Winter in Harare is almost over. Walking my kids to school in the morning across frosty vleis, strewn with festering rubbish, we see the first signs of the agricultural season awakening. Litter is being raked into piles, maize stalks cleared into heaps and the dried weeds levelled to form little patchwork fields most about 100m2. You rarely see the farmers. They must emerge at dawn and dusk between their working hours. Many are probably local domestics. They have developed a system for dividing up the land between them, a natural autopoesis. There are no kraal heads in the city to allocate land and the municipality certainly don’t have any official mechanism. It is the same in urban areas all over Zimbabwe.
Soon these tiny fields will be meticulously cultivated and weeded and the rubbish dumpers will be shamed into reducing their practice until the maize has grown tall enough for their piles to be concealed. Maize, pumpkins and sugar beans will replace piles of cans and plastic bottles. The more enterprising will make mounds for sweet potatoes but this is hard work and in drier areas groundnuts and nyimo beans may be planted. People of Mozambican or Malawian descent often grow pigeon pea and cassava on field margins.
When the rains come, the black vlei soil will turn from cracked concrete into a great organic sponge drawing water into it. The maize will struggle, as it does each year. The humble applications of fertiliser bought with precious savings, will be rapidly leached into the groundwater (and end up causing eutrophication in streams and rivers) leaving the maize stalks chlorotic and the plants tottering on their strange support roots under up-to a foot of water. Despite this, harvests are better than in rural areas where the climate has now become too erratic and the soils too exhausted for feasible maize cultivation without irrigation and expensive fertiliser applications. According to a report by AGRITEX in 2009, urban and peri-urban areas had the highest maize yields in the country.
It is estimated that 10% of land in Harare is used for urban agriculture. This is land which belongs to the city or private owners but is undeveloped giving it an interesting psychosocial status. The rich see it as unsightly wasteland. Judging by the number of Scotch bottles and disposable nappies, which I view on my walks, the people dumping here are far from poor. The poor view it is as a resource. Small wooden or plastic shacks creep up in secluded spots, apostolic churches clear little demarcated patches for their congregations and urban farmers divide up the rest.
Much of this land is wetland – stream margins and seasonally swamped areas. These areas have been protected by the authorities since colonial times – controlled through legislation because of their ecological vulnerability and left undeveloped because of their challenges for construction. The vlei soils have a dynamic personality, ballooning with moisture during the rainy season and shrinking to become cracked and rock-like during the dry months, making it very expensive to build here. As the city expands and as people desert an increasingly harsh rural lifestyle, this land is becoming a hot spot of urban conflict between farmers, developers (both legal and illegal), conservationists and the authorities.
Urban Agriculture is as old as urbanisation. As Yoshikuni (2007) explains, when black workers were finally allowed to live in towns, most wanted settlements which resembled their rural homes where they could cultivate crops. The colonial administration felt that “the urban African worker ought to be half-ruralist” and thus attempted to provide model “garden village” suburbs to encourage “positive values such as family, community, peace and order, as against the supposed growing evils of urbanism and ‘detribalisation’”. This vision of neat cottage-style vegetable gardens did not tally with sprawling, unkempt maize fields, and the identity war began.
Since independence, ritual crop-slashing has become a regular municipal practice despite legislation which actually protects urban agriculture (signed in 2003). Operation Murambatsvina in 2005 was, amongst many other things, a particularly violent attack on city farmers. Wole and Tungwara (2005) describe it as a display of the “technocratic mentality of urban aesthetics (cleanliness and beauty), based on the colonial legacy of the clean ‘city’”. Harris, (citing Burke, 1996) sees the operation as part of the “racialisation of dirt and illness”, stemming from times when colonial missionaries instilled in Zimbabweans a deep-rooted link between traditional lifestyles, bodily dirt, dirty thoughts and dirty living habits. In Operation Murambatsvina, illegal cultivation was seen as part of a suite of unsavoury activities, which, according to Comrade Makwavarara’s speech at the launch of the operation, had led to “the deterioration of standards, thus negatively affecting the image of our City” which had been “renowned for its cleanliness, decency, peace [and] tranquil environment.”
Environmentalists have also become increasingly vocal against urban farming in their attempts to preserve wetlands. The use of pesticides and fertilisers as well as inappropriate tillage methods and poor crop choice not only pollute the wetlands. They also threaten wildlife and the vital ecosystem services of water purification, hydrological management and soil protection that the wetlands provide.
Yet traditional wetland agriculture is in fact a sustainable practice, dating back centuries. Before shifting cultivation became the norm, communities settled around wetlands where ridges were developed for crops such as tsenza, cucurbits, madhumbes (yams) and vegetables; grains and livestock were restricted to upland areas. During the 1920s, commercial farmers began ploughing and cultivating wetlands for wheat, maize and tobacco. Soil erosion and drying-out of wetlands soon began to spread. Realising the hydrological implications, the colonial government passed the Water Act and The Natural Resources Act, effectively banning cultivation in these areas. However during the 1990s, specialists at the Horticulture Research Station in Marondera developed appropriate and sustainable wetland systems based on traditional crops and organic practices, thereby proving that modern wetland cultivation can still be possible without environmental damage.
Attitudes to urban agriculture are changing. In 2010 Harare Metropolitan Governor, Dr David Karimanzira announced that: “Although farming was regarded as dirty and only for the rural people, it can also be done in urban areas to supplement families’ income…Land reform should not only end in the rural areas but also come to the urban areas because we have open spaces in the province and we thank the City Fathers for allowing our farmers to grow their crops” (Herald, 2010). He reported that in 2009 the hectarage under cultivation in Harare increased from 9000 in 2008 to 12 000 in 2009 with a yield increase from 5,5 tons per hectare to 6,5 tons per hectare.
Urban agriculture brings immense benefits to the city, although it must be implemented in a socially and ecologically sensitive way. Through agriculture, humans are constantly interacting with nature and thus directly learning to value the vital role of ecosystem services. Through intergenerational knowledge-transfer in urban fields, parents and grandparents pass on knowledge to young people who may otherwise lose touch with their rural roots and the natural environment. The complex social mechanisms (developed by unrelated, un-governed communities) to divide up land between themselves in the city is surely a sign of building social cohesion. Urban agriculture undoubtedly provided a safety net of resilience to people who endured the economic and political meltdown in 2008.
Urban agriculture is here to stay: its social, ecological and economic benefits need to be recognised by environmentalists, governments and citizens.