In sight of the increasing land degradation in the mountains of Lesotho, some farmers are bringing in alternative livestock management practices to preserve their livelihoods and their environment.
10 / 2006
The effect of a pastoralist tradition in the mountains of Lesotho today
Livestock, and particularly cattle, have always played a central role in the lives of the Basotho (Lesotho people). Traditionally herders, the people from the small mountainous country of Lesotho are culturally and economically attached to livestock. Raising animals is their principal economic activity; they provide meat, milk, wool, transport, labour power and income. Lesotho’s main exports are wool and mohair and, besides, livestock is regarded as an important indicator of wealth, which can be sold for cash in times of need. Therefore, the larger the number of animals a family owns, the wealthier it is.
This cultural value amongst a rapidly increasing population, coupled with inadequate livestock husbandry techniques is imposing a large pressure on land in the mountains of Lesotho. Severe environmental degradation is occurring, and arable land is being lost; it is estimated that around 40 million tons of soil is lost by erosion in Lesotho every year. This land degradation is affecting both crop and animal production, soils are losing their fertility, yields are low and quality of livestock is poor, which is generating food insecurity for a large number of families whose livelihoods depend on farming.
Alarm is raising and there are different approaches being taken to tackle this issue throughout the country. Farmers like Lejang Tsotetsi, who taught forestry at the Agriculture College, are using their limited resources and knowledge to experiment different livestock management techniques that can stop land degradation and improve the quality of their animals and crops, with the hope that, one day, they will be self-sufficient.
Overgrazing and land degradation
According to the traditional Basotho way of raising livestock (cattle, goats and sheep), the animals are taken by herders to graze on communal land. In the case of the foothills, which are plateaus at the base of the mountains, most of the land is ploughed for crops, so there is a limited area for grazing. For this reason, livestock owned by the farmers in the foothills are taken to higher pastures in the mountains during the summer, with the traditional authorities regulating the right of access to pastures. This means that during the summer, grazing areas in the highlands hold livestock from mountain and foothills farmers. Today, the population is increasing at an annual growth rate of 2.6%, and livestock is still seen as a sign of wealth like in the past, so mountain people have an average of 15 to 20 cows per family. Most of the farmers continue practising the traditional way of grazing, taking the animals to the range lands in the mountains. Over stocking of mountain pastures is causing that the land grazing capacity of these areas is overpassed, leading to soil compaction and poor animal health. The results are that there is not enough food for the animals, they are forced to travel long distances to find grass, and the land is being severely eroded. Traditionally, Basotho farmers from the mountains do not grow fodder for their animals, all their food intake is from grazing, so now, as livestock does not have enough food during the summer, in the winter they run out of reserves, and often die.
Changing the livestock farming approach
Some farmers, in the sight of the negative consequences that the traditional practices are having in the present context, are starting to re-orientate their activities, with the objective of maximizing productivity, securing food supply, and insuring some income for their households. This is the case of Lejang Tsotetsi, and his eleven fellow members of the Machache Dairy Farmers Association. The association drew the conclusion that given the present situation, raising dairy cows is more suitable than raising meat cows. On the one hand, one needs a lower number of animals to make a living and, also, dairy cows need to stay confined by the household, so the pressure of livestock grazing in the highlands is reduced. A reduced number of cows can be kept in the homestead, be fed fodder grown in the nearby fields and water fetched for them by the farmers. This way the animals do not have to walk long distances, which is energy intensive that now can concentrate in the production of milk.
The Machache Association is focussing all its efforts on upgrading their breeds. Imported improved dairy breeds are too expensive, so what they are doing is upgrading the local breeds. The objective is to obtain very productive cows but adapted to the particular conditions of the foothills and highlands of Lesotho. The advantage of the local breeds is that, apart from resistant, they are good for milk and for meat, so the farmers get a dual-purpose animal. The Association is being supported to upgrade its livestock by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock which is providing them with training and insemination material.
In terms of marketing of the milk, the Association does not have enough volume yet, so the farmers are using the milk for home consumption and selling the little surplus locally. In the future, they aim at organizing the sale together in town, and there are also plans of engaging in processing of dairy products. At the moment they use the association to raise funds to buy inputs in bulk together, like fodder for the winter. The good results of this change of direction on the farming techniques are starting to be observed by the neighbour farmers, and the association is used as a ground to share ideas and experiences, and to learn from each other. They also receive trainings from the extension services and other organizations, so they can keep improving the management of their land and their animals.
Need to educate on good management practices
It is crucial that farmers are educated on how to manage their environment. People need knowledge to be able to use their resources without depleting them. For this, efforts should be put together in order to share information and exchange experiences, at local, national and Southern Africa regional level. The media should be used to spread good management practices, so they can reach everyone.
The mountains can be a better option for future generations
Life in the mountains means self-sufficiency, with a capacity to produce everything that is needed, and without having to consume imported products. It also gives a sense of peace and security, with a stronger feeling of belonging to a community.
In order to preserve this, and create a future for the mountains, we need to involve our children in our activities, inculcate in them the interest for agriculture, and the knowledge to manage their environment in a sustainable way. Staying in the mountains to farm can be a better option for the future generations than being unemployed in towns, but for that, the children and youth need to be educated, and to know how to best manage the land, and to get the maximum profit from the resources they have. Education would make a good change in the communities, and could solve most of the present problems in the mountains.
This interview has been realized by ALMEDIO Consultores with the support of the Charles-Léopold Mayer Fondation during the regional meeting organised by the World Mountain People Association - APMM.
Interview to Lejang P. TSOTETSI, Member of the Machache Dairy Farmers Association, HA Mosuoe, PO Box 43, Machache 130, LESOTHO, (Foothills along Machache Range, Maseru District), Phone: (+266) 22 34 72 03
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