CEPHAS Ncube (62), a modest livestock farmer living about three kilometres away from Tsholotsho Service Centre, in the semi-arid and marginal Matabeleland North Province, has been a worried farmer over the past decade or so over the costs exacted by livestock production on the natural resource base.
To no avail, he has been attempting to find ways by which livestock production can be increased without causing further damage to the environment in which that production has to take place.
Just recently, policymakers called on local livestock farmers to seriously consider increasing livestock production while at the same time reducing the use of natural resources per unit of product.
According to agricultural specialists, livestock production has been expanding at an unprecedented rate. The cost to the natural resource base is already too high, against the soaring demand for livestock products.
About a quarter of the world’s total land area is used for grazing livestock. In addition, about one-fifth of the world’s arable land is used for growing cereals for livestock feed.
Agro-researchers point out that livestock production will soon be the most important agricultural activity in terms of economic output because the number of potential consumers of livestock is growing faster than the rate of increase in world population.
However, currently, in terms of livestock production, environmentally the situation does not look so good for Zimbabwe because of veld fires. With the dilemma poor farmers like Ncube are facing at the moment, it could be called a double tragedy, say social analysts.
Zimbabwe’s farms and other forest zones have been engulfed by veld fires for the most part of the winter season this year. This has been a debilitating factor for none other than the livestock production.
Perhaps to ease off Ncube’s worries just recently, the Forestry Company of Zimbabwe injected $5 million towards the development of infrastructure to combat veld fires in Matabeleland North Province.
This is one of the regions that has been devastated by uncontrolled fires. The province lost more than 800 000 hectares of Gazzetted State forests last year alone, and that also includes grazing lands.
Obviously, the effects and impact of these veld fires on the environment, vis-à-vis, livestock production is enormous.
Experts point out that the effects and impact of veld fires on the environment may seem temporary but there are long-term impacts on bio-diversity that may be irreversible.
Uncontrolled burning leads to bio-diversity loss, destruction of flora and fauna, reduction of soil fertility, increase in soil erosion and soil compaction that increases surface run-off thereby decreasing infiltration. All this reduces water needed to recharge ground water sources.
The further clearance of basal cover accelerates soil erosion leading to the siltation of water sources. This in turn translates to reduced water for livestock and irrigation. Reduction of grazing land also results.
For now, striking a balance between livestock production and the environment is a tall order for marginalised farmers like Ncube.
Social scientists note that it is a trend that not only risks the sustainability of agricultural production itself but may even lead to social upheaval. For example in many countries’ conflicts between herders and farmers continue to rise as land in the semi-arid areas comes under pressure from both types of farming enterprise.
Even more so, as the natural resource base becomes degraded, disputes over the best of what is left become more serious and violent.
Meanwhile, other agricultural experts see the whole equation in another perspective. Although livestock production may have had a bad press in the past, the realisation is growing that livestock are no more to blame for deforestation, overgrazing or pollution than a car is to blame for a traffic accident.
According to a source in the Ministry of Agriculture: “It is not the livestock that need to be blamed for the rapidly increasing natural degradation but the conflicting interests of human beings and the ever-rising demand.”
Similarly, environmentalists state that too often poverty worsens damage to the environment.
Modest farmers like Ncube may spend their life’s savings to own a piece of land on which to grow crops but the only land that is cheaply available is in semi-arid, marginal areas more suited to livestock grazing.
With Zimbabwe undertaking its land reform programme, researchers in agriculture believe that there is a re-awakening among planners that livestock needs specific grazing lands.
“Grazing lands must be demarcated and protected by law against encroachment by cultivation, national parks and game reserves,” said a Harare-based agro-researcher, adding that governments are becoming increasingly aware of the need to recognise these communities and actually listen to what they say and need, rather than just planning for them.
According to the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Co-operation (CTA) in Ethiopia efforts are being made to give farmers options that allow them to increase productivity per animal, thereby reducing the need to increase herd numbers to sustain income.
There is a realisation that the natural resource base cannot be sacrificed through degradation for the sake of satisfying immediate needs. Directly or indirectly this would affect human beings — sooner or later, notes CTA.
A major study on the impact of livestock production systems on the environment culminated in an international conference held in the Netherlands in 1997.
Discussions at the conference suggested that awareness; political will and readiness to act were growing amongst those involved. This may help to ensure that the problems are no longer denied but are effectively tackled.
Yet interestingly such awareness and knowledge have yet to be grasped by local farmers like Ncube in Matabeleland South Province. Questions always come up over the effect and impact of farmer exchange visits at local, national, regional and international levels, especially on effective land use.
In fact, what this means is that the capacity of livestock and other rural farmers to innovate is often limited by lack of relevant information.
“Rural farmers need constant and consistent training and services, especially in a dynamic world fast changing with information and communication technologies,” said an official from the Department of Research and Specialist Services, adding that such knowledge reflects and serves the diversity of their particular needs, which state-controlled extension and other agencies often ignored in the past.
The Agriculture and Natural Resource Department of the World Bank says, for example, over 100 million tonnes or about one-third of the volume of internationally traded agricultural commodities are livestock products or livestock feed.
The department further notes that these internationally traded products also contain millions of tonnes of plant nutrients. Farmers need to understand such dynamics.
Often these products are leaving countries where soil fertility is decreasing, resulting in damaging consequences such as soil erosion and are going to countries that already contain a nutrient surplus and where imported nutrients add to the risk of soil and water pollution.
According to the CTA, the interactions between livestock and the environment are many and complex. They represent a challenge for policy makers who also have to consider social and economic factors that are likely to be far more pressing and politically sensitive.
Experts, however, observe that if the technology exists, all that is required is a willingness to safeguard the natural resource base which has been a worrying phenomenon for the modest livestock farmer like Ncube and those of his ilk who are stuck in the back-waters of marginal and semi-arid regions.