Uzumba-Marimba-Pfungwe (UMP), a district in northern Zimbabwe on the border with Mozambique, is in one of the driest parts of the country, receiving on average 3-400mm of rain per year. In the 1980s and 90s, the newly independent government of Zimbabwe, with the best intentions, successfully promoted a ‘green revolution’ package of external inputs – fertilisers, hybrid seeds and pesticides – all over the country. The aim was to turn small-scale farmers into mini-commercial farmers and to make the country food secure. For the Zimbabwean government, food security meant stockpiles of maize.

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As a consequence of the green revolution, huge amounts of maize were produced during these years and Zimbabwe became known as the food basket of the region. Unfortunately, this approach also led to a dramatic narrowing of agricultural biodiversity, which unfortunately in progressive farming circles was equated with backward, peasant agriculture. I remember visiting communities during this time who, unless you had their trust, would hide the variety of food crops they were growing, as this supposedly wasn’t real farming.

Fortunately, women all over Zimbabwe, rooted in their history and recognising the nutritional wisdom of traditional diets, kept at least some of this agricultural biodiversity going. This was especially the case in the drier, more remote parts of the country.

photoIn early 2000, the Community Technology Development Organisation (CTDO) began working with some communities in UMP. They facilitated discussions about seed and the value of agricultural biodiversity. Slowly but surely, this diversity began to re-emerge, becoming apparent at the annual seed fairs.

Ten years later, many smallholder families are producing food from crops which exhibit the kind of diversity that you see in these pictures. I counted 101 varieties at one family’s display during their 2013 seed fair. These included: groundnut, bambara nut, maize, different kinds of beans, cowpeas, sorghum, finger millet, pearl millet, pumpkin, squash, cucumber, pepper, chilli, rice and paprika.

Rather than trying to replace indigenous farming and food practices with an industrial approach, it is becoming ever clearer that so called development organisations and other external agencies would do well to focus on strengthening these practices. This is development from the ground up and the solution to create sustainable systems of healthy and diverse foods. If only aid organisations and benefactor governments alike could take time to understand these systems, which go back hundreds of years and are highly adapted to regional and local soils and climate, as well as being based on universal principles of agroecology.

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Don’t get me wrong… it’s not that there’s no room for new ideas and improvements, there’s lots of room. But the old starting point, which suggests that peasant farmers are backward and need to modernise, is being shown again and again to be a totally incorrect assumption. There is a wealth of knowledge at local level and food security strategies should treat this knowledge as the foundation stone for developing their programmes.

Feature image by Global Crop Diversity Trust, all other images by John Wilson

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