Zimbabwe is ranked among the top 20 countries in the world most affected by extreme weather between 2000 and 2019. Some regions of Zimbabwe experienced between three to six bad rainy seasons only between 2014 and 2019. In a country where agriculture is so important, these impacts are acutely felt.
They also come in a context of a dry climate trend in Zimbabwe, observed since the 1980s. The rainy season has shortened by 30 days in much of the country, interrupted by longer dry spells lasting up to 20 consecutive days.
What is happening in Zimbabwe offers important lessons for the world community ahead of the Talks on global climate change at COP26.
The first is that climate change, along with other factors, is already putting lives and livelihoods around the world on edge. Much attention has been paid to how small the window of opportunity is for global action, as if the world still has a couple more years left before things really get worse.
In Zimbabwe, for some of the poorest farmers, growing a potentially lucrative cash crop like tobacco has already become unfeasible. For many, the crisis is now.
Second, highly commercialized agriculture, especially livestock, is among the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. It is a bitter irony that it thus contributes to the precariousness of farmers, such as those in Zimbabwe, who bear little or no responsibility for climate change. And yet agriculture has historically not been a high priority on the COP’s agendas.
These lessons are drawn from our investigate in Zimbabwe, conducted as part of the Future Agriculture Consortium. The research documents the impact of climate change on farmers growing tobacco as a cash crop in the Mazowe district of the central province of Mashonaland, approximately 40 km north of Harare, the capital.
Due to the high death rates from smoking, tobacco is not everyone’s preferred cash crop to promote. But some see it as a route out of poverty. A growing number of commentators see tobacco production as a kind of “success story” For him accelerated agrarian reform program which was announced in 2000.
Controversially, the program expropriated 1.3 million hectares of white-owned commercial farmland without compensation. The land was largely redistributed to the residents of the communal lands.
In the 1920s, 96% of the pre-colonial population was dispossessed of their lands. About 50% of the land, including the best agricultural land, was given to 4% of the white settler population. The communal lands were the marginal agricultural areas in which the black population was resettled.
The fast-track land reform program established land leases for two types of parcels. The first were plots of between 5 and 10 hectares destined to small black farmers with the aim of starting or increasing commercial production. The second were plots of between 50 and 200 hectares for farmers who already had established business credentials.
Many of these recipients have used tobacco, so that production levels have almost recovered above pre-agrarian reform levels, particularly due to their assimilation by small and medium farmers.
But climate impacts threaten the viability of tobacco production. Our key finding was that when fed by rain rather than watered, tobacco is one of the riskiest crops, even on land suitable for growing it. This is from both a climate and business perspective.
Unsurprisingly, the higher the level of access to irrigation and other resources, the better able farmers will be to cope with the impacts and reduce climate-related production risks. And the beneficiaries of the agrarian reform in Mazowe seem, to varying degrees, better able to adapt to the new climatic realities. Access to better land appears to have been crucial to building an asset base, which in itself is an important component of adaptive capacity.
However, the risks are higher among farmers predominantly on communal lands, for whom cultivation is already a marginal and precarious enterprise. These farmers are often among those most in need of the cash, assets and stability that tobacco can provide. Most of the communal land farmers in the area we worked in were, at the time, on food aid, experiencing the opposite of poverty reduction through tobacco income.
Climate change and social injustice
Increasingly, farmers who do not have access to irrigation and inputs abandoning cultivation. These are farmers who are often tied to contract farming arrangements who pay well below the market rate for the tobacco produced. During the poor rains of the 2019-2020 season, many in our communal area field site found themselves dependent on food aid.
As we discovered through our research, these difficulties are not caused solely by climate change. Its effects coexist with a number of ongoing processes, including:
This last point is linked to the underlying dynamics fundamentally implicated in both climate change and social injustice. Zimbabwean farmers are entering world markets under adverse conditions. This is because value is created and capital accumulates further up the tobacco value chain.
At the same time, the inputs provided for tobacco produced in contract farming no longer include fuels, such as gum trees and charcoal, to cure tobacco. This shift of a cost of production to the farmer has led to the felling of trees and is implicated in broader patterns of deforestation.
It is no coincidence that tobacco, like much of agricultural production, promotes unsustainable modes of commodification and consumption of nature. Markets continue to function as if the real costs of environmental change did not have to be included in the price of agricultural products, and the deeply unequal distribution of income from global agricultural products did not matter.
Implications for negotiators
In this context, the relatively low profile of agriculture in global climate talks Is hard to understand. But Zimbabwe’s implications for climate change negotiators are clear.
First, if we are to see significant change, these underlying dynamics must be the focus of the negotiations. However, in the run-up to COP26, they don’t appear to be.
Second, if things do not change, the people least responsible for climate change, in Zimbabwe and beyond, will continue to be among the most exposed and to suffer from its intense and accelerating impacts.
TOndrew Newsham, Professor of International Development, SOAS, University of London; Tundepi Shonhe, Research associate, University of South Africa, and Tsitsi Bvute, Doctor candidate, University of Johannesburg