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Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands


Land-Ocean Interactions
 in the Coastal Zone


The interaction between ecology and agriculture in Mabibi, South Africa

Elena Bulfoni, University of Udine, Italy
Assisted by Nqobile Nyathikazi, University of Zululand
Project leader and report editor: Mark Jury

October 2004

1 Introduction
2 Situation analysis
3 Living in a Mabibi homestead
4 Agricuture and eco-tourism
5 First phase of the Mabibi farm plot

6 The Second Phase


Making compost


Considerations and results
7 Final considerations


1. Introduction

This work follows on from previous studies on the ecology, socio-economics and physical environment. An earlier phase of this agriculture sub-project had been started in November 2001. Its aim was to analyse the co-existence of agriculture and biodiversity in this area, within the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park and Unesco World Heritage Site.

Further work was needed to find ways to improve traditional agriculture in an ecologically sustainable way. It is was deemed useful to have an on-site presence in Mabibi and a farm plot was started in 2003 under supervision of MSc student, Ms N. Nyathikazi, a Zulu lady who had been trained in agronomy at the Univ. Udine, Italy. This part of the Unesco project involved the cooperative support of the Geography and Agriculture Departments of the Univ. Zululand, to better understand what could be done to improve agriculture whilst diverting impacts from the wetlands around Mabibi. Ms Bulfoni of the Univ. Udine, Italy was commissioned to monitor the work and gave technical advice during the period March-April 2004.

2. Situation analysis

The Mabibi project's objective for this phase was "to simulate a local farmer with limited resources - who needs to feed his extended family without impacting on the wetland ecology". Supplies were provided for the stay of Ms Nyathikazi and Bulfoni in Mabibi for one month. They lived with a local family in their home, facing the same problems (lack of running water, electricity, etc) as the local people do everyday. The farm plot was a distance of 1 km from home, whilst showers and toilets were located at the camp site, another 1 km in the opposite direction (see map). This meant that going to work in the field and having a shower on the same day was difficult. All the walking had the advantage that community impacts on the wetlands could be viewed, and researchers were seen to be a part of the community.

3. Living in a Mabibi homestead

Mabibi's people are still extremely traditional in their outlook and culture and have been little affected by the processes of westernisation and modernisation. Living in Mabibi, the feeling is that nothing happens: no electricity, no potable water, no public transport, no markets, no public telephones. It is so quiet. Civilisation is reduced to a school, a camp site (where running water is available) and a small health clinic.

Map 1: Mabibi area

Photo 1: View of Mabibi's village

In Mabibi there is no water borne sewage system, the existing houses being serviced by outdoor pit latrines. People collect water from the lake or pans, carrying it in bottles on their heads or in 25 litre containers in wheelbarrows. There are a few wells, but the majority are exhausted. Transport is a private truck which travels from Mabibi to Mbazwana a few times a week. It sometimes conveys more than 15 people with their food and luggage, which makes an uncomfortable journey that takes over one hour.

Women work at home and in the fields, while men fish to the Ocean (the lake can be a problem with crocodiles and hippos) or migrate to towns to work for cash.

Photo 2: Mabibi's outdoor pit latrine

Photo 3: Children fetch water from lake or pans

People in Mabibi are living a life quite well integrated with the primitive environment. However the youngest don't want to remain in the village. The extreme isolation is strongly felt; they aren't interested in farming because they do not see enough profit.

Although development is slow, over and above the subsistence economy, a cash economy is emerging in response to the new socio-economic demands felt by people on the Mabibi village. Cash is needed to meet these demands that have permeated into the rural situation from cities as a result of labour migrants. Radios, furniture, crockery, cutlery, etc. have become symbols of status. Education has also become important and prestigious.

Although agriculture provides a limited living for most households (est. $100 per month), it is generally seen by adults and especially by women, as a natural resource which has potential to develop into a worthwhile asset. However, the low yields and limited infrastructure open to the community prevent a guaranteed income from agriculture and, even though agriculture plays an important role in survival, it does not provide a continuous source of income.

4. Agriculture and eco-tourism

It is difficult to envision which direction development will go: a delicate equilibrium has settled in Mabibi between man and environment. This equilibrium could be broken if the village becomes touristic, on the one hand, or under-developed and degraded on the other. Wetlands in Mabibi are the habitat for an important part of this biodiversity, which means plants, animals, insects and birds peculiar to the area. According to satellite image analyses and on-going studies in the Unesco project, wetlands in this area are diminishing due to climate change and human activity.

With project's aim to study the feasibility of shifting cultivation from wet to dry lands; answers are needed to the questions: How does wetland reduction occur? Is it natural or man-made? Is the agricultural 'surface' increasing? Does agriculture represent a real risk to local biodiversity? Can yields be maintained when crops are shifted from wet to dry land?

Certainly the present agricultural productivity cannot give a satisfying subsistence to Mabibi's inhabitants: yields are extremely low and dependant on rain intensity and frequency, and wetland and lake proximity. A constraint to agricultural development in the region is the lack of farmer support service, as well as the lack of producer organisations. The agricultural extension base is weak and therefore access to information about correct farming methods and improved techniques often does not reach the subsistence farmers. A small percentage of households derive all their income from agriculture, and for these households access to markets is a major problem. At the end, malnutrition and emigration to towns are the result of cash needs caused by these deficiencies. Meanwhile a new tourist lodge is being built close to the beach. About half the construction workers are from Mabibi and over half of its operating staff will come from the local community. Recently the Conservation Service paid into the Mabibi community's trust account a fee for on-going camp management and ameliorations. Thus tourism development is moving in the right direction, as the local community together with a private developer will have a partnership to provide basic services.

5. First phase of the Mabibi farm plot

The first fieldwork started in October 2003; consisting of two experimental cultivations: one of peanuts, another of onions. The aim was to test the possibility of growing those crops on dry lands rather than in the wet lands and to understand whether the use of compost could improve yields.

Two 10 m x 10 m fields were prepared and divided into 16 (2 m x 2 m) sub-plots. Randomly, compost was added in half of the plots. Peanuts were sown at 36 seeds/plot (=90 000 seeds/ha) density; onions were sown in seed trays and, after 2-3 weeks, transplanted. Onions were irrigated before transplantation. Irrigation was limited for both crops once in the open fields.

In mid-March 2004, it was time to harvest. The onions had largely failed because of the drought (rainfall was < 70% of normal in the preceding summer) and the field was prepared for the next cultivation. Peanuts were harvested, reaping nuts and soil samples for laboratory analyses. Samples were taken in 8 plots, excluding more external ones.

Peanuts were small, but similar to locally grown peanuts in dimension. Not much difference could be noticed between plots with or without compost. This was because the concentration had been too limited.

Photo 5: Onion and peanut crops being harvested in 2004

7 (30)
5*# (30)
9# (33)
10# (31)
4 (34)
13 (29)

purple: plots without compost;
green: plots with compost;
(116): plots numeration;
(*): plots where soil sample were taken;
(#): plots where plants sample were taken;
(n): n plants harvested.

Peanut plants were counted for each plot to quantify seed germination. Other considerations were made with the laboratory analysed results. These indicated only slight increases in yield from the composted sub-plots.


Since moving crops from wet to dry lands was the aim, it was difficult to expect positive results without an expensive irrigation system. Mabibi's area, characterized by a sub-tropical climate, is often exposed to long dry spells. Annual mean precipitation can be high (1000 mm/year), but usually is concentrated in short periods, which leaves long dry and high-temperature spells. Soil temperatures in the open field at mid-day were measured and found to be up to 50 C! However with a mulch layer on the surface, this was reduced to 35 C. Yet, given the poor soil and dry weather, vegetables such as onions would have difficulty growing without water-stress. Peanuts also suffered because of drought and pests.

A graduate student, with the help of a local man, hoes and rakes, and starting on a completely uncultivated field, would find it challenging to take on the cultivation in a scientifically valid basis. The field site was rather isolated and the community was not so involved. The local farm plot manager, Mr Nhlozi, didn't stimulate community involvement. He seemed more interested in village development than farming.

Considering the compost quantity utilized for crops, it emerged that too little had been incorporated. A greater amount would be needed in future. The fencing system turned out to be economical and effective, and Ms Nyathikazi's and Mr Nhlozi's commitment to the work remained high. With this background, a 2nd phase was conducted.

6. The Second Phase

For this second phase of the Mabibi farm plot an increase in compost and a change in seasons and crops were considered. Ms Nyathikazi and Bulfoni left the University with a bag of sorghum seeds, food and camping equipment to stay in Mr Nhlozi's homestead. They stopped at the local farmers market to buy cabbage seeds and were taken to the village. The first three days were spent at the camp site with Mr Mhtembu (project co-leader from the Zululand University) and Mr Chikoore (a MSc student studying land-atmosphere interactions as part of his MSc). They assisted the harvesting of peanuts. Thereafter the ladies stayed in Mr Nhlozi's homestead.

Fieldwork was restricted by the limited labour and equipment available: no irrigation, no vehicle, etc. However without the vehicle we were better able to appreciate the community's situation and were more in touch with its inhabitants. However leaving the village to buy necessities was difficult.

We decided to go back to the University with public transport, to obtain a vehicle to return in Mabibi. We then expanded the cultivation beyond 100 m2 of sorghum (cabbage germination wasn't successful). With Mr Mhtalane's (a University technician) collaboration, we went to a nursery to buy bean seeds to sow them directly in the farm plot. To avoid losing compost soil during the previous project phase and given the small labour force (Nyathikazi, Nhlozi, Bulfoni), we decided to maintain the precedent field's extension and plot layout. Sorghum bicolor was sown in 6 continuous rows in each plot - a 40 cm inter-row distance. Cabbage seeds were sown in seed trays to be transplanted later (this crop was then substituted by a bean crop). Compost was added in higher quantity and in more extended surfaces.

Making compost

We organized a composting demonstration, involving the local people of Mabibi. Straw, plant residues and kitchen waste are a valuable source of organic matter for improving and maintaining the fertility of soil. Making compost with them is a practical alternative to the use of animal manures. Compost is low in nutrients but is a rich source of humus, which has a crucial influence on the retention and release of them, the formation of good soil structure and the soil's ability to hold water. Any bulky matter of plant origin is more or less suitable for composting. Nitrogen-rich material, in the form of leaves and nitrogen-rich additives such as animal manures, accelerates decomposition. There must be a good balance of material in a heap in order to ensure the movement of air, composting being an aerobic process. Mixing in a proportion of semi-woody material helps this by preventing the heap from becoming compacted.

Building the compost heap up in layers aims to mix the type of material added. The heap must not be allowed to become waterlogged, which excludes air and lowers the temperature, and it has to be covered to keep off rain and maintain warmth and internal moisture. Conversely, the heap should not be too dry, as this similarly slows decay; in warm weather it needs to be watered. It must be at least of 1,5 m large x 2 m long x 1,5 m high. Rotting waste generates heat through the activity of microorganisms, and a well-made compost heap can reach around 70C within three or four weeks. It is most beneficial to turn the heap from time to time, ideally by forking rotting material out of a full bin into an empty one: less rotted material has to be moved from the sides of the bin to the centre of the new load, where it rots faster. This has to be done at least once per full loading and preferably more often. A heap that is carefully loaded and regularly turned can produce usable compost within a month or so.

Everything mentioned above was explained in plain terms in the Zulu language to the Mabibi people during our composting demonstration. The people were very happy with this new information.

Photo 6: Compost demonstration

Compost was made from locally available material from the Mabibi area: litter from poultry, peanut harvest residues, dry grass and soil (there was insufficient time to collect organic matter like kitchen waste, but we suggested it). The compost demonstration proved itself successful, with good participation by the village's women especially.

Considerations and results

The Sorghum bicolor (variety PAN 8564 - chemically treated seed), provided by the Agriculture Department, was a good choice since it is a bird-proof type. Closely associated with maize production is the grain sorghum crop, used in South Africa since the earliest days of white settlements. Sorghum is rich in vitamin D and proteins, and is best known for its roles as malt and meal in brewing local beer.

Photo 7: Sorghum field

As shown above, when we left Mabibi the sorghum was growing rather well (it rained sometime after seeding); the small plants were 20-30 cm high and there were no evident signs of diseases. Beans were just sown. Some differences could be noticed in the plants' dimensions between plots with and without compost, but it was too early to make valid considerations.

Subsequently these crops were harvested in September 2004, and it was found that, after accounting for the range of values within each group of samples, the sorghum yield was increased by 22% and the bean yield by 54% in the composted plots. This was a most satisfying result, as very little effort had been put into the crops since planting, with exception of hand watering once a week during dry spells.

7. Final Considerations

Many advantages could be obtained by integrating local people into the farm project:

Local people themselves can have some voice in making the choices that will most directly impact on their lives. Planning systems must be designed to be responsive to the community, not only because their involvement is essential to gaining their commitment, but also because they have relevant information which otherwise may be unavailable to the planner and academic.

If the project is to encourage a shift of cultivation from wet to dry lands, remarkable results must be achieved. Such an effort would require irrigation in the hot climate of Mabibi. This investment will be useful if tanks are used; they could fill during the rainy periods. Funds should be set aside for this purpose.

Collaboration amongst environmental and agriculture proponents is essential in order to assure a correct analysis in this complex project:

The farm plot will be taken over by the community in November 2004 to provide a short-term supplement to their income, during the quiet period before the coming wave of tourism and development hits this 'warmest' coast of South Africa.


See other articles related to the UNESCO pilot project on 'Development-conservation strategies for integrated coastal management in Maputaland (South Africa, Mozambique)'


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