SWAZILAND: Deluge leaves farmers with weed-infested fields

Heavy rain since November 2010 has ensured crops in the traditionally dry parts of food-insecure Swaziland have enough water, but for the 80 percent of the population who are subsistence farmers on communal land, the showers are less welcome, due to the sudden growth spurt of weeds, and flooded fields.

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After planting, many farmers have been unable to access their fields. “First it was mud and now it is dense weeds that are inhibiting the farmers. Herbicides are not widely distributed. Some farmers consider them taboo. They say they are killing their fields,” said Bheki Ginindza, an agriculture specialist with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Swaziland.

Fani Shongwe, a 20-year-old farmer’s son, uses a machete to slash shoulder-high weeds choking a corner of his family’s field where groundnuts and pumpkins are usually grown.

“The weeds have never been this high. They are like bushes. We don’t use chemicals because we can’t afford them and you have to go to Manzini [the country’s largest town]. That costs R30 [about US$4.40] by bus because we don’t have a truck. But nobody uses chemicals because they are dangerous,” he said.

“Weeds can cut back productivity, probably by 30-40 percent. It is significant. The quality of growth is also affected. Maize stalks don’t grow as tall, and pumpkins are smaller and misshapen because they compete for nutrients with the weeds. The rains this summer are a double-edged sword – they cut through the drought but encourage weed infestations,” said Amos Dube, an agriculture extension officer who works with farmers in the usually dry grasslands of the lowveld in eastern Swaziland.


The problem small farmers like Shongwe face is real.

The Ministry of Agriculture licenses only one firm to distribute herbicides, Farm Chemicals in Malkerns, 35km southeast of the capital Mbabane, but no delivery system is in place to get the herbicides to farmers, who can ill-afford to go and get them themselves. There are no herbicide subsidies either.
“Chemicals are expensive but they are cheaper than the habit farmers have of paying neighbours up to R20 [$3] a day to do weeding. Manual weeding isn’t as thorough, and there is productivity loss… and this season shows we must change that,” said FAO’s Ginindza.

“I’ve seen a few cases where farmers were misusing chemicals. For instance, you find farmers using broadleaf [weed killing] herbicides at the beginning of the season before planting, which encourages grasses… Farmers think when they apply the herbicides they can expect no weeds for the year. They don’t understand timing. The Agriculture Ministry is bringing in instructors to work with the farmers, to remove the stigma against herbicides,” he added.

Agricultural extension officer Dube is optimistic there could be a good harvest if efforts are made to get rid of the weeds.

Adapting to changing weather

In the past few years, as the rainy season has shifted, farmers have learnt to plant from late October onwards rather than from late September to early October.

“In 2007 the rains cut off in December, and in January the crops died. Most farmers planted in October,” said Ginindza.

“We learned from that year that our planting season is in fluctuation. In the past 3-5 years there has been a shift to later rains. Some farmers are planting well into January. So this season is still salvageable,” Ginindza said.

The farmers were prepared when the rains came late in 2010. But Swaziland has not seen rains on this scale in the past two decades.

“The lowveld has recorded some of the summer’s highest rainfall,” said Sunshine Gamedze, an agrimeteorologist with Swaziland Meteorological Service, who does forecasts for the farming community.

There is a well-established La Niña influence over Southern Africa. La Niña is characterized by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, and is usually associated with more rain in Southern Africa. “It seems to be affecting eastern Southern Africa at the moment,” said Luis Fernandes, a forecaster with the South African weather services.

Erratic weather, high fuel and input costs, the impact of HIV/AIDS and poor agricultural practices have affected the production of the staple maize in Swaziland over the past decade, according to the World Food Programme. The average annual yield has dropped from over 100,000 tons in 2000 to 70,000 tons.



Theme (s): Environment, Food Security, Health & Nutrition,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]