An agricultural project makes a difference

By Anthony Hannon, who has spent two years working with MMM in Malawi

anthony_hannon1One often gets the impression that an African landscape is difficult and barren with dry river beds and a hot glaring sun. This does not apply here in Chipini. The resources are available in Malawi to feed herself and more. The potential here in Malawi is enormous. It just needs to be realized.

Our project at Chipini, funded by Trócaire, aims to ensure sustainable food security with the people. The plan is to achieve this goal through encouraging farmers to grow drought-resistant crops like sorghum, advocating sustainable agricultural practices, and teaching farmers improved irrigation techniques.

There are many challenges that are limiting the ability of farmers in Chipini to realize the potential of the land. Arguably the most worrisome is global warming. This combined with – but to a lesser extent – local deforestation, is resulting in rainfall coming erratically and unpredictably. Knowing when, where and what to plant during the rainy season is a lottery.

malawi_agricultural_groupMaize is the staple food. However it needs a lot of rainfall, particularly at critical times of the plant’s life. If there is a dry spell of one or two weeks the harvest will be a disaster. It is losing its suitability. That is why the Sisters initiated this project. This year farmers planted a variety of crops that can survive during dry spells. While the maize crop was only fair, these drought-resistant crops performed well and reaped big yields.

Unfair Trade

A second challenge is international trade. Cotton is the main cash crop grown in Chipini. This year  one kg of cotton is selling at $0.20. This is ‘peanuts’. Subsidies in the US are having a direct and very negative effect in Chipini. Farmers need money to pay school fees, hospital bills, basic household items, etc. Money from cotton is not enough. Too many farmers have little choice but to sell their maize and other foodstuffs to meet demands.

Aid can be very beneficial on the local level, but with global warming and unjustifiable trade laws in mind, aid is hypocritical. The often perceived goodness of aid needs to be critically challenged. It is like a small bandage covering open wounds. Theoretically people should be in control of their own development. With the industrialized nations largely being responsible for accelerating global warming, and unfair trade laws passed in the self interest of Europe and America, Africa and Africans continue to be exploited and abused. Selling cotton for ‘peanuts’ seriously restricts the Chipini farmer’s ability to be in control of his/her own development.

Corruption is another major inhibitor to development. Where it exists, projects will have little impact on the lives of those intended to benefit. Corruption also breeds a lack of trust. Projects involving groups or clubs are very difficult to implement successfully due to this lack of trust within the communities. While it can be understandable that corruption occurs, the passive attitude in which it is accepted and its wider implications within society are having very negative and destructive effects. People are again being abused and exploited by those with power within the society.

Lack of education and HIV/AIDS are two further challenges that need to be urgently addressed if the hand-to-mouth existence that is a reality for too many people is to be conquered.

Cultural Values

malawi_shire_river_fishingMalawians, however, have something that we in the West have lost. There is a strong connection with the past and their ancestors. It is a spiritual society. People live their history through how they live, and their various cultural traditions and ceremonies that continue to be performed. It is not as scientific or rationalized as it is in the West.

At least in the rural communities the bombardment from advertisements and a ‘better way of living’ does not exist. There is a certain degree of contentment with what people have. This, I believe, has its value and it is something we can learn from. It is, however, in danger from Western influences and what it is to be developed or civilized. In some ways I get the impression that it is a society in transition.

Child rape and divorce, with fathers abandoning their wives and children, is very common. Certain cultural traditions are, I believe, outdated and are abused by men in particular, while women and children are oppressed. Society, though, has not lost its roots. What is required is a common ground where the cultural traditions and ways of living continue, but where there is genuine respect for women and children. The two do not necessarily need to be incompatible.

Endless Possibilities

malawi_simple_irrigationIn the agriculture project set up by the Sisters, much progress has been made in the last two years. The River Shire, the biggest river in Malawi, borders the catchment area. With irrigation the possibilities are practically endless. With erratic rainfall becoming the norm, irrigation farming is becoming more and more important to achieving food security.

However, inputs for pumping water – like engine pumps – are expensive and are difficult to sustain. Treadle pumps, manual machines used to pump water, have been distributed to over 150 farmers. The treadle pump is a useful machine that can, if used effectively, be very beneficial to a household. However it can only irrigate a relatively small area of land and is labour intensive. It is important therefore to identify more sustainable and beneficial means of irrigation.

malawi_shire_river_agriculturalistsOur aim this year is to divert water from the River Shire by gravity. The topology of the land shows that the level of the river is higher than the outlying land. In fact, in parts it is gradually slanting away. It is planned therefore, to divert the water using underground pipes until the water flows freely on the surface of the land. From there the water will be channeled to irrigate the crops. We also have plans to pump water using a windmill. This will pump water to a reservoir so that the water can then be used to irrigate. If these two projects are successful – and we have very high hopes that they will be – it will mean that farmers will not need expensive inputs like engines or treadle pumps to irrigate their land. This will be a great benefit to irrigation farming in Chipini.

International Solidarity

Malawi is a beautiful country, blessed with ample water, land and sunshine. Exploitation and abuse of the people, both nationally and internationally, needs to be more seriously reflected upon and changed. At national level, it is up to the people to change the situation for themselves. This requires international solidarity. Deep down people know they are oppressed. If they can channel this rage into a positive force it could go a long way towards changing the situation for the better.

Internationally in terms of trade and climate, we now have a globalised world. Yet the political nature of our world remains national at best. Actions taken in the ‘National Interest’ that have a direct and negative impact elsewhere cannot continue. While it maybe difficult to conceive, I believe a type of international parliament is required so that our political world catches up with the reality of our times.