Dying for a grain of Rice
‘We should be able to kill about one thousand birds with this’. Ronald says wiping beads of sweat off his face using the back of his left hand. I stare at him my face expressionless as he uses his other hand to mix carbofurlan powder into a basinful of rice grain.
This is the only way we can be able to harvest some rice, otherwise the birds will feed on all the ‘milk’ as soon as the rice flowers leaving us to harvest empty unfilled husks. He adds in an almost inaudible voice. When he looks up and sees the expression on my face he is quick to reassure me.
‘Most farmers here do this. Otherwise there would be nothing to harvest’ I look beyond him to the sky where a flock about one hundred weaverbirds appears from ‘nowhere’ and momentarily fills the sky with the sound of their wings before landing in the next paddy rice field.
See what I mean? The young man asks me with a smile. I nod and walk away, not knowing what to say.
For many peasant farmers in Uganda, rice is the best thing that has happened in a long time. After experimenting with many new ‘wonder crops’ that promised to bail them out of poverty but did not such as Moringa, soy bean and vanilla, rice is finally delivering the promise. Uganda’s drive to produce more rice is not unique. With the world asking for more and food prices rising, Uganda has been struggling to meet domestic consumption for a long time. A window of opportunity opened when a number of development agencies led by Japan set out to help the African continent double her rice production with New Rice for Africa (NERICA), a rice hybrid which combines the high yield of Asian rice with the hardiness and drought resistance of African rice varieties. Armed with NERICA and a good load of optimism, Dr. Gilbert Bukenya Uganda’s Vice President traversed the country, encouraging farmers to grow NERICA and it has worked. Uganda was able to double her rice production in just four years between 2004 and 2008 and the returns on investment for home grown rice are one of the best in the industry thanks to the country’s tax policy of 70% on imported rice. Good rice prices coupled with a good government plan to grow production are fuelling the momentum for farmers to grow more paddy and upland rice. This growth however is likely to come with a high price to the environment and biodiversity.
Wangobo a village in Busiki, Namutumba district is one of the areas in Uganda where farmers are able to grow both paddy and upland rice in the same season. The farmers here have been growing paddy rice for over twenty years but they are quickly taking up upland rice whose early maturity and good yield are attractive. The fact that upland rice can grow outside the muddy swamps makes it possible for the farmers to increase mechanisation and plant up to five acres instead of an average of one to two acres previously possible with paddy rice under limited mechanisation. A financial analysis of the upland value chain in the area shows that using traditional technology like the ox plough, and seed saved from previous seasons the cost of planting an acre of upland rice is Ugx 249,000 ($ 124) whereas the use of high input technology including fertilizer, tractor, herbicides and improved seed can cost up to Ugx 578,000 ($289) an acre. In return the expected yield is 800 and 2,400 kg per acre respectively. At the current price of Ugx 1,500- 1,900 a kilogram of milled rice, it is easy to understand why Uganda’s rice farmers are smiling for all the way to the market. Although such breakthroughs are partly responsible for the increase in Uganda’s rice production, they have given birth to new challenges. Growing more rice means opening up more land and cutting more trees in fragile ecosystems already suffering population pressure while a lag in technology transfer, (bird scaring for example) brings farmers is direct confrontation with wild life.
Killing wild life is not a new phenomenon in Africa. Over the past 100 years, Africa has lost nearly fifty percent of her species to hunting for food, recreation and trade. In most of rural Africa wild animals do not exist outside gazetted wild life areas. With the continent taking a fair share of global wars and armed conflicts, even such gazetted areas can no longer be considered safe havens since rebels and poorly fed regular armies alike take advantage of game meat. Poisoning birds on such a large scale as is done within rice growing communities however is unprecedented and likely to have a devastating effect on natural ecosystems and biodiversity. Birds such as the wattled crane Bugeranus carunculatus a globally threatened specie which was sighted near Kibimba rice scheme in May 2009 are likely to be the first victims. Although Namutumba does not lie within any of Uganda’s recognised Important Bird areas (IBAs), poisoning birds here can have a larger impact because of the migratory nature of some bird species.
To Ronald and other small holder farmers, the pressure of being able to grow food for a growing population is too high. The increase in rice consumption among Uganda’s growing middle class together with emerging lucrative food markets in Southern Sudan and weather uncertainties as a result of climate change have made rice a crop to both love and hate. Sometimes the fields flood at the wrong time or hail stones fall just before harvest ‘killing’ the crop. These are some of the negative economic truths in the mind of every rice farmer. Birds are another, which thankfully can be controlled. The reality that these birds are part of nature’s ecosystem responsible for supporting the farmers’ own lives on this planet is very distant and almost non existent.
According to Susan Nanduddu a Volunteer with Uganda Family Resource Link, an organisation which is mobilising the local community to plant one million trees in Namutumba district, there is limited knowledge on climate change and biodiversity among local communities.
‘Little to nothing is known bout community based adaptation to climate change where it matters most. Instead of holding expensive workshops in cities abroad, we should be sensitising the masses in the villages.’
Like elsewhere in the country, Namutumba district is also suffering a shortage of firewood. Estimates by the National Forestry Authority put Uganda’s wood stock at being able to last only fifty years at the current deforestation rate if nothing is done to avert the trend. Woodland coverage now stands at only 11.5 per cent of the total land area down from 45 per cent in 1890. Most of the deforestation has been caused by human activity such as encroachment for agriculture, unsustainable harvesting and settlement. The State of Environment Report 2008/9 estimates that 16 million tones of firewood are consumed per year as domestic firewood while another 4 million tones of charcoal are consumed per year. What the report does not highlight is the fact that getting 4 million tonnes of charcoal means combusting ten times that amount of biomass. For Namutumba however, farmers may not have to wait fifty years. The majority of farmland here is swampy; flooding during the first rains between March and June every year. Light sandy soils abound outside paddy fields while the gently slopping land is a good encouragement for run off water and soil erosion. As larger tracts of land are opened up for agriculture and more trees cut for firewood and charcoal, the soils are deteriorating very fast. According to Waiswa a local farmer, most shop owners in Busembatya a trading town popular for rice traders made their money planting rice.
‘Omuntu yalimanga yiika isatu yaafa sente’ (loosely translated one would cultivate only three acres and get enough money -to start a shop business.) He says reminiscing of the good old days before soil fertility declined. Now farmers have to contend with lower harvests amidst high agricultural input prices. But Namutumba’s problems are more than just killing birds and cutting trees. Because of demand and growing consumption elsewhere, the land resource is being pushed to the limit. Land has become so fragmented that the only space to plant a tree is on the border of farmers’ gardens. But trees so planted provide a habitat to birds that the farmers are trying to get rid of. What this means is that when farmers plant trees, they invite more birds yet without the trees soils continue to waste. It is practical answers to such riddles that make community based adaptation to climate change a complex subject. In the absence of enough information and faced with a choice between the ‘visible’ benefits of killing birds to get a good harvest and the distant promise for a healthier planet, birds will continue to die for a grain of rice in their thousands.