this year appears to have increased. “Even though there is no officially approved data to back up my observation at the moment, the number of fields planted is smaller than the number of the fields that were planted last year. I have been on numerous fieldwork trips and witnessed it first-hand.”
The increasing amount of land left fallow is likely to further reduce Lesotho's capacity to feed its people. The country's mountainous topography means that it already has a shortage of arable land, a problem that has been compounded by soil erosion resulting from poor farming practices.
Coping with climate change
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The Ministry of Agriculture is partnering with various other government departments and international NGOs to help farmers cope with changing climactic conditions which, based on projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, will result in severe water shortages for Lesotho by 2045. “We are feeling the effects of climate change and the most important thing our farmers need to do, is know exactly what to plant and when to plant,” said Motsetsero.
FAO is encouraging farmers to plant seed varieties that can be recycled for two to three seasons, and training around 500 farmers in conservation agriculture - a technique that helps restore soil health and improve yields.
Lesotho Meteorological Services has its owns climate change programme, including a project to improve disaster preparedness through better forecasting of extreme weather, a better system for alerting rural communities likely to be affected and improving the capacity of Lesotho's Disaster Management Authority to mount rescue operations.