Ugandan Farmers Face Climate Adaptation Challenges

October 15, 2013

Special Report: Part Five

By LISA MEERTS-BRANDSMA

Uganda’s fertile soils and mild climate not only support a rich diversity of flora and fauna, but also allow 80 percent of the country’s land to be under cultivation, and more than 80 percent of its citizens to live as farmers.

Yet it’s a nation under pressure. The size of Oregon but with almost ten times the number of people, Uganda’s population has grown from eight million to 34 million in the last 50 years, and one estimate has that number quadrupling, if fertility rates remain at their current level, by 2045. The bottom line: The famed “Pearl of Africa” is staring down at a complicated and uncertain future whose success will depend on the people’s ability to grow enough food.

Because the people here, as in many other developing nations, are so dependent on agriculture, the effects of climate change will only compound the situation.

In fact, it’s already begun.

This summer, I spent three months living with Ugandan farmers to understand their challenges. Many pointed to climate change as something they needed to address. Uganda has two growing seasons each year, and farmers said they have seen the timing between the dry and rainy seasons shift. They now struggle to know when to plant crops, a problem that easily leads to crop failure.

I witnessed such a mistake when a peasant farmer named Mogeisa Immelda took a hard rain in early June as an opportunity to plant beans. At first, they flourished and she promised she would harvest them in September. One month later, they had withered to yellowed stalks. Immelda had counted on at least one more rain falling to water the plants, but it never came.

Joel Hartter, a geographer at the University of New Hampshire, has been comparing how Ugandans in the western region of the country perceive climate change to weather data he has collected.[DISCLOSURE: Hartter, a faculty member at the university where I’m receiving my degree, contributed grant funds to support my reporting.]

Weather has inherent variability, he says, and Ugandans are not quite right when they say the timing of the seasons has changed. His data show the amount of rain received during the rainy seasons has remained relatively consistent over the last 30 years.

But Ugandans are correct when they say things are different. The rains now come in pulses instead of steady streams, or downpours compared to long drizzles, and there are longer periods between rainfall events. That causes soils to dry out so that when the next rain comes, they are too parched to absorb the water. The runoff then takes top soil and nutrients with it, the long-term effects of which are decreased fertility and crop yields.

Since the poorest and most vulnerable farmers, whose life circumstances turn season by season, tend to live far from the cities, they are far from groups like farmer’s associations and other non-profits that could teach them new farming techniques. So, most farmers work their land using traditional methods, hearing about new farming technology only through the local grapevine or, if they can afford one, the radio.

Climate change is only one piece that Ugandans must adapt to in the coming years, and non-profits devoted to improving the lives of farmers say education is at the root of the solution. They are experimenting with demonstration farms and hands-on learning models, which have been good starting points to help farmers improve the way they farm.

But given the grave implications of overpopulation, the country’s dependence on agriculture and the effects of climate change on the poor, a lot of work remains to be done.

Lisa Meerts-Brandsma is a journalist and graduate student in the University of New Hampshire’s Master of Fine Arts in Non-fiction Writing program. She spent the summer reporting in Uganda for her thesis, a work of literary journalism entitled, “Salt, Soap, School and Soil.” She can be reached at lmeerts@gmail.com.

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* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2013. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.