Sesame farming: Farmers cut the hand that feeds them

06Feb 2016
The Guardian
Sesame farming: Farmers cut the hand that feeds them

IF you visit Kigombo village in Kilwa District, Lindi Region, you will witness how Pandisha Forest Reserve is slowly being depleted.

In fact, you don ‘t even have to stop in the village to witness this because on your way to Nanjilinji village from Kiranjeranje village, you will pass close to the forest where you will see not one or two, but scores of huge trees, some of which are of very rare species, lying half burned. Others still stand to tell the story of how they suffered from both the farmer’s axe and the fire he set ablaze in clearing farming land for the sesame crop, killing the trees in the process. The trees, which would otherwise have nourished the soil, reduced erosion, enhanced the water-retention capacity of the soil and eventually helped farmers get good crops of maize and cassava, are now useless. The problem is not so much what happens on one plot of land - sesame farming is synonymous to shifting cultivation. So, a group of farmers may mow down a forest in a couple of years and move on to another forest. The point is that while grass and shrubs may rejuvenate after sometime, the trees, some of which were 30 or 50 years old when they were burned, will be gone forever! Nambubila Forest Reserve, which is managed by Nanjilinji A village, has not been spared from degradation by sesame farmers. Farmers from other villages have invaded the forest, clearing chunks of the forest to give way to sesame farms. Efforts by the village government to organize patrols to protect the forest have sometimes led to violent conflicts. Recently, one of six motorcycles belonging to the village, was torched by farmers in what appears tobe an intensifying rivalry. The motorcycles were bought by the village from money earned from the sale of forest products, particularly timber and logs. “These farmers are destructive and don’t care about forests. We have sought help from the district council and from the Lindi Regional Commissioner’s office to deal with those who have invaded our forest. They have now been served with notice to vacate the forest, short of which an operation to evict them will be mounted by the regional authorities,” explains Selemani Rashid, chairman of Nanjilinji A village government. The village earns an average of 60m/- annually from the sale of products from the forest. Solomon Massangya, Ruangwa District Forest Officer, says that many villages in the district benefit from participatory forest management, but the benefits may be short-lived due to various problems, including sesame farming. Among the benefits some villages enjoy are construction of classrooms for village primary schools, supply of clean and safe water and purchase of tractors to help villagers increase crop production. “However, villagers may not continue to get these benefits for a long time as sesame farming threatens to destroy forests. Farmers clear forests by burning, without due concern for the importance of trees to the village. Sesame farming is a big threat to the conservation of forests,” he says. Former Director of Forestry in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, Dr Felician Kilahama, is disappointed about at the way forests in Lindi and Kilwa districts are being degraded due to sesame farming. Dr Kilahama, who recently visited several villages in the two districts, says that the southern region was the only place in the country where forests thrived, but warned that these would also soon disappear if sesame farming was not controlled. “It is wasteful! Huge trees, some of them rare species, are simply burned to ashes or partly burned and left to decay. Farmers could cut the trees and sell them as timber or logs, or they could make charcoal out of them instead of just throwing them away. “What they refuse to understand is that, at this rate, there will come a time when there will be neither forests nor sesame. They are simply cutting the hand that feeds them,” he warns. He says that he is not against sesame farming as such, but it should be controlled so as to spare forests. Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative (MCDI) is a non-governmental organization that has been working with villagers in Lindi region to conserve forests for their benefit for more than two years. In one of its reports, the organization identifies sesame farming as among major drivers of deforestation in the region. It says that the shifting cultivation system that is practised by sesame farmers involves cutting down trees in new areas after every one or two years. Farmers prefer virgin forest land because forest soil is easy to work on. “One only needs to clear the area and burn whatever vegetation is on the plot and the farm is ready for planting. Besides, newly-cleared forest land has almost no weeds and stays so for as long as two seasons during which no weeding may be required,” reads the report in part. According to the report, shifting to new forest land is also a way of avoiding some crop diseases and pests that could attack sesame plants. “But the fact that newly cleared forest soil is well drained is an attraction to farmers because it requires minimum or no tillage before planting,” the report adds. Efforts to conserve forests and empower villages in southern regions to manage and benefit from the resources are spearheaded by Mama Misitu Programme, a communication and advocacy strategy which aims at promoting good governance in the management of forests in the country. The programme seeks to raise awareness among Tanzanians to use forest resources in a sustainable manner so as to reduce poverty among communities, particularly those living adjacent to forests. It is coordinated by the Tanzania Natural Resources Forum (TNRF) and funded by the Finnish government. The Mama Misitu programme draws its justification and legitimacy from the fact that national forest cover has been going down over the years. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, Tanzania had 44 million hectares of forest land in 1961. These were however reduced to 33.5 million hectares in 1998, representing an annual loss of 0.73 per cent. Projections indicate that the size of Tanzania’s forested land could go down to 28.4 million hectares by 2020, a figure that experts say is an underestimation, given the current high rate of deforestation. According to FAO estimates in 2005, Tanzania’s annual rate of deforestation stood at 413,000 hectares. This rate is also likely to have gone up significantly. A recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says that an estimated 80 per cent of global deforestation occurs as a direct result of agricultural practices. There are often key underlying drivers of forest loss worldwide, with policy makers rarely recognizing their impact, says a new United Nations brief. The report, entitled 'Fiscal incentives for agricultural commodity production: Options to forge compatibility with REDD+', explores ways of aligning government policies and other fiscal instruments with the objectives of REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries).

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