The Lost Stories are Bill Mollison’s articles published in the print magazine originally named Permaculture, then International Permaculture Journal and finally the Permaculture International Journal that was published between 1978 and 2000.
All stories and other content ©Permaculture Australia unless otherwise noted.
Story by Bill Mollison, 1988. Edition 29.
Feature photo: Bill and Lisa Mollison, Australasian Permaculture Convergence 9, Sydney, 2009. ©Russ Grayson 2009 https://pacific-edge.info
Resources of the Kalahari — Botswana
THE WHOLE THRUST of this report is to value the natural yeilds of fragile systems like the eastern Kalahari, to listen and report on the extensive local knowledge, to care for ordinary people, especially for their nutrition and basic needs for clean air, water and food, and to try to reduce the impact that broadscale agriculture has had in creating deserts.
More food of better quality and value can be obtained from compound gardening and smallholder training than can ever be obtained by large herds or large field crops. All but some 84 percent of the land area of Botswana can be freed from the devastating weight of cattle and crop if rainwater is conserved, producive compound forests grown and high value perennial forages fed to good local strains of livestock.
Or, Botswana can follow Ethiopia and Mauritania into oblivion and take with it the great resources of the Kalahari _ a world loss. This is for the people of Botswana to decide, and their decision needs all the education and information that they and others can bring to it.
It is my strong belief that the innovative development of natural yields and use of local knowledge will ensure survival. To continue with unthinking ‘development’ will obliterate lands and people alike.
Tswana people are vigorous, intelligent, good observers, of a very hospitable and cheerful nature and perceptive in learning new skills. However, past superstitions and a great deal of popular misinformation means that quite hamless animals (lizards, frogs, snakes) are regarded as dangerous, evil or bad, and killed. This ‘zoophobia’ is striking to visitors. It could probably be cured by TV nature programmes and sensible school instruction. Most striped snakes are harmless or beneﬁcial.
One of the unforseen results of this fear of animals is that almost all compounds are beaten flat and swept clean to prevent snakes from approaching unseen. Thus, the towns present the aspect of a hard red desert despite the example of a few (often European) productive gardens and orchards. There are dangerous snakes (mamba, cobras, sand vipers) but also a host of beneficial or harmless snakes that eat termites, slugs, snails and rodents. Many snakes seek refuge from heat or drought in termite mounds or in the rock caves and stony slopes of ridges and cliffs, so care must be taken in these areas.
Thus compound gardens are a rarity although water is available at all settled areas from dams, bores or wells and normal greywater can be used in gardens. One of our strategies was to create domestic shower gardens, pit gardens and vegetable gardens using wastewater and mulch, with conservative water use. Trickle irrgation equipment is scarce and expensive, so we used mulch-filled soak pits for these gardens or placed vines near taps or washwater areas. All the rondavels (thatched huts) and modern homes would beneﬁt from trellis shading to the north and west.
All Tswana people of traditional mode (most people not in the City of Gaborone) have three-family settlements or compounds, each one of which consists of a series of three to eight thatched huts and a kitchen hut in a thorn-fenced or hedged compound (liveset Euphorbia tirucallis the ultimate hedge, but goggles must be worn when taking cuttings as the milky sap can blind people if not washed quickly from the eyes). One compound is in town, where much of the dry season is spent. This means that from March/April to October/ November the main group of people are in settlements.
In a broad zone of up to 30km from town are ‘the lands’. These lands are cultivated for market and sorghum, once tilled carefully by teams of donkeys and oxen but more recently the tractor (costs are subsidised by the government) is used; this can be a three-way disaster. First, because the thorn bushes, once preserved in the fields, are cleared (the fields are ‘de-stumped’, again by government subsidy or drought relief money) and the hot winds can sweep across the bare sandy fields. Secondly, the ﬁelds of tractor-owners and their families are enlarged, creating up t 100he of bare soil. Traditional fields are 4-12ha with trees as hedge and intercrop. Lastly and perhaps most disastrously, the tractor operators speed up all phases of cultivation, breaking down the soil structure to ‘snuff’ that blows away even in light winds, thus ruining topsoil’ Soils seal and cake or wash away.
People go to the land just before or after the first rains. The men plough the lands then go on to the more remote cattle posts where large livestock is ranged. The women and children plant and tend the grain crops, weed them, scare off birds (mainly weaver birds) from the ripe grain in summer. The men return to the lands to help with harvest and to cart in the grain to town in February-March, and from then to November only a skeleton crew of (often) San people or Basarwa tend the remote cattle posts. Their ‘wages’ are some milk, perhaps a calf, some clothes and the security of a well or borehole.
At the cattle post (some 30-80 km from town), wells and bore- holes or ponds dug in river sands provide water for livestock. Although the Tswana think of themselves as cattle people, and cattle have great status, there are very few large cattle owners (of more than 30 head) and these are for the main part absentee officials, chiefs on parliamentary people on relatively large salaries.
Most Tswana (60-70 percent) have no cattle and perhaps 25-30 percent have from three to 30 head. Thus, most of the large livestock of Botswana, perhaps as 80 percent of the national herd, are owned by nine percent or so of people already rich from salary or position. The total herd in 1980 was about three million head. Even though all land is tribal, cattle ownership is therefore unbalanced, and tribal lands stressed or eroded.
Small livestock (mainly goats, but some sheep) are more equitably distributed and form the largest part of the domestic meat consumed. These smaller livestock and a few milk cows and donkeys are kept in and near towns (Gaborone excepted) and of course in remote settlements and family compounds. A very unusual underutilisation of the national herd is evident from census data and abattoir records. Although Botswana just might be able to support 700,000 cattle ‘wet and dry’, the cattle numbers will climb to three million in good seasons without any increase in cattle killed or exported.
Only 200-300,000 cattle are killed annually for export to the EEC as hamburger or boned meat. Thus, wealth is wasted and the country devastated by unused herds — the problem is that large herds are part of high status — and a great dying takes place (as is now happening) every 18-20 years as wells dry up, vegetation is devastated and soils blow away. The main sufferers are the Tswana people, not the bureaucrats who own the herds and who can afford deep bores or expensive wells. Every drought therefore reduces the number of ordinary people who can keep cattle. Every drought kills draught oxen and donkeys and makes it difficult for smallholders to plough their fields. Every drought erodes more soil and destroys more vegetation, thus making recovery more difficult. Drought has a 18.6-20 year cycle as is common everywhere and 15 of the last 19 droughts were El Nino years, with a large blocking high-pressure cell in the South Pacific.
Desertification following drought
In my very sober estimate, Botswana is on the rapid road to permanent desertification via tractors, boreholes and the sustained overstocking of cattle. Another desertification effect comes from large fields without windbreaks.
Another such drought, or this one, will create a true permanent desert of what was (in peoples’ memories) a well-forested land of permanent streams, a great deal of wildlife and abundant food in all seasons. Botswana, as a viable nation, has modernised to near extinction since 1950.
As for the small—stock (established at 8,000,000 head), the goats and sheep, donkeys and chickens so important to the domestic economy have also been increasing the pressure on the every-failing plant resources. Consequently, yields are low, milk production per animal minute and local foodstuffs rare. This is a golden opportunity for South Africa, and the Boers export most market food in Botswana. This despite a not-so-long-ago self-sufficiency and a previously sound range land. The whole real economic position of the Tswana people is therefore precarious, tied as it is to the unstable South African economy which in itself is in a state of change and whose future looks bleak.
Thus our emphasis on the elements of self-reliance — home gardens and compound orchards, high-value intensive fodders for small stock, careful domestic and field rainwater harvest and a decrease in reliance on broadscale grains and beef.
Given careful local economic analysis, a great many jobs can be generated by decreasing reliance on South Africa and by compound gardening trials of high value food and fodder, while the future sale of managed wildlife rather than the dependence on beef (of which there is a world glut) would assure specialist products indefinitely.
It has been clear for several decades that the processes that lead to desertification are rooted in economic-political factors and Botswana still has a narrow chance to use her resources to save herself. But time is not on her side and to ask bureaucrats to change is to wish for the moon.
The role of agencies, bureaucrats and government in desertification
We later note the role of the EEC in the death of herds of game animals by cordon fences, the desertified ﬁelds subject to Acacia destumping (removal) for tractor ploughing and the fast-speed cultivation that destroys soil stucture following subsidised mechanisation.
But the most insidious role is played by the development of wells and boreholes by aid money, plus the deforestation of great strips of country as drought relief money is diverted to road building and whole villages employed to cut, burn and waste useful trees to create dust destroyed roads.
The role of over-used wells and bores in desertification is long attested in India, North America, Africa and Australia. Not only are clean groundwaters exhausted and aquifers collapsed, but the larger herds and annual crops developed around these water sources are the main cause of nucleated desertification. Nor are sophisticated analyses of water quality made, so that very dangerous radioactive and mineral pollutants can be brought up to pollute local soils, to be ingested by people or to be washed into streams in flood.
Very narrow, well made, gravelled and winding roads with swales are useful in transport, and clean-water wells ideal for the development of permanent tree crop and domestic water, but the latter do nothing that village roof tanks will not do if rainwater is harvested. Any method of rainwater infiltration is beneficial whereas bores are destructive and tempt people to ignore the realities of cyclic drought, and thus to maintain destructive herds.
Aid, bank and government money should therefore be critically reassessed or these funds will create insoluble future problems. Small local schemes are always preferable to grand policy systems. As for forestry, in it’s pitiful present state it poses a threat via dieldrin that will threaten long term exports. Local sensitive forestry hardly exists.
Next issue: Wafer problem, exotic plants, and insect foods in Botswana.
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