Climate change comes for farmers – from Mozambique to Iowa
By Timothy A. Wise
Originally published at Medium, as a contribution to Climate Media Week as people the world over strike for climate action and justice.
Part 1: Mozambique
It felt ominous when I was in Iowa in March that both Iowa and Mozambique were underwater from cyclone-induced flooding widely attributed to climate change. I’d studied and written about both places in my recent book. These farming communities are as distant from one another – geographically and developmentally – as they could be, yet there they were in the same metaphorical lifeboat trying to save their families and farms from the floods.
I saw the devastation in central Mozambique in June – houses still missing their roofs, schools barely functioning, and farmers without seeds for the coming rainy season. The March cyclone wiped out crops that were nearly ready for harvest, leaving communities dependent for the present on food aid and without seeds for this year’s planting.
Parts of Iowa were underwater when I was there in March, and today Iowa and much of the Midwest is still suffering periodic flooding from the wettest year on record. Many farmers couldn’t plant because the ground was too wet, or they got their crops in late, reducing yields. There were only three reported deaths from the flooding; Iowa had the lifeboats to get people out of danger. But they are not out of the destructive path of climate change, and I sensed a new awareness of that danger, suddenly clear and present.
With farmers on opposite sides of the globe suffering the same types of severe storms provoked by a changing climate, I imagined them all in the same lifeboat. They would have a lot to learn from one another. The Mozambicans might tell their Iowan boat-mates that U.S. farmers, with their greenhouse-gas-emitting industrial-scale farms, bore at least some of the responsibility for the rising waves of climate catastrophe. But those African peasants might also share their secret to surviving climate change, one that could help reverse Iowa’s own self-destructive agricultural path. Listen closely, Iowa, can you hear it? Diversidade, whisper the Mozambicans. Diversity. It may just be the key to climate resilience, from Africa to Iowa.
A tale of two cyclones
The U.S. and African storms were both described as “devastating,” and they were. But devastation looks much, much worse in a place as poor as Mozambique, on the east coast of Southern Africa. And they don’t have many lifeboats.
Cyclone Idai struck the central Mozambique coastline March 15 as one of the most powerful storms ever to hit Sub-Saharan Africa. That is, until Cyclone Kenneth slammed into northern Mozambique six weeks later as a Category 4 storm with winds of 140 mph.
Cyclone Idai delivered the more crushing blow. It came ashore in central Mozambique near Beira, the country’s fourth largest city and its most important port. Idai then took a destructive path inland to Malawi and Zimbabwe. A weaker version of the storm had already dumped heavy rain on the region a week earlier before heading out to sea and gaining strength to make another pass through the already-ravaged landscape. The nine-day rampage left at least at least 1,300 dead across the region, but many remain missing, feared lost in floodwaters that swept many out to sea.
Climate denial may sit in the U.S. White House, but few in Africa seem to doubt that the intensity of Cyclone Idai, the worst ever in the area, was related to climate change. Rising water temperatures in the Indian Ocean are increasing the severity and duration of cyclones. They are also dumping more rain on affected areas, exactly as we saw with Idai and then Kenneth. Storm surges are also more damaging with sea levels an estimated eight inches higher due to global warming.
Climate change: A clear and present danger
Indeed, climate change is no looming future threat for farmers in Southern Africa. It is a clear and present danger. Over the last five years, I’d heard story after story from farmers in the region about erratic rains, severe storms, rising temperatures, and long droughts. I’d also witnessed their climate resilience, which many attributed to their ecological farming methods.
The town of Marracuene lies about 45 minutes up the coast from Maputo, both mercifully south of Idai’s path. There, some 7,000 farmers affiliated with UNAC, the national peasants union, have ridden a climate rollercoaster over the last five years. For the last seven years, rains have been inconsistent, and two severe droughts have wiped out food crops. Temperatures have climbed to unprecedented highs, topping 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Irrigation water from the Incomati River dried up, then rising sea levels drove salt water back up the dried streambed and into farmers irrigation channels, poisoning their fields. Severe storms have brought flooding rains, washing away newly planted seeds from the fields.
I call drought and floods the evil twins of climate change, from Mozambique to Iowa. These farmers were under assault.
I asked how they were surviving, how their families were eating. One after another told me things were hard but they were okay for now. They credited ecological farming for their climate resilience. How could farming practices save them from such a wide range of calamities? They recounted the ways.
They inter-plant a variety of crops in wide raised beds instead of planting only corn in rows. They nourish it with composted manure rather than synthetic fertilizer. The soil has gained fertility, including the addition of rich organic material. That helps retain moisture when rains fail. And soils don’t wash away so quickly in a flood since they are held in place with well-rooted crops.
Most important for food security, crop diversity gives them not only diet diversity but climate resilience. If drought kills the corn crop, they have cassava, sweet potatoes, or sorghum that survive to get their families through the hungry season. Their organizations’ seed banks provide insurance against crop losses, so last season’s crop failure doesn’t turn into this season’s seed shortage.
As farmer Florentina Samuel told me, taking a break from preparing her two acres of land: “We are still suffering, but if this next crop is good we will be okay…. The soil is better now, softer, and good for different crops.” She crumbled some dark, rich soil in her fingers.
They have eschewed the prevailing advice from their government and international donors to use high-yield commercial corn seeds and synthetic fertilizers, part of the push for an African Green Revolution and what donors call “climate-smart agriculture.” Marracuene’s farmers call monocultures of seeds that can’t be replanted, fed by fossil-fuel-based inputs, “climate-stupid agriculture.”
In Buzi, one of the areas hardest hit by Idai, they were living on food aid in June and worrying about eating tomorrow, because they lost this year’s seeds, which they would have saved from the last harvest. They had nothing to plant and they feared that the only seeds aid agencies would provide would be commercial varieties of corn and rice they would then have to buy every year, since those seeds are bred to produce well for only one season. They can’t be saved. That leaves farmers dependent on purchased inputs they can scarcely afford. And it robs them of the kind of crop diversity that makes them more resilient in the face of climate change.
Cyclone Idai struck on the Ides of March, a date in the Roman calendar considered a deadline for the settling of debts. This year, it served as a painful reminder that industrialized countries have yet to settle the climate debt they owe the rest of the world for having disrupted Earth’s life-support systems.
As Amnesty International’s secretary general Kumi Naidoo told the BBC, “There is one inescapable and burning injustice we cannot stress enough. The people of Mozambique are paying the price for dangerous climate change when they have done next to nothing to cause this crisis.”
Part 2, on Iowa, will be posted early next week.
Timothy A. Wise is the author of the new book, Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food (The New Press, Feb. 2019). Based in Cambridge, Mass., he is a senior researcher at the Small Planet Institute, where he directs the Land and Food Rights Program. He is also a senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute, where he founded and directed its Globalization and Sustainable Development Program. More info is available here.