3 March 2008

Swaziland: To Relocate Or Not to Relocate?

Mbabane — Climate change appears to have permanently altered certain areas of east and southern Swaziland, where good harvests have not been achieved for over a decade. Agriculture officials and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) now question whether these areas can still support communities.

"Before donor fatigue sets in, we have no choice but to confront the obvious. Otherwise we can be accused of turning a blind eye," said Charles Ndwandwe, an agriculture extension officer in the eastern Lubombo region, which has never fully recovered from a drought that devastated the country in 1992.

Climate conditions have also been difficult over recent months. IPS has ascertained that summer rains failed to materialise in Lavumisa, in the eastern Lubombo.

This has taken a severe toll on harvests of maize, the staple food of Swaziland. Maize that was planted in the spring months of November and December is now largely desiccated due to lack of rainfall (the last measurable rains in the region are said to have fallen on Dec. 27).

To make matters worse, a heat wave struck Lubombo last month, prompting the National Emergency Relief Council to express concern about the situation there.

Such difficulties, coupled with the country's small population and the availability of other land, have prompted suggestions that Swazis might be relocated in response to persistent drought.

"There are unused government farms in agriculturally viable parts of the country. Why not relocate families who cannot scratch out an existence in Lavumisa and depend on food aid year after year? Food aid should not be a lifestyle. People become dependent," said Walker Nkambule, a businessman from Manzini, the commercial hub of the country.

Currently there are state farms lying idle that government economic planners intend incorporating into large-scale agriculture projects when funding becomes available. They reject proposals to convert the land into small subsistence farms, claiming this would not be economically viable.

"Subsistence farming is very traditional but it only supplements family income from other sources. Nobody can live on it anymore," said Ndwandwe.

At present, 80 percent of the population resides on small farms located on communal land that is overseen by chiefs. Government would like to see farmers combine their fields into larger co-operative ventures.

Christopher Fakudze, an economist who works with the Ministry of Natural Resources to develop water needs projections and water resource management, disagrees with the proposal to abandon drought prone areas. "Swaziland is geographically a small place, and there is no reason why we cannot pipe water to where it is needed."

The large scale projects required to pipe in water would be very expensive, however.

Amidst widespread poverty, few people can afford to move away from inhospitable land of their own accord. According to the 2007/2008 United Nations Human Development Report, 47.7 percent of people in Swaziland live on less than a dollar a day -- and 77.8 percent on less than two dollars a day.

These figures reflect the widespread joblessness in this Southern African nation; 2007 statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation put unemployment in Swaziland at up to 40 percent, a figure that includes people who are too discouraged to seek work.

Mphilo Dube, a 20-year-old resident of Lavumisa, spent three months trying to find work at the Matsapha Industrial Estate, where the country's few factories are concentrated, in central Swaziland. "I gave up when I got tired of going hungry. At least here I am with my family," Dube said.

Poverty and climatic hardship elicit a stoic response from many Swazis.

"There is a reason that Swaziland is a stable country despite its humanitarian crisis. The people are conservative. They prefer hardship to the unknown that change brings," said a political scientist at the University of Swaziland.

"This is why people stay in those dusty lifeless areas, and why government policy has been for poverty alleviation where people live, rather than relocation."

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