Farming the Desert | Civil Eats

Farming the Desert


People from all over the world travel to Namibia because it is rich in charismatic megafauna like elephants, lions, zebras, cheetah, kudu, oryx and springbok. Having grown up in New York City, I developed an insatiable desire to surround myself with wild, beautiful animals and landscapes. I was delighted to go to Damaraland in the Kunene Region of northwestern Namibia to join a team studying the nearly-extinct desert-dwelling black rhinoceros.

Our research looked at the effects of livestock herding practices on rhinoceros habitat. Since rhinoceroses and livestock occupy the same region and utilize similar food and water resources, we wanted to know if the presence of livestock negatively affects the rhinoceros population. I hadn’t guessed that it would be farmers, not rhinos, who would change my way of looking at the world.

Most of the farmers I met in Damaraland were goat herders. Some families also owned chickens; others had cattle. Livestock represented their “bank account,” or accumulated wealth, stored in the form of meat and milk. When I inquired about livestock grazing practices on different farms, the farmers explained the challenges of desert farming. They told me about the irregular availability of water and the mountains they had to travel around in search of edible vegetation. Farmers explained the uncertainties of hot-dry and cold-dry seasons and described threatening encounters with elephants and cheetahs while herding goats.

Gardening in the Kunene Region is even tougher than raising livestock. Animal-based foods—whether wild or domestic—are well adapted to the climate. Immobile and less hardy, crops are sensitive to extreme aridity and are subject to destruction from grazing animals. In spite of this, farmers grow squash, peppers, millet, maize and even papaya trees in a region whose native vegetation includes a limited variety of desert-adapted succulents, shrubbery, and very few trees. One farmer, the mother of a friend, showed me her garden. I could have mistaken it for an oasis. Chewing on tobacco leaves, she stood on cracked earth and spoke in Damara about her rainbow beets, kale, tomatoes and some of the largest pumpkins and watermelons I have ever seen.

Roughly half of Namibia’s population practices subsistence agriculture. In a country that has few roads, the sixth-highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS and one of the highest rates of malnutrition, farming is both part of the culture and a way to survive. If they didn’t know how to grow food, many more people would not eat. The more time I spent with the farmers, the more I understood their perseverance and strength. Having witnessed food growing on this soil where elephants destroy gardens and where rainfall averages 9.5 inches a year, I now believe that what seems impossible is possible.

If the people of Damaraland can grow food in the vast desert, I know that we can grow food in challenging locations by unconventional means. None of the farms I visited used or needed tractors, plows or milking machines. Some of the farms were nevertheless large, with over 1,000 goats and gardens with huge pumpkins and fat watermelon. Others were smaller, with only six goats and no vegetables. Some farmers were much older than my parents and others were younger than me (at the time, a sophomore in college). Some farmers wore traditional Namibian clothing, others wore Western-style clothing. I quickly realized that in the Kunene and many parts of the world, there is little difference between farmers and people—most people are farmers. Farming is not an occupational category that we either fit into or do not. Farming in Namibia may be different than farming in the United States, but farming everywhere is essential to life and can take many forms. No matter how large or small our farms are, how sophisticated or simple our methods are, how young or old we are, we can grow food.

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Farming in the desert requires will and determination, persistence and hard work, resourcefulness and creativity. Farming also requires local knowledge: an understanding of the rocky earth, wild species, hot and cold seasons, irregular rainfall and the hungry people who need to eat. It is important to figure out what is possible locally.

We young farmers can start small and plant herbs and lettuce in our apartment windowsills. Maybe we can get access to a rooftop where we will raise bees, hardy fruit trees and tomato plants, using our compost bin as a gold mine. Or we can care for a flock of chickens in our backyard, exchanging food scraps for fresh eggs. Perhaps we will decide to expand our farm and work with the community to take over spaces left over from past lives. We can transform public and private lawns. We can create local food sheds, preserve the food we have grown and share this knowledge with each other and with the visitors who will surely be curious. We can network with other local residents, artists and politicians to transform wealthy suburbs and inner-city neighborhoods alike, planting over fast food and convenience stores. We can find other communities, institutions, businesses, and educational programs to partner with. We can write government grants. We can learn from others and teach. Like farmers in the Kunene, we can use grassroots strengths, knowledge and networks to grow food and reduce malnourishment close to home.

If I ever get the opportunity to return to Namibia, and I hope I do, I will tell the Damaraland farmers that I am a young farmer. I will say, yes, of course I am still a scientist, I still care about the black rhinoceros and my work as a farmer still involves experimentation, studying animals, identifying plants, seasonal patterns and land conservation. No, I will tell them, I am not the kind of farmer who uses large equipment. No, I’m not spraying chemicals over my food to make it grow faster. I do not have much land and, yes, the soil could be better, but you have taught me that anything is possible. Next time I go to Namibia, I will ask the farmers just as many questions about their livestock herding practices and about the black rhinoceros, but I will also ask them about how we can mutually support and teach each other the best ways to grow food for hungry people, whether in the desert of Damaraland or in rural or urban food deserts throughout the world.

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Vera L. Chang is a University of California Berkeley Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Doctoral Student and National Science Foundation Fellow. Vera’s food and justice research and reporting have been highlighted in the New York Times, Grist, Mother Jones Food, LA Weekly, the Aspen Institute, and Worldwatch Institute. Her writing has appeared in KQED's Bay Area Bites, and Bitch, and her photographs have been published in TIME, National Public Radio, and CNBC. To see more: Read more >

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  1. Check out the blooming desert post - - at the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog.

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