Slash and burn in Swaziland: a traditional practice with environmental consequences

I live on top of a mountain in Sidwashini, Mbabane, where every morning I gaze at the horizon of valleys on the plains of Swaziland. The country is immensely picturesque. Beauty is rarely absent from the horizon, as at night bushfires light up the hillsides in a rapture of red hues. The flames dance vigorously…

I live on top of a mountain in Sidwashini, Mbabane, where every morning I gaze at the horizon of valleys on the plains of Swaziland. The country is immensely picturesque. Beauty is rarely absent from the horizon, as at night bushfires light up the hillsides in a rapture of red hues. The flames dance vigorously from field to field as local, small-scale farmers desperately attempt to restrict its movement to their land, often in vain. The sight is mesmerizing, often rendering me immobile in awe. This practice of setting one’s fields ablaze, known as slash-and-burn, is commonplace amongst Swazi farmers, so much so that the concurrent culture festival is thematically named “Bushfire”. Yet this practice is in fact detrimental to the land.

Slash-and-burn techniques are used to increase the fertility of the land temporarily, thus increasing the yield of their crops. The ashes from the incinerated fields are rich in nutrients and thus provide for next year’s crops. However, these ashes quickly wash away and their nutrients are used in the first cycle of crops planted subsequently, so their use is short-lived. Because of this, farmers have to abandon the now infertile soil to find new fertile land, which they often do through repeating the slash-and-burn procedure on another plot of land. Whilst the slash-and-burned land eventually regrows vegetation and becomes fertile, this may take years, and so lots of land is rendered useless for periods of time through slash-and-burn methods. If there was enough land for every farmer to perform slash-and-burn on multiple fields cyclically, this would be a sustainable practice. Alas, as we live in a world of finite resources, it is an unsustainable farming method.

Unfortunately, slash-and-burn techniques are equally harmful to the environment. It is estimated that annual slash-and-burn practices contribute more than 2 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere, more than total global transport. When slash-and-burn techniques are used by a large population, there is a significant increase in deforestation, as forests are cut down to allow crops to grow, and trees are not given enough time to regrow. As a result, there are no roots strong enough to hold the soil together, and leaves the land prone to soil erosion and landslides. This is a serious threat to Swaziland’s steep hills where communities lay below. In 2010, landslides in Eastern Uganda killed at least 100 people, with more still unaccounted for, were caused by deforestation due to similar practices.

In addition, slash-and-burn practices often cause significant losses in biodiversity. As it usually occurs in tropical areas, the removal of the original forest/vegetation can cause endangerment of species. The Lebombo Mountain range that demarcates the Swazi-Mozambican border, has some of the world’s highest biodiversity, and has countless endemic species. Alas, these are currently threatened by slash-and-burn practices used to create fields in which marijuana can be grown illegally. The Lebombo cycad, or Encephalartos lebomboensis, is becoming an increasingly rare sight in its endemic environment due to agricultural activity.

Finally, slash-and-burn practices are no exact science; the fires are unpredictable and are easily influenced by external factors like wind. Thus the fire can spread to destroy other fields, crops or even villages. Earlier this year, our hostel was abruptly awoken by an approaching bushfire that had strayed from its intended course. Thankfully, we put it out before it caused any serious harm.

Despite all the potential consequences, slash-and-burn practices are still widely implemented, as small Swazi farmers do not have the luxury of choice. There is little access to commercial grade fertilizers for small farmers, and very few would have the financial capacity to pay for them. Without slash-and-burn techniques, Swazi farms cannot produce a yield large enough to be economically viable, and so circumstance constrains their ability to produce sustainably.

You may be expecting me to end on a positive note, but I can offer no more than unfounded optimism. Whilst viable alternatives to slash-and-burn methods are being developed and implemented, they are extremely contextually dependent, and often they need significant capital (relative to the income of a small Swazi farmer)to fund initially, and knowledge to sustain. Progressive organisations such as Guba Swaziland help to provide both of these prerequisites. However, more needs to be done to prevent slash-and-burn practices, whose only sustainable output is perpetuated poverty for small farmers. From the cool Highveld with seasonal rainfalls to the hot Lowveld, optimal for sugar plantations and the like, Swaziland has incredibly diverse agricultural potential packed inside its minuscule borders, and it only makes sense for Swaziland to focus its economy around agriculture.

If Swaziland can find sustainable alternatives to the slash-and-burn practices, it would not only reduce its environmental impact, but empower its communities to be more self-sufficient and alleviate the high food insecurity many communities experience. Estimates from 2010 suggest that one in ten are dependent on food aid, with little indication of significant change since then.

By Sebastian Quaade

Sebastian is a Danish exchange student currently studying in Swaziland at Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa.

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