Conservation agriculture: the problem of donor fads

Conservation agriculture has become all the rage in Zimbabwe. It sounds like a good thing. Who could object to ‘conservation’, you ask? The particular version of conservation agriculture that has emerged in Zimbabwe involves a no-till approach to farming, involving digging shallow pits or planting basins. Intensive mulching should occur to protect the soil, and without tillage by oxen and tractors soil erosion is reduced. Since the pits concentrate water and nutrients higher yields a

Well, there are some important qualifications. Of course this takes a huge amount of time and effort. And it’s hard work. The programmes in Zimbabwe are nick-named by farmers, ‘Dig and Die’! Beyond the labour costs, for some this shift from extensive cultivation to small-scale gardening is regressive. Surely ‘real’ farming involves ploughing, clearing the land and creating clean fields, they say. And the mulch from crop residues is vital for livestock as a feed in a mixed farming system, livestock keepers argue. Since the famous agriculturalist E.D. Alvord was the chief instructor for ‘native agriculture’ in the 1930s, a mixed farming model, involving tillage had been the ideal. This was the science of ‘civilised’ agriculture. Why, then, have the NGOs, donors and the extension agencies changed their mind?

The answer lies in the complex politics of funding for agriculture in Zimbabwe, and the enthusiastic advocacy of ‘conservation agriculture’ by the FAO in particular. A no-till system has proved very popular in the large-scale agricultural systems of the Brazilian savanna, where reducing the use of herbicides and intrusive tillage makes much sense. But how does this translate to the Zimbabwean setting? Certainly, assessments show increased yields within the small areas where pits are dug. But how about labour and other costs? And what about total output, contrasted with a more extensive system? These answers are less clear, and evaluations from Zimbabwe tell a variety of stories.

However, much of this debate is not fought out around the technical-economic questions of costs, returns, yields and outputs, but in the arena of donor-led funding to NGOs. With a number of important donors (including DFID) backing conservation agriculture, this is an importance source of funding for NGOs who, due to ‘sanctions’, are the ones through whom aid money is channelled. Such NGOs are in the business of surviving in a difficult environment, carving out their project territories and implementing what the donors will pay for. Few have the technical capacity to assess the efficacy of such interventions, and monitoring and evaluation remains week.

For some, conservation agriculture has become part of a prosletysing religion, linked to church organisations who see this as part of God’s work. Former white farmers in need of consulting income have been enlisted too, as part of EU support to the farming unions. And inevitably too government agencies are dragged into these programmes, as it is Agritex who has the personel on the ground. And without funds from elsewhere they must comply, as they see this as a route to carrying on some form of extension support. No questions – at least publicly – are asked (although privately many Agritex officers are bemused if not outraged by this recent obsession by the donors with conservation agriculture).

Farmers, as ever, are caught in the middle. In our study areas, we do not have the frenzy of NGO activity that is seen in the communal lands, as most donors do not allow operations in what are seen still as ‘contested lands’. But some do operate, perhaps not knowing that these are A1 schemes! Farmers are of course grateful for the attention. Having been ignored for so long, they are keen to engage with these new NGOs, in the hope of getting support for what they really need.

But, in conversation, they are often deeply sceptical about conservation agriculture (hence the variety of nick-names!). As a way of gardening, pits and focused planting and fertiliser application, has long been part of soil and water management, so in many respects it’s not new. But as a way of creating significant output in their new lands, with very large amounts of hard labour and without oxen cultivation, the approach is seen as plain bonkers.

The pragmatic compromise is to accept the projects, but find ways around them. These are well practised techniques of Zimbabwe’s farmers, when top down measures are inappropriate. Accept, thank the donor gratefully, and do something different. These are in Jim Scott’s terms, the ‘weapons of the weak’. I have heard of cases where pit digging occurs near the road and the business centre where the NGOs congregate, but not further away. In other places, there are instances where communities come together to help older members so they can comply with the number of pits required to get the inputs. And of course, as with most input schemes, people will not necessarily apply the inputs in the places where they are supposed to, but elsewhere, arguing that concentrating fertilisers in small places can result in the ‘burning’ crops in such dry areas.

Jens Andersson, Ken Giller and colleagues have been having a proper scientific look at conservation agriculture in Zimbabwe, and remain, like farmers, sceptical. Have a look at for a short (4 min) video that introduces the scientific debate surrounding Conservation Agriculture for smallholder farmers in Africa, as well as a wider selection of publications. A recent set of assessment in Zimbabwe published in Field Crops Research concluded: “CA does not seem to overcome constraints on low-external-input systems”. Instead, “Good agronomy, and in particular timely planting and weeding, and adequate fertilisation and crop protection appeared central for obtaining high crop productivity rather than tillage and mulching”. In other words, good farming makes the difference. This is something farmers of course already know.

Going beyond the advocacy rhetoric of conservation agriculture, these are important results, which hopefully will be heard by the NGOs and donors. One of the many negative consequences of the withdrawal of aid support and a switch to an ‘emergency’ regime, has been the lack of rigour in assessing different intervention options. Conservation agriculture, while having important benefits in certain settings and for some people, has become a mantra, and a way of shifting funds via NGOs supposedly to benefit poor people. In the process, farmers and the government technical agencies have often been sidelined. They need to be brought back into the picture, and a far more rigorous debate about farming options developed.

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