Tanzanian farmers in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro struggle to cope with climate change
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Mount Kilimanjaro, the symbol of Africa, stands majestic in the northeastern part of Tanzania, where people have benefitted from its largesse for many decades. But its bounty has been diminished for some time, as some of the snow-fed springs that trickle down the mountain have come to a halt with less snow – causing problems for the small-scale farmers who cultivate the rich soil outside the national park, including in Mweka village, some 1600 metres above sea level.
“The water we see in this stream formerly fell as snow in the alpine zone of the mountain,” says Alex Kisingo, an environmentalist and professor at the College of African Wildlife Management in Mweka.
“When the human population is growing, the resources are dwindling, it’s becoming even harder to adapt,” he says.
According to Tanzania’s Economic and Social Research Foundation, the population at the last census in 2012 almost tripled in size since 1967, the first post-independence population census. With a growth rate of 2.7 per cent per year, the national average population growth rate ranks as one of the fastest in the world and translates to some 1.2 million people added to the population annually. Low migration, reduced mortality and a high fertility rate has fueled population growth, too.
In Kilimanjaro, coffee used to be king. The very thirsty Arabica crop had been grown by many cultivators on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro since 1900, but lack of water, one of the precious resources not available to small-scale farmers, had an impact.
“Currently, water levels are going down, and it’s no longer enough to support irrigation in the two villages of Mweka and Usungu so people have abandoned their traditional farming system,” says researcher Kisingo, who says that people are putting in alternative crops like maize and abandoning coffee and bananas.
“It’s not doing exactly very well at this kind of altitude it’s very high for maize around here. Because there is no water for irrigation, people are trying to change to other crops, which again, is making people poorer because there are no more cash crops around,” he adds.
The older generation of farmers recall the good years, but have also noted the impact of climate change in Tanzania recently.
At her home in Mweka, Idah Sylayo takes a break from her knitting to speak about crops. Wearing a yellow headscarf, matching kanga and costume pearls, Sylayo reflected on what she has seen during her 78 years as a farmer.
“I have witnessed a lot. I remember the time when all the bananas dried up,” she said.
“When it started raining, we started planting again. That was also for the maize. It dried up too. And we saw it happen again to the banana, even two years ago. We had the same challenge,” adds Sylayo.
Coffee, a thirsty crop
In most farmers’ plots the odd coffee plant pokes out from between the bananas and the maize, a reminder of the coffee boom that hit the area in the 1960s and 1970s, when water was plentiful, when the words ‘climate’ and ‘change’ were used, but never together in the same sense.
The large-scale coffee plantations that dot the area are primarily owned by foreigners. Production manager Avit Mushi works on German-owned Kilimanjaro Plantation farm, taking care of all 741 hectares for the past 10 years. He walked down a row of small coffee bushes that look like snow-flocked Christmas trees with bright, white flowers.
“At the beginning, Tanzanians were growing their own coffee, but due to climate change, we don’t have enough water. We are using a lot of drip irrigation to conserve the amount of water,” he said, taking care not to step on the flat tubes carrying water that snaked around each of the rows.
“Drip irrigation is different from surface irrigation. In the past, on our local farms we were using surface irrigation, but right now on this plantation we use drip irrigation to conserve the small amount of water that’s here,” he said, adding that it must be shared with the villagers as well.
Only plantations can afford to invest in important cost-saving innovations such as drip irrigation, though it is also a question of timing with maize, you plant in March and harvest in July, he says.
“But with coffee, you have to take more than three years before you start harvesting. That’s a lot of time,” says plantation manager Mushi.
Coffee farmers have “to invest and not have anything to eat…some people live hand to mouth. And a lot of people don’t have any bank accounts, that’s a problem,” he adds.
Most farmers in the area remain poor. Although the Tanzanian government originally encouraged coffee farming, providing insecticides and pesticides, farmers could not afford this when the subsidies ended. The region, formerly known for its high-quality honey, produces very little now, according to the farmers. The bees died when pesticides began to be used on small-scale farms.
Farmers say the solution is in front of them
In the midst of a maize field in Mweka village, down a small dirt track off the main road, farmer Eugene Jerome Mende is enjoying a large cup of his finest home brewed banana beer. He sits with other farmers on the veranda of his tiny two-room establishment, a small wooden shack with a large veranda. It’s a hot Sunday, and they are discussing politics and farming in Tanzania, the two go together.
“Many people around here depend on this banana and maize as the main source of income. They no longer depend on coffee since you get only five kilos of coffee for the whole season, which is not worth farming nowadays,” he says.
Mende walks behind the small counter and speaks in Kiswahili through the metal wire. “Look at this,”he says, as he sweeps his hand over the few items he has for sale five bottles of Kilimanjaro and Serengeti beer, a small plastic bottle of Sprite, and two packets of cigarettes, which he sells individually. “Not much here, eh?”
Farmers get few returns for all the hard work they do, say Mende.
“For one kilo of coffee, we’re being paid 2000 shillings ($1). And then you listen to the radio, where they advertise the same coffee, which they’ve bought from us, they export it and sell if for nine dollars for one kilo, while they give us 2000 shillings. You can’t even afford to buy one kilo of meat,” he adds.
With the water supply waning, farmers are worried about their future. They see the busloads of tired western tourists in expensive hiking outfits transported through the village after conquering Mount Kilimanjaro. “There are six routes officially sanctioned for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and two routes used for descent. Hikers only exit from Mweka.
As he finished his large plastic tumbler of banana beer, Joachim Paul Kimaro, a sweet pepper farmer, says the solution is right in front of them.
“If only they could climb the mountain from this side, then it could boost people’s incomes around here, which is how it should be,” says Kimaro. If tourists spent a little money buying fruit or other items like they do in front of the entrance to the park, he says, then the farmers would be able to supplement their income.
Rice issues in Lower Moshi
Further down the mountain, in Lower Moshi, a group of rice farmers recount similar problems in a meeting under the Ashoka trees at the home of rice farmer Shabani Hassani Mziray. There is not enough water to farm rice twice a year those at lower elevations rely on the Rau River, whose waters also come from the melted snows of Kilimanjaro.
“Climate change has caused the water to decrease in the river, but there are more people using the river so there’s competition and reduction due to climate change,” says Salimu Mustapha Mkwizu, a rice farmer and a leader of one of the cooperative rice blocs.
“We used to get 1,350 litres-per-second. Now we are receiving less than 450 litres-per-second,” he adds.
About half of the rice fields are the lush green of young rice plants, while the rest are yellow and burnt from lack of water.
The farmers say they supplement their incomes by growing other crops, like watermelon, beans, and corn. Technically the rice collective is only supposed to grow rice on their plots.
The water crisis stemming from climate change is one issue, but coupled with that, they also face lack of buyers at the market due to local competition and political maneuvering on the international rice market.
“We have been facing these problems in the market because rice is not only cultivated here, there are other competitors who farm rice from within the country like Magugu and Dungu,” says Mbaraka Mohamed Mangi, who has been farming for three years.
“Plus the government is importing rice from other countries, that’s why the market is so small,” says Mangi.
He’s referring to the reported 4,000 tonnes of cheap Pakistani rice that was exempt from the Common External Tariff of the East African Community and imported, dropping the wholesale price in the country by 54 per cent, ruining the livelihoods of farmers around the country.
“The government has not done enough research when it comes to agriculture. We are convinced that the rice we farm in Tanzania is enough for the country, and even for export,” says Mkwizu, a cooperative bloc leader.
The Tanzanian government needs to be more supportive, says Mkwizu. Farmers are facing a number of factors making their lives harder, including dealing with a competitive local market, foreign competitors, and climate change, which forces farmers to make drastic changes to what they plant and their planting times.
“In order to be supportive to a farmer you need to give them some raw materials and help them to find internal or external markets for their products, but such things in Tanzania don’t exist. Farmers are left to fend for themselves,” he adds.
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