LESOTHO: Saving the land
The irony of saving cattle from dangerous dongas, or ravines, created as a result of overgrazing - a common sight in Lesotho's countryside - is lost on herder Moteophala Tanyani, whose sole objective at this moment is to carry a calf up a steep eroded hillside to safety.
Overgrazing of marginal land by cattle is a main contributing factor to the reduction of plants that retain topsoil when the rains come. Flash floods are common in the summer. "It is easy for this little one to slip in this soft soil and take a plunge," said Tanyani. "When the dongas get too deep, I must move my cattle somewhere else. What can I do?"
Incorrect farming techniques also contribute to soil erosion, a greater conservation threat to the environment than drought: seasonal rains come and go but soil erosion never ceases.
Only 10 percent of the country's 30,000sq km of mountainous terrain is classified as arable, according to the June 2007 report by the Lesotho Meteorological Services.
"Much of the land of Lesotho is vulnerable to extensive soil erosion," noted the 2007 Lesotho Drought Flash Appeal made in July by UN agencies offering humanitarian assistance in the country.
The World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Children's agency (UNICEF) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) are all involved in conservation programmes, without which agricultural production would remain compromised and food assistance from international donors would become a perpetual necessity.
"So many people do not have food on their tables, and this is due to a number of factors. For us in the environmental movement we feel this is due to the continuing degradation of the natural resource base and the impoverishment of the soil," said Lineo Mdee, Sustainable Development Advisor at the UN Development Programme in Lesotho.
According to Mdee, two long-term developments have contributed to soil degradation: a region-wide process of desertification, which has turned stretches of arable land into marginal land, and a decades-long mismanagement of land.
"The original vegetative cover has disappeared, and invasive species that cannot retain moisture and which deplete the soil are increasing," said Mdee. "These are plants originating from outside Lesotho and Africa. Now, with the drought and Lesotho's usual fierce windstorms, the topsoil is blown away. When we do get rain it comes in torrents, and it makes gullies and dongas."
Harvesting scarce indigenous trees for firewood also poses a problem, exacerbated by people's poverty. Other fuel sources are unaffordable, and few people in rural areas are connected to the nation's electrical grid.
"This is a cold country. People need fuel; people are burning wood, and also crop residue. The few trees are going and, instead of ploughing back into the earth the crop residue to assist the next year's crops, there is nothing left," said Mdee.
Counteracting land mismanagement tops the conservation programmes initiated by UN agencies. "We need to find crops that really suit the soil types of this country and weather. Because of traditional customs, people grow maize and sorghum, though these are not the best crops for our conditions. We have declining productivity of the land as a result," Mdee commented.
Hassan Abdi, Programme Officer for the WFP in Lesotho, said training farmers to make the most of their land would boost harvests and preserve the environment. "We are advocating conservation agriculture as a way to halt further soil erosion and make more productive what farmland there is. We are encouraging people to get into environmental management."
Rather than burning crop residue, like maize stalks, during winter, or using it as cattle fodder, conservation agriculture requires farmers to leave it on the ground to nourish the soil.
"We assist communities to build earth dams and, in some cases, concrete dams, and at the same time we are reducing runoff by building retaining structures," said Abdi. Throughout the lowlands, barriers in dongas and hillocks of stones or layers of rocks held by wire mesh are built to retain soil.
In another WFP-sponsored programme, communities plant trees in dongas to rehabilitate the environment. "These are able-bodied persons who are unemployed, and because it is a community initiative the people have a sense of ownership of the project," said Abdi. "We give them some food as an incentive so at the end of the day they do not go home with empty stomachs."