Seeds of Climate Resilience in Mozambique
U.S. President Donald Trump may still deny the harsh realities of climate change, but no one in southern Mozambique has any doubts. They don’t have much food either.
The drought of the previous two years broke last October, but with a vengeance. While much of the country received more normal rains, the southern part of Mozambique got intense storms. The first, with thunder, lightning, and hail, hit in October just as farmers were bringing in the last of their irrigated winter crops and beginning to plant maize and other rainy season crops for the coming summer. The second hit in late March, taking down trees, maize, and other crops in the community of Bobole, again flooding one of the area’s more productive associations in the lowlands along the river.
They have irrigation from a rehabilitated colonial system of drainage ditches, which allows a second growing season to supplement the summer rainy season. The system wasn’t well maintained and blockages caused the floodwaters to overflow the banks of the ditches into farmers’ fields. Even their nicely cultivated raised beds, constructed to keep waters from directly covering crops, succumbed to the rush of water.
They lost a lot of maize, the native yellow variety they had purified through careful selection under the direction of Brazilian volunteers brought in by UNAC, the Mozambican national farmers union. When I was there last year, I saw the women who run these associations using yellow maize seed from their community seed bank to grow out enough seed under irrigation so farmers who lost their maize in last year’s drought would have something to plant when the rains came. Now, at least in the lowland areas, much of that maize was lost.
So too were the hardy staples that sustained farm families during the previous two years of drought—sweet potato and cassava. These root crops still produce when rains are poor, drawing water from deep in soils that farmers have improved over the years with the introduction of agro-ecological practices—raised beds, incorporating crop residues into the soil, intercropping, rotating crops, and applying composted manure instead of chemical fertilizer. In the lowlands, though, the floods drowned even the root crops. In a walk through the Saturday vegetable market we saw small cassava roots, and much of the sweet potato had come in from nearby villages across the river.
Mohammed, the Kenyan-born extension worker who has helped bring agro-ecology to Marracuene, said many farmers have land both in the lowland areas that flooded and upland areas that saw good rains. He said that food security in the area was not in a crisis stage, though the government came in February this year to distribute maize.
“Marracuene always has maize,” said Mohammed, “but not this year.”
In the fields of the Farmers Association “Popular,” we found a strapping middle-aged woman working with her son and a hired hand to hoe her raised beds into shape for winter planting. Florentina Samuel took time out to talk with us, wiping sweat from her brow. Her farm hadn’t been wiped out by the floods, though they had destroyed her cassava crop. She invited Mohammed to pull up a withered stalk. He shook off the dirt to reveal one spindly root.
She said her family certainly suffered hunger, but she was able get an early maize crop before the heat wave and to use her irrigation to grow cucumbers and okra when few other farmers did. She got good prices in the market, which allowed her to buy rice.
Mohammed told us that she is relentless in maintaining her irrigated vegetable plots, to grow cash crops. As if to prove the point, she pulled freshly harvested okra from an old plastic watering can and fetched a plastic bag of healthy cucumbers from her nearby field. My companions from Maputo readily paid the higher market price to Florentina for such fresh out-of-season produce.
She didn’t seem daunted by the wave of bad weather, and she attributed some of her optimism to the agro-ecological farming she has adopted.
“The soil is better now, softer, and good for different crops.” She reached into her newly turned soil and showed us the organic matter from last year’s crop residues. “We are still suffering, but if this next crop is good we will be okay."
Florentina Samuel tends her farm in Marracuene after the recent floods.
The relentless changing climate
I was struck by the string of bad luck farmers have suffered here, but then I realized that the changing climate is changing the odds against farmers like those in Bobole and Popular. Most of the luck left to these farmers is bad luck. Mohammed, who has been working with area farmers since 2010, confirmed the intense realities of the changing climate.
“There has been a big change,” he nodded, “in rainfall patterns and in temperatures.”
He detailed the recent history in his time there, pointing out the dizzying range of impacts climate change is having on vulnerable farmers. When he arrived in 2010, he said the rainy season was what people were used to, with rains arriving in September or October and lasting into the Mozambican summer, when temperatures rose into the low 90s Fahrenheit. Crops could tolerate that with enough moisture.
The first change he noticed was in 2012. The area got an unusually heavy first rain in early September, well before the rains usually came. That cost farmers some of the irrigated winter crop, which was still in the ground.
In 2014, the rains didn’t come in September or October, so crops went in late, and temperatures in the summer rose dramatically, reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Maize plants baked in the dry heat, reducing harvests. The winter season, which relies on irrigation, was affected as well, and in ways I wouldn’t have imagined. The Incomati River, which fills the irrigation system with water, fell so low in the drought that the Indian Ocean four miles downriver from Marracuene, flowed up the dried riverbed. Irrigation canals in parts of the region filled with salt water, destroying crops and land.
The next year was even worse, part of the well-documented El Niño weather pattern that parched much of Southern Africa. Mohammed said there were no rains at all in much of the area and temperatures reached 106, unheard of in the region. Drought-tolerant crops like sweet potato, cassava, peanuts, and cowpeas, fed farm families when maize harvests failed.
How many climate shocks could these poor farmers take? We are still finding out.
They regrew their yellow maize seeds successfully last winter season, under irrigation, resupplying farmers with seeds for the rainy season. Along came the floods, first in October of 2016, then again in late March. To add insult to injury, Mohammed said they saw record temperatures in January and February, searing heat over 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Crops actually burned,” Mohammed said, shaking his head. “The leaves of maize plants were brown and dry, and farmers had to plant their maize all over again.
”Drought and flooding are the evil twins of climate change for farmers in much of the global south. Across Southern Africa, farmers have seen rainy seasons shorten, rains fail, and extreme weather bring catastrophic flooding. Add record-breaking heat to that destructive mix, and it is a wonder that farmers still till their fields.
“Farmers now feel that storms and bad weather can happen at any time. But they never run away,” Mohammed told us with a smile. “They survive.”
In large part, these farmers survive because of the resilience borne of agro-ecology, a conscious strategy of their national farm association, and supportive NGOs like ActionAid, to help farmers adapt to climate change.
Adaptation funds lacking in new climate finance
They could certainly use more international support. In the last decade, rich countries have begun contributing to global climate funds to help developing countries mitigate climate change by reducing emissions and adapt to climate changes as they occur. According to a recent article by Saleemul Huq, farmers like those in Marracuene have been short-changed as the tens of billions of dollars in climate financing are disbursed.
“Most of the funding has gone to support mitigation actions in a few of the larger developing countries such as China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa,” he writes, “while only a small proportion has gone to the most vulnerable and poorest developing countries…for adaptation.”
How small a proportion? According to a recent report from the International Institute for Environment and Development, just 10 percent of climate funds have reached the most vulnerable people in developing countries.
Fortunately, the global board of the Green Climate Fund, the principal international initiative, recently agreed that 50 percent of its funds should be allocated to adaptation, and half of that should go to the poorest and most vulnerable countries. This meets the first demands of the2014 Kathmandu Declaration on climate finance—to prioritize vulnerable countries for adaptation—but it leaves open whether the funds will find their way to the most vulnerable communities, such as the farmers in Marracuene.
Farmer seed banks to avert climate disaster
Such assistance can’t come soon enough. In response to the latest crisis in Mozambique, UNAC is responding with a national campaign to build emergency stockpiles of native seed varieties for key food crops. Marracuene’s maize seed bank saved many area farmers last year after the drought, restoring a maize variety that has proven resilient in most droughts and produces well without purchased inputs such as chemical fertilizer.
“The Marracuene farmers showed us this could work,” said Bartolomeu Antonio, UNAC’s Director of Rural Development. “We saw how effectively peasants could rescue and improve native seeds.”
UNAC and its farmers have mapped and identified key native seeds. They selected cassava, sweet potato, maize, and onion varieties from Zambezia Province, for example, and now plan to collect and grow out seeds, in collaboration with government agricultural experts, to create a national seed bank.
They are also encouraging UNAC’s local members to follow Marracuene’s lead and create their own seed banks. Only 15 percent of small-scale farmers in Mozambique purchase certified seed; the vast majority depend on seeds saved from crop to crop or exchanged with neighbors. When climate change calls, farmers can lose their seeds as they lose their crops, and they scarcely have resources to purchase replacements.
“We have to protect farmers from losing their seeds,” warns Bartolomeu, “and our seed bank can prevent climate change from becoming a climate disaster.”