opinionBy Kudakwashe Collen Chirigo
Poverty is a rural dilemma and continues to be a persistent multi-dimensional problem in Zimbabwe and the Sadc region.
It is associated with poor farmers, small farm systems, the landless, resource endowments and the socio-economic environment.
Since agricultural growth is central to improved livelihoods, strategies that focus on promoting such an expansion are critical: Improved efficiency in natural resource management according to the Devendra, C et al, 2002. Sustainability of agricultural systems and the environment, and enhancement of social stability are vital to improved living standards.
The poorest of the poor eke out their precarious living from natural resources like forests, rivers, lakes and environmental degradation would undoubtedly have its effects on them.
The over-reliance on and occupation of such lands is mainly because of poverty, whereby locals extend cropping to fragile lands which they think are fertile but instead degrading them.
This has been the norm in many areas and has been eating the flesh of mother earth leaving the poor communities in a worse off situation.
The communities "unconsciously" keep degrading these areas as they practise traditional ways of farming.
They also try to intensify farming so as to increase their harvests and fill up granaries, but this increases the rate of environmental degradation.
This is the picture in most areas that were recently occupied in Ngaone area of Chipinge.
Deforestation, streambank cultivation leading to increased river pollution and silted dams have become a common phenomenon in the area.
Since occupation of this land, there has been massive depletion of natural resources that includes over- extraction of underground water, decreased soil fertility, soil erosion, and deforestation and overgrazing.
Livestock and wild animals are slowly migrating to better areas and if no action is taken they will soon die of starvation.
The people around this area are destroying their home and source of livelihood.
The problem is rooted at the household level where families practise shifting cultivation.
Though the effects of the farming practise maybe insignificant at the household level, it must be borne in mind that these small actions can lead to bigger problems that may be irreversible.
Streambank cultivation, which is being practised along the tributaries of Tanganda River, has caused, in just few years now, siltation of the local dams which used to supply cattle, donkeys and goats with drinking water.
Finally, those who are downstream risk losing their livelihoods too because they also depend on these rivers for water for farming and for their livestock.
Residents seem to forget that livestock is an important part of livelihood.
For instance, cattle can be used for draught power, is a source of organic fertiliser (manure) and even as a substitute for firewood, milk and traditional ceremonies.
Cattle can be barter traded with maize, groundnuts and other basic commodities during years of drought.
Uncontrolled burning of grass and trees by these farmers has also left the area prone to massive erosion as soil cover is constantly removed by different weather elements.
Soil is losing its fertility through erosion such that in just few years these areas will no longer be productive. Besides degrading the land through cultivation, erosion and veld fires, it has been noted as well that grazing areas are becoming less and less and fears are that this will result in reduced community herd.
Supplies of manure, milk, and even meat will go down as a result.
Meat and selling of cattle are usually excluded because these are not the priorities for keeping livestock in Ngaone as indicated by the take off statistics.
The reduction of the community herd means reduced yields since less manure will be applied and less draught power available to till the land.
This further impoverishes the Ngaone farmers.
The main reason why Ngaone residents have concentrated themselves in such areas is because they want to benefit from wetlands.
Wetlands contribute in diverse ways to the livelihoods of millions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In many places they are inextricably linked to cropping and livestock management systems.
At the same time, increasing population in conjunction with efforts to increase food security puts a lot of pressure to expand agriculture within wetlands.
The environmental impact of wetlands agriculture can, however, have profound social and economic repercussions for people dependent on ecosystem services other than those provided directly by agriculture.
An Agritex Officer in Ngaone, Mrs Spiwe Dhliwayo, said that she is aware of the situation and has been advising farmers to stop all practices that have a negative impact on the environment.
"The problem is that the farmers are still hungry for land and have no capital to engage in agricultural practices suitable for the area," she said.
Headman Tsododo also of Ngaone pointed out that it has become increasingly difficult to stop farmers from using that land considering that the household plots were already exhausted and no longer yielding anything.
"Their plots are no longer producing any meaningful harvests. As such the people are going around looking for virgin land to increase their yield.
"This has forced them to settle in areas unsuitable for crop production," he said.
A local farmer, Mr Learnmore Chigariso, pointed out that the recurring droughts forced him and other farmers to go and farm on the wetlands.
"There are no irrigation facilities to supply water during the dry spells and most people around this area cannot afford to buy fertilisers to keep their land productive.
"This has forced the majority of farmers to move into wetlands," he said.
There is therefore great need to increase awareness among Ngaone farmers and others countrywide on the dangers of engaging in bad agricultural practices which destroy the environment.
Farmers countrywide must take note of the fact that improved agricultural production systems, both in crop and livestock production, without degrading the environment, can increasingly make a significant contribution to improved human welfare, rural growth and reduced poverty and is sustainable such that the next generation will also earn a living from the same natural resources.
Kudakwashe Collen Chirigo is graduate agricultural economist from the University of Zimbabwe.