/ 27 March 2023

Climate change sees Zimbabweans shift to hilltop farming

Hilltop Farming
The soil will soon deplete, and deforestation means flash floods and mudslides will occur. (Cynthia R Matonhodze/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

His forefathers farmed downhill, but three generations later, after droughts and repeated crop failures, Gibson Mudarikwa broke with the tradition. He and his family clambered up a nearby mountain, chopped down its magnificent trees, and turned the peak into a maize field.

Home is still downhill, in the district of Bocha, about 200km east of the capital Harare. Mudarikwa is not alone. His neighbour, Ashton Mujenya, says repeated heavy rains washed away the fertile soil in his old field, “leaving sand soils only”. And with fertiliser costs increasing, hilltops come with the bonus of soil that is fertile. So he moved up the mountain and things have turned around: “Last season, I harvested three tonnes of maize from the top.”

The government says farmers are moving to mountains and hills to escape the droughts, floods, unpredictable seasons and all the other effects of climate change.

Kudzai Ndidzano, a deputy director at the climate change management unit in the environment and climate ministry, says traditional farmlands “are worn out” and the soil holds less water. The hilltops have better soil because they haven’t been farmed, and years of decaying organic matter have created healthy soil.

The local agriculture ministry says as many as 1 200 farmers have begun farming uphill in the past decade. And that creates a whole new set of problems.

Johnson Masaka, of Midlands State University, says mountain tops act as sponges. They then slowly release water into streams that feed the lowlands. Tampering with this ecosystem means there’s less water seeping downhill and, when it does rain, the danger of flooding increases because there are no trees and plants to slow down the flow of water.

Jason Murevi, a geography high school teacher in the area, says this will also mean  mudslides, which “would wash them all away, together with their homes”. 

Railton Masango, an agricultural extension officer with the provincial agriculture ministry, is similarly concerned.

“Villagers farming on hilltops are happy that they are enjoying fertile soil, but soon worse could come,” he says. “With each season of farming, soil cover will erode away, exposing and shifting boulders on hilltops that will one day violently come crashing down on homes, humans and livestock”. 

Masango adds that villagers who think they have found ways around the drought risk learning the hard way that their solutions were only temporary.

With no soil, the hilltops will be as unproductive as the lowland farms people left behind.

Ndidzano agrees, reiterating the state’s position that people need to stick to “sustainable areas” for farming. “They should employ other climate change adaptation measures to ensure productivity is maintained.”

But poor governance and a broken economy means the state has not supported those measures.

“Farmers in this province have no choice,” says Masango. “To escape they have to switch to any points on the hilltops where they can access fertile land upon which to continue their farming.”

And that means farmers are able to feed their families — for now.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.