Farmers resist adopting unfamiliar drought-hit crops, arguing that government must come up with other responses to worsening drought
SINGIDA, Tanzania (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the remote village of Misigiri, every farmer has a story to tell about the worsening drought that has pushed them to the edge of disaster this season.
The grim reality for Majaliwa Mrisho, a peasant farmer, is that his entire maize crop has withered, despite his efforts to revive some dying plants with water from a borehole. He believes that farmers living on Tanzania’s central plateau now must adapt to changing weather patterns to survive.
”I am very shocked. This is a completely new phenomenon. The rain is usually enough to bring us good harvests but that is not the case this season,” he said.
Droughts are an increasingly frequent problem in the area and local officials said they have been trying for years to persuade farmers to grow drought-tolerant crops, largely without success. Farmers argue the government instead should have had contingency plans in place to cope with drought.
During the recent long dry spell, maize, a staple food in the area, was particularly hard hit, and thousands of farmers will need food handouts until the next harvest.
”We did not cause this situation. We have been made the victims of circumstances... (Now) we need assistance to support our families and keep hunger at bay,”said Mwajuma Zakayo, another Misigiri peasant farmer.
Iramba district is among several that have been badly affected by the drought, which has caused acute food shortages and pushed cereal prices sharply higher.
Interviews of 242 food traders and farmers in Singida’s Iramba and Kiomboi districts, by visiting reporters, showed that most ordinary people now struggle to afford to buy cereals.
Maize prices have doubled in the area since a year ago, and rice and bean prices have seen similar increases since the start of the drought.
NO CROP CHANGES
Farmers admitted they have failed to heed government calls to grow different crops, such as cassava, to cushion their families from the threat of drought and hunger.
Mrisho, for instance, has been growing maize, beans and groundnuts for decades and did not see why he should grow sorghum or finger millet instead. ”I never grew it before, so I didn’t know its importance until drought struck... I find it too risky to try something new without knowing if it will thrive under these conditions,” he said.
Others said their families prefer maize to more drought-resistant crops, such as cassava. Several farmers told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Singida that they did not want to grow and eat food they were not used to, and said maize was their best bet because their families had been growing it for generations..
”My children like ugali (maize meal) more than anything else because it gives them a lot of energy. How on earth can I give them ugali made of millet?” asked Jaka Naligia, a 47-year- old farmer in Iramba.
Boniphace Temba, an official from the Singida regional administrative secretariat, said efforts to promote crop switches had failed.
”We have tried our best to advise farmers to change their mindset and start growing resilient crops, but the response is not that good. ... When you tell them about millet they simply ignore you,” Temba told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Agriculture, Food and Cooperatives Ministry said more than 37,000 households in Iramba district were facing food shortages, and the poorest families could not afford to buy any food.
While the annual cereals requirement for the district is 58,360 tonnes, the 2011/2012 season’s yield was only 14,380 tonnes, the ministry said. The ministry’s 2012 food assessment in Iramba showed that over 16,000 households were unable to feed themselves.
Parseko Kone, a Singida regional commissioner, said food distributions would fill the gap until the next harvest.
Tanzania Meteorological Agency data shows that Singida received 580 mm of rain last season, the lowest the region has ever recorded.
While local people point to drought as the primary cause of hunger, the government blames some hunger on failure to use manage harvests properly. “Some farmers had a good harvest but they did not use it wisely. Some people simply abused their harvests by making local (alcoholic) brew," Kone said.
But farmers said the government was to blame for not putting in place clear policies on dealing with drought. Some farming families have resorted to eating baobab fruits, they said, and some men have left their families to find work in towns.
Analysts said that if farmers refused to grow millet, they should be given drought-resistant maize with a short growing season. The government has failed to tap the potential of initiatives such as Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) which could reduce the farmers’ losses, they said.
”There are several varieties of drought–resistant maize which could be of great help to farmers in times of drought. I don’t understand why we should not introduce them to help these poor peasants (deal with) the dilemma of growing unwanted crops,” said Prosper Ngowi, an economist and lecturer at Mzumbe University in Dar es Salaam
Last year, farmers in Makutupora village, in Dodoma, said that by using drought-resistant maize they had managed to increase yields by up to 50 percent.
Kizito Makoye is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam.
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