Chisomo Kamchacha, Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist at the Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology, discusses the ways in which permaculture farming can benefit the people of Malawi...
Three weeks ago, I was in Chikhawo village, Traditional Authority Chimutu in Lilongwe district. The village is located in between the banks of the Lilongwe River and a small hill that acts as a water shade. Trees have been cut down, both in the village and on the hill. The only patches of forest that one can see on the side of the river where Chikhawo village is located are graveyards. The villagers here face water shortage, infertile soils, deforestation, lack of food and malnutrition due to monocropping, extinction of species in the ecosystem and overdependence on fossil fuels.
...climate change is happening much faster than anyone expected. Scientists agree that, as of 2011, we have less than 10 years to radically change human behaviour: what we eat, how we grow food, how we use energy and water, and how we relate to other people.
The effects of climate change have not spared this village. Water is scarce and the sun is too hot. Soil has been carried away by running water, leaving gullies behind. Crops are failing to grow, resulting in a low harvest. This is happening in many of Malawi’s villages. Can fertiliser subsidies help the situation? Can permaculture turn around the fortunes of poor Malawians? What can permaculture do in the face of climate change?
Permaculture is a design system for sustainable living. It involves constructing various polycultures within the garden. Focusing on the yard around the house, which is usually left bare, a household could produce vegetables and fruits by cultivating the area. This could be done throughout the year, meaning farmers could consistently produce food. However, climate change is happening much faster than anyone expected. Scientists agree that, as of 2011, we have less than 10 years to radically change human behaviour: what we eat, how we grow food, how we use energy and water, and how we relate to other people.
Some farmers are in a state of denial – they say ‘it is not happening, so we will not think about it’. Some are in a state of despair and think the problems are so huge that no one can do anything. Some are more determined, taking a fresh look at what they have with the willingness to change their behaviour and make better use of available resources. Permaculture farming employs agricultural practices to build a resilient system in order to survive the eight-month dry season and combat the effects of climate change.
In the small gardens around their houses, permaculture farmers use soil and water conservation fertility practices such as compost manure, animal manure, intercropping with nitrogen-fixing plants, mulching, permanent no-till beds, and no-till weeding by hand. For agro-biodiversity, farmers intercrop plants from different families that grow throughout the year, and integrate trees in their gardening. Finally, for water conservation and harvesting, the farmers use mulching, irrigating with re-used grey water and collected rainwater, making swales and permanent no-till beds.
'Economic and environmental rewards'
By using these methods, farmers are able to reap both economic and environmental rewards, among other benefits. Economically, farmers realise: decreased food purchasing costs, since they are growing a variety of their food; decreased agricultural input costs (i.e. fertiliser and seeds), as they depend more on manure; decreased labour input, as the systems put in place are self-sustaining and require little maintenance; income diversification; and income generation, as in supplementing their food sources they can sell the surplus. Therefore, permaculture plays a vital role in building economic resilience for households by diversifying their livelihood strategies and ability to withstand crises.
A photograph taken by Kamchacha on his recent visit to the village of Chikhawo, Malawi
Environmentally, permaculture brings about soil conservation, as systems are designed to build organic matter and return nutrients to the soil. Water harvesting helps to maximise the use of the three-to-four month rainy season and has the potential to store water in the ground. Reforestation is also achieved and becomes more productive, as farmers plant trees that are of use to them closer to their homes. Agro-biodiversity aids farmers in improving their diet, helping to assuage the problem of malnutrition in Malawi. Ecosystem biodiversity and reduced dependence on fossil fuels are also important benefits of permaculture, even on a small scale. These practices increase farmers’ environmental resilience by boosting their ability to deal with climate change and helping them to regenerate the environment.
'Food, beauty and fresh air'
Permaculture principles mean farmers can plan and implement their design in a way that works well with nature and available resources: they are able to make the least change for the greatest effect. With small gardens, farmers can make a great change in their societies. Large tree-planting projects have been conducted in Malawi, but sadly most of the trees die out naturally and do not survive. Partly, it is because they are planted in places where farmers find it difficult to monitor them. However, it is easier to take care of a tree around the home. A tree brings shade, food, beauty and fresh air, protects the house from strong winds, and is a source of hope for the future. If farmers started planting trees around their homes, Malawi would have green and beautiful villages. If they made use of their land, food would be available in abundance. The key is to start small and grow big. Permaculture learns from and gives back to nature, which has given so much to us.