The Extent of Slash and Burn Agriculture in Zambia – By Clifford Malambo

While governments, donors and other stakeholders are pumping in huge sums of money in a bid to reduce climate change, land degradation, and deforestation, old farming methods are still being practiced by most small scale farmers.

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To shed more light on this, about 90% of deforestation in Zambia is said to be as a result of clearing land for agriculture especially through Chitemene system of farming. The word Chitemene is a native Bemba name which refers to a system of slash and burn agriculture or a place where branches have been cut for a garden; it is vastly practiced throughout northern Zambia. This traditional way of clearing land alone contributes half the loss of Miombo woodlands followed by charcoal burning.

Meanwhile, the continuation of this system is said to be in the long term unsustainable, because as the rural population continues to grow, complete deforestation may occur in a few decades to come. It is also estimated that northern Zambia has lost more than 35% of its biomass as a result of Chitemene farming system, representing a total of about 43,000km2 of forests land over the past 40 years due to chitemene farming system.With a lot of small scale farmers being involved in this exercise, there is no doubt that the impact that is left on the environment is vast and devastating.

Other adverse effects of slash and burn include loss of biological diversity within the forests, increased water runoff and soil erosion, soil fertility depletion due to leaching of nutrition. From an energy point of view, it is an extremely destructive as it exploits large quantities of biomass. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2004 reports indicates that apart from wildlife depletion, soil erosion and a settlement problem, deforestation is one of the major environmental problems. However this system of slash and burn contributes to soil fertility for a short period in the form of ash and this is a that is different from inorganic fertilizers which are currently purchased at a high cost. Also, slash and burn shifting cultivation has been the dominant traditional land use in the miombo woodlands of northern Zambia. This type of cultivation is characterized by short cropping period of two to six years that are followed by long fallow periods from ten to twenty years.

Crops like finger millet, groundnuts, pumpkins, and beans are grown in the ash gardens for a few years. Despite all measures put in place to mitigate Chitemene practice, it has however continued, depleting both biophysical and socio economical resources available to small scale farmers.

These socio- economic resources also include policies which influence farmers’ decision to either stop or continue with the practice. Of which, in Zambia, seem to be far off. It’s for this reason that government should come up with interventionist strategies to manage the agriculture sector including soft loans to small scale farmers, input subsidies and provision of markets and to encourage farmers to rear animals.

Further, the government is providing subsidized inputs to farmers such as fertilisers and seed this has resulted into farmers having permanent fields and therefore the chance of practicing chitemene will be reduced. However, since the ushering of the Patriotic Front into government, subsidies have drastically reduced; hence this will severely increase clearing land for chitemene farming system.

The research has proven that farmers who do not have any form of support like credit facilities and subsidies are more likely to practice chitemene system, than those with access to support services. It is  a known fact that there is significant relationship between household size and chitemene system. Households with more members are more likely to practice Chitemene on large hectares than those with less.

Extension education is also cardinal as farmers with increased education level are less likely to practice chitemene. Hence the need to increase extension services and provide more relevant information to the farming communities.

In order for us to maintain and sustain our environment for our generations to come, practices such as slash and burn and emission of green gasses in the atmosphere should at all cost be minimized if not stopped.

—About Clifford Malambo—

Clifford Malambo is a Zambian citizen who graduated from Evelyn Hone College of Applied Arts and Commerce where I graduated with a diploma in Journalism, Advertising and Public Relations in 2012. He has worked as a reporter at the Ministry of Agriculture and is currently an assistant public relations officer at Treatment, Advocacy, and Literacy Campaign (TALC).

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