Windhoek-Only improved tenure security will reduce the vulnerability of communal and group-resettled farmers to adverse conditions, whether drought, global warming, locusts or others, says Dr Axel Rothauge – founder of AgriConsult, who is viewed by many as the country’s foremost expert on drought and desertification.
Because of insignificant rains received by the end of February, Rothauge says farmers should switch from production to survival mode because of the likely severity of the situation and the possibility of a drought. He says Namibian ranchers have to grow extra forage on pastures as soon as possible so that areas that produce surplus forage and hay can subsidise those that suffer a deficit.
“If livestock farmers see a drought coming, they should convert at least half of their herd into money as quickly as possible to avoid the drought taking more of their wealth,” he recommends.
With many parts of Namibia, especially in communal areas, being dry to very dry, he stressed that the amount of effort a farmer can put in to prepare for and survive a drought depends on how much management control he has over his land – the source of production.
“Unfortunately, over 95 percent of Namibian livestock farmers have no exclusive management control over their grazing resources. These are communal farmers and farmers that were resettled under the group resettlement scheme,” he observes. “It does not make sense for communal farmers to save some of their grazing resources or to defer grazing in certain areas to protect the forage for a later day because other farmers can simply come along with their animals and graze the saved grass.
“There is currently no way such ‘grazing repositioning’ can be prevented legally and thus, communal farmers cannot control access to their grazing resource. As a result, farmers in these areas tend to deplete their grazing resource as quickly as possible before someone else depletes it for them. It’s a completely rational, short-term farming decision even if it leads to widespread suffering, environmental degradation and perpetuates rural poverty.
“If we don’t like this outcome, we can adjust some of the policies that regulate this behaviour. “The decisions will be unpopular because they temporarily deprive some farming communities of what little grazing resource is left, to benefit them in the medium- and long term, i.e. they inflict short-term pain for long-term gain,” Rothauge notes.
“With communal and group resettlement farmers, no amount of agricultural technical advice can improve your drought resilience as long as the managerial control over your sources of production is inadequate (tenure insecurity). Communal farmers first need political decisions to secure their land tenure, followed by expert agricultural advice,” he says.
He has urged farmers to establish cultivated pastures of perennial grasses on expanded crop fields and the grazing of these pastures until March and closing them thereafter to grow and make hay, which is stored for dry times such as now.
“Rotating the grass and the grain parts of one’s fields regularly is necessary because grass pastures improve soil fertility and enhance subsequent grain yield. It is even better if forage legumes are included in this scenario, but we don’t seem to have any that are properly adapted to semi-arid conditions. Traditionally, the response of communal farmers to adverse conditions has been to accumulate livestock and build big herds or to turn livestock loose to search for scraps over a huge area. This worked well in days gone by when the human population density was low and grazing resources were plentiful,” Dr Rothauge has noted.
Rothauge advises communal farmers to sell some of their livestock for slaughter while still in good body condition and attracting reasonable prices. “Sell surplus males and old unproductive females now,” he says. He advised the farmers not to wait until the condition of the animals has deteriorated to the point of starvation or the meat price has dropped to N$800 per cow, as in the drought of 2012/13, before deciding to sell.
“Sell now while the animals still look reasonable,” he says.
Converting livestock wealth into monetary wealth, temporarily, saving money and re-converting the money into livestock wealth once it starts raining again is the way forward. This is a modern, rational decision adapted to current reality and a better option than to allow the drought to whittle the livestock wealth away.
“It would help communal farmers much if the authorities would reduce the impact of the veterinary cordon fence on livestock marketing in the northern communal areas,” he says.