As part of CAWR’s Stabilisation Agriculture Programme, I recently visited Chimanimani district in Zimbabwe to initiate comparative research on how conventional and agroecologically managed landscapes coped with the impacts of Cyclone Idai in March 2019. Idai deposited the total annual rainfall in the first twelve hours alone – yet sat over and devastated Chimanimani for three days.

This wasn’t the first time I’d visited Chimanimani. In fact, I undertook my own doctoral research on social farming and conflict in this same area over 2016-17 and, however ‘participatory’ my action research was designed to be, I was keenly aware that it was still bound to be fundamentally extractive. I was therefore honoured, and excited, to have been asked to return to be part of an interdisciplinary team of, primarily Zimbabwean, researchers; and to co-develop action research with some of those same farming communities as they seek to make meaning out of the devastation, and be part of facilitating community-generated change processes capable of reducing social vulnerabilities and mitigating future impacts.

Given that exposure to disasters and risk is interconnected but experienced in different ways by various groups, this multi-sectoral research considers integrated pathways towards building social-ecological responsiveness, and explores the underlying vulnerabilities to risk. To manage this complexity, the impacts will be analysed using different lenses applied to six themes: (1) Humanitarian Impact, (2) Climate Change and Environment, (3) Agroecology and Land Use, (4) Livelihoods, political economy and governance, (5) Topography, infrastructure and settlement and, (6) Disaster risk reduction, relief and recovery.

The initial 18-month research has been commissioned by local agroecology NGO, TSURO Trust with international funding, and is sanctioned by the rural district authority in order that lessons can be learned. Importantly, as a collaborative project, it brings together academics from across Zimbabwe for the first time. But perhaps most importantly, it brings all of us together with those who experienced the cyclone in all its ferocity. For us, in agroecology theme 3, this means designing processes that explore opportunities that crises have a tendency to surface, bringing communities of resource users together in dialogues with decision makers who, at various levels, define land and resource use, and management of the agroecosystem.

November scoping visit attended by researchers from across the thematic areas.

Our interdisciplinary agroecology team consists of six researchers: from the local Department of Agriculture Extension Services (Agritex), Bindura University, University of Cape Town, Midland State University, Practical Action and CAWR. Meeting for the first time in November, and having an opportunity to meet with affected people and see the scale of the devastation to landscapes, homes and cropping areas, we began the task of methodological design and detailed planning. To my relief and excitement, our team collectively agreed to experiment with participatory action research (PAR), not only to collectively explore issues of biophysical stabilisation, but also socio-cultural and livelihood vulnerability and responsiveness.

Landslides released ‘rivers of boulders’ through the centre of villages, destroying homes, roads and bridges, and washing away vital cropland across the district.

Our second visit in December saw the start of our research, engaging 35 ‘agroecological’ farmers from across 8 of the most affected wards, and where agroecological farming support has been provided in its various forms since the 1990s: Biriiri, Chakohwa, Chayamiti, Chikukwa, Martin, Nyahode, Ngorima A and Ngorima B. Each ward hosts between 2,000 and 4,000 people. Each of these wards sit under three chieftaincies charged, by the rural district council, with developing strategic plans for the implementation of national environmental regulations.

According to the contested social contract between people, their traditional authorities and the state since independence in 1980, there is no obligation to consult resource users themselves. On communal lands, as opposed to those managed by the state after the distinct phases of land reform, this means that decisions on the localised management of, for instance, veld fires (annual burning of grasses), stream bank cultivation, livestock grazing, deforestation and the protection of sacred copse, or the transfer of land into new hands, are defined and enforced (or not) in accordance with the whims of each chiefly authority.

In recent times of economic decline and a renewed period of hyperinflation, where many headmen extract additional levies for personal gain, trust and solidarity within and between these marginal farming communities has been severely strained. Social divisions are exacerbated by a complex interplay between economic inequalities and patronage politics, and tensions between the divergent world views of traditionalism and productivism. In this context, longer-term thinking about landscape planning for disaster risk mitigation has simply not been on the radar. Until now.

Our first research session took place at Biriiri Mission, a school with dormitories that could host us and our 35 farmer co-researchers together, providing us all with food (while the mosquitoes fed off all of us). Meeting farmers invited by TSURO and other longstanding agroecology NGOs, such as CELUCT in Chikukwa, our aim was to develop a team of farmer co-researchers and their local extension officers who will work with us for the duration, and grow the research. Having introduced the project and its aims, we began with a series of focus groups, using World Café, with equal numbers of women, men and youths (regionally considered as those who are 35 years old and below). Each rotated around three sub-themes to capture their views on: a) what would a resilient landscape look like; b) what might social resilience look and feel like; and c) what would resilience livelihoods look like and mean for them.

Youth group discussed their indicators for social resilience.

During discussions in each group, the farmers developed a series of indicators of change that could be translated into, and form, a series of questions for a survey. The input of the youths was particularly striking in its detail across each sub-theme (seen in red on the flipchart above-right). Any debates or divergences within or between groups during the ranking of issues were incorporated within the response ranges of related survey questions. As our co-researchers retired for supper and then bed, the core team worked on these questions into the night.

On arriving from breakfast, the following morning, one of the ‘youths’ admitted that, during supper, it was widely believed that ‘they [researchers] will already know what they want the survey to say, and our ideas will not be included’. Instead, the survey, containing 10-12 questions under each sub-theme, captured the detailed discussions of the previous day. Our co-researchers were surprised and delighted at this validation of their own experiences and views. Breaking down this first researcher-practitioner-activist trust barrier – we were off to a solid start as a wider team.

After a discussion on any clarifications and confusing terms (which duly noted and corrected some of my own spelling mistakes) and some ethics training, the English language survey (as discussed and agreed by co-researchers) was printed for testing. This was followed up with final amendments and some one-to-one support where required.

Despite being the beginning of the rainy season, and so planting time, farmers were keen to get started with their own questions as soon as possible – despite having a window of three weeks to complete their surveys. Together with their Agritex officers, the co-researchers discussed and developed their survey samples; each containing 50% agroecological farmers, and 50% conventional farmers.

Accepting that few farmers are purely one or the other, the initial demographic information seeks to ground the responses in the different land-use systems practiced by local smallholders which, in the district, include organic (traditional and/or certified under the PGS), permaculture, agroforestry and holistic land and livestock management. We anticipate that many farmers identified as one or the other will, in reality, be practicing agroecology on their homestead plots while perhaps using state supplied hybrid maize and synthetic fertilisers on their dryland plots.

While they rarely consume it, agroecological farmers produce and sell hybrid maize back to the state’s Grain Marketing Board as a vital source of income, whereas yields from treasured open pollinated heirloom varieties will be for a combination of home consumption, barter and local commercial trade. The differential between the ‘stability’ of these dryland and home-based production systems will also form an important part of our data analysis.

With Christmas just around the corner, and payment terms (per carefully completed survey) and schedule agreed, we then printed (and collated!) 800 surveys. After a very full two days together, each co-researcher proudly boarded their buses home the following morning with between 20-25 surveys each tucked carefully in their CAWR tote bags. And while not all of our co-researchers have smart phones (I noted that all-to-few women farmers did), I nonetheless set up a Whatsapp group consisting of 20 team members. Over Christmas we’ve all been sharing stories and progress reports – of our return journeys from Biriiri Mission, our Christmas’ and data collection.

Our 40-strong Agroecology and Land-use Research team.

Next Steps …

The next step for the research will be for the farmer surveys to be returned (via Agritex officers and TSURO) to Bindura University for data cleaning and input. In February we will come together once again to discuss and make meaning from the data, to develop a presentation, and to support our co-researchers to feedback the survey results to their own communities.

Taking place in two different locations, those invited will be all of the survey respondents, their extension officers and host NGOs, local leaders (traditional and elected), government services and district council officials. This will create an important opportunity to discuss and validate the data. But most importantly, it will be used to create a discursive space within which to surface ‘matters of concern’ that, in the following session, will form the basis of a solution finding/building process – resulting in community-generated action plans.

Given the range of questions contained within the survey, this session will be challenging and fascinating. These action plans will, in turn, form the basis for new funding that our 40-strong research team will mobilise others around, as they seek to find new ways of reordering and securing their social-ecological landscape against future threats – and, albeit quietly, negotiating ways of revisiting that social contract.

During a following activity, in April, the whole team will all travel together to visit, discuss and measure the different facets of ‘resilient landscapes’ – those that have since been identified as having coped particularly well during the cyclone and its immediate aftermath. Of course, agroecology is far greater than the sum of its technical parts. And while the biophysical stabilisation of natural resources is central to this investigation into resilience, responsiveness and recovery from extreme weather events, so too is an element of covert resistance to technocratically imposed farming norms, and the transgressive solidarity of social farming that seeks to challenge structured dependency and social division.

Ultimately, it is hoped that this piece of participatory action research, and farmer’s enthusiasm for engaging in it to critically shape change in ways that demonstrate collective agency can, at the same time, reinforce the power of contextual grassroots legitimacy rooted in local networks and relationships. Is it a high hope from a theoretical ivory tower? We, as a now 40-strong group of motivated co-researchers, sincerely hope not.

To be continued …