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Tanzanian rice farmers fight against climate change

Farmers in Tanzania are badly affected by climate change. Photo: Oxfam
Farmers in Tanzania

“Climate change is killing us”. Andrew Chikwanda could scarcely put it more bluntly. It’s his first day as Acting Director of Kahama District in Tanzania, but his biggest challenge is obvious.

The rain does still fall on these vast plains – sometimes too hard. The problem is it does so less regularly and much more randomly.

Helping farmers adapt to climate change is the goal of a new Oxfam project, funded by the Scottish Government. The dangers of not doing so are clear and present. Two districts of Shinyanga are now “food insecure” for the first time – that’s code for people going hungry.

It’s a worrying new reality created not by the actions of the area’s rice farmers, but in part by the polluting industries and lifestyles of developed countries thousands of miles away. It’s farmers like those in Shinyanga who are feeling the full force; there’s little climate justice here.

No longer can farmers plant with confidence that the rains will come – rice, after all, depends on water. Instead they face a cruel gamble; even a short drought in the middle of the season will kill their crops entirely.

Exaveria Sangijo. Photo: Oxfam
Exaveria Sangijo

After a day in the fields, Exaveria Sangijo from Chela Village, explains: “When there is plenty of water we produce enough but,when there is a shortage of rains we don’t produce that much. We depend on the rain – we want it to continue. If it is the factories that are contributing they [developed countries] should do whatever it takes to ensure the rains keep coming.”

But with seven children to feed she can’t afford to wait.

Exaveria is one of thousands of farmers linked to the Scottish Government funded project, now six months old.

As he travels to run a training session, Paul Seni, a project officer from one of Oxfam’s local partners, taps his temple gently: “First we tackle the software” he says, “then comes the hardware”.

Boosting understanding of why the climate is changing and how to respond to it is the key first stage. Farmers, used to working as individuals, are joining the project’s groups and are trained together. They learn how to produce strong seedlings and how to care for their crop to maximise returns.

In a nearby field, twenty bare-foot farmers are ankle deep in mud as they work side-by-side to plant seedlings.

“Not there – behind the lines”, Paul shouts: careful spacing will help ensure bigger harvests.

But improved techniques alone will not secure more water. The construction of new earth dams to trap rain water is therefore a crucial innovation. From them, a vast network of arteries pumps life into otherwise barren land. It means for these farmers rice is becoming a cash crop as well as a crucial food crop. As income goes up so too does access to health and education – both are key to building a stable future.

In the village of Bulugala, Christopher Masengwa swings open the heavy iron door of a new rice warehouse which allows farmers to store their crops immediately after harvest when prices slump. They can then sell it when the market becomes less crowded, and prices rise.

But Christopher’s foot-steps create a worrying echo. “This year there are few bags of rice”, he explains. “There was not enough rain so a lot of farmers saw their rice dry in their farm.”

New technology could offer some protection.

A new strain of rice could offer hope. Photo: Oxfam
A new strain of rice could offer hope

At a nearby research centre Dr Geophrey Kajiru, proudly holds Nerica – New Seeds For Africa. It’s a strain of rice requiring less water that’s being tested for use in Tanzania.

“You don’t need standing water like conventional rice”, says Dr Kajiru. “I would like to see Tanzania to be famous for rice production.”

Indeed, Tanzania has the potential to be a key food producer across East Africa – an area still trying to recover from a major food crisis in 2011 which affected 13 million people. Sparked in part by poor rainfall, it became the first famine of the 21st century.

More widely, one in eight people in the world go to bed hungry – many are small holder farmers. It comes despite there being enough food to feed everyone on the planet, if it were fairly distributed. The Scottish Government funded project in Tanzania is helping to build resilience – before disaster strikes.

Standing in front of her home, Exaveria Sangijo reflects: “Our lives are improving. I used to live in a grass thatched house, now I have constructed a brick house. Now I can take my children to school. I request the Government of Scotland continue supporting this project – it is benefitting us. We are so grateful.”

This article was originally published in The Daily Record

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Written by Jamie Livingstone

Jamie Livingstone

Jamie is based in Scotland, where he is Oxfam's Campaigns and Communications Manager

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