FILABUSI, Zimbabwe (AlertNet) – Lorraine Mabuza stands outside her cattle pen. She wears a pensive look, and the source of her troubles is not hard to guess.
“I do not know where these beasts are going to get grass today,” says the widowed 53-year-old. “There are no pastures around here anymore. I have to move these cattle to another place where we can get some fodder.”
Mabuza’s cattle pen holds 17 cows. She had 20 in her herd, but has sold three since the beginning of this year.
While her livestock would normally represent enviable wealth in the rural economy of Filabusi, a village about 300 km (188 miles) southeast of Bulawayo, the animals have become something of a headache to her.
Cattle and other livestock formerly grazed freely on the plains here, feeding on the plentiful grass, but poor rainfall, linked by experts to climate change, has caused the vegetation to disappear.
Low-rainfall areas of southern Zimbabwe have long been considered suitable for cattle ranching. Yet experts and the Ministry of Agriculture are alarmed by the loss of fodder as rainfall in the region reduces, and are also worried about the impact on the region’s livestock farmers.
LOW SALE PRICES
Samson Sibanda, another Filabusi farmer, says he has had to sell beasts to slaughterhouses in Bulawayo for a pittance, as he no longer has a strong bargaining position.
“These people (buyers) know we are in trouble as we cannot afford to feed our cattle and this has lowered prices to ridiculous levels,” Sibanda said.
“A full-grown cow that I could sell for up to $500 now fetches less than half (that amount). But for us it is still better than to let these cows starve to death,” he said.
Sibanda’s story has become a familiar one among poor rural villagers for whom cattle and livestock are the sole source of wealth. Many are becoming impoverished because of the disappearing pastures.
In major cities such as Bulawayo, some women make a living by selling dairy products such as the curdled milk known as amasi. Mabuza says that as women continue selling off their cattle, they are becoming unable to supply their customers.
“This is depriving us of extra income as the fewer cows we have, the (less) milk we get to sell,” she said.
With open water sources drying up, cattle breeders also have been forced to share limited supplies of water with their livestock, creating ideal conditions for the spread of disease.
There also are reports that farmers in border towns such as Beitbridge, the gateway to South Africa, and Plumtree, on the border of Botswana, are breaching border controls as they move their cattle across international borders in search of water.
It is a surprise to many rural communities to learn that such hardships are likely the restul of climate change, says agriculture extension officer Gladys Moyo.
“There is still no understanding how issues such as global warming can be dealt with, let alone how this is having effects on things such as cattle ranching,” Moyo said. “But it does show how climate change is being felt in the most unlikely of places.”
Experts say milk-producing cattle require abundant pasture, yet the absence of rains has meant there is little food available. This is affecting rural livelihoods at a time when the government is touting the growth of rural economies as one of the ways to create wealth for indigenous communities.
The drying conditions and lack of rain “has only led to mass losses of livestock to both starvation and selling at very low prices, said Zorodzayi Mashonganyika, an agricultural economist and consultant working with the ministry of agriculture.
In an effort to assist cattle breeders, the agriculture ministry is moving to set up livestock fodder banks in hopes that owners will have access to sufficient feed for their livestock until the next rainy season, according to Mashonganyika.
The ministry estimates that there are more than half a million head of cattle in Matebeleland, in southern Zimbabwe, and there are growing concerns that this number could fall dramatically if not measures to deal with the problem are put in place.
“We are aware some cattle breeders have moved their cattle to other areas many kilometres from their homesteads in search of pastures,” said Sam Zulu of the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union.
“These are desperate times but what can we do?” he asked.
Madalitso Mwando is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.