By Phillan Zamchiya, Clemente Ntauazi and Boaventura Monjane
In order to guard against the spread of Covid-19, Mozambique declared a state of emergency for 30 days with effect from 1 April 2020. The government announced several regulations meant to limit the movement of people and goods in a decree. This was bound to affect different sectors of the economy and agriculture has not been an exception. Within the agrarian sector, some studies indicate that the peasantry constitutes 80% of the economically active population, producing 90% of food available in the country. How have the interventions affected this ‘invisible’ group in the marginal areas? This is in a context where peasant farmers are currently harvesting crops such as maize, peanuts and beans and are preparing for the second farming season.
Based on recent conversations with farmers and our field experience, we observed four immediate impacts.
First, the farmers are selling their products way below the market price as the supply chain has broken down. Due to restrictions on movement, most of the candongueiros (informal traders) who usually buy the products from the farmers are no longer able to go into the communities. To make matters worse, agricultural trade markets in rural areas have been stopped. As a result, there is a drop in the demand for products. The farmers have no option but to sell their products to the few available buyers for a song in order to meet their day-to-day needs. For example, in Lioma village (a sub-division under Gurué district), farmers sold beans at MZN 20 (7 ZAR) per kg but since the announcement of the state of emergency the price has decreased to MZN 14 (4 ZAR) per kg. Maize was MZN10 (3,55 ZAR) per kg and it has dropped to MZN 6 (2 ZAR) per kg. Peasants who might want to go and sell their own products to get fairer prices face transport constraints. The price of transport has increased. For instance, from Ruace (a highly productive zone) to Gurué, transport fare has increased from MZN 80 (28 ZAR) to MZN 100 (35 ZAR). While in Nacala (a cassava production region) transport has increased from MZN 250 (89 ZAR) to MZN 400 (141 ZAR).
Secondly, peasants are struggling to buy basic commodities due to reduced income from crop sales. While the peasants have been forced to reduce prices, local businesses have increased prices of products such as oil, milk, soap, salt, sugar and other items for household consumption. A survey of shops in Gurué shows that the prices of most products have increased by 50%. On the other hand, some small shops are closing as they fail to restock due to transportation problems. However, the problem extends to peri-urban and urban consumers. The candongueiros who are able to beat the regulations have increased prices for urban consumers. For example, a 50kg bag of cassava, which was at the price of MZN 50 (18 ZAR) before the pandemic, now sells at MZN 150 (53 ZAR). The intermediaries cite the increase in transport costs, but others have found an opportunity to make exorbitant profit. After all, they already buy at low prices from the vulnerable farmers. This has serious implications on food accessibility.
Thirdly, the regulations have affected the supply of agrarian labour in the rural areas. Farmers are finding it difficult to mobilise labour based on traditional kinship and social ties. This practise of mobilising labour is known as the Namuri system. In a normal situation a group of people—who could be relatives or neighbours—would assign particular days to work on each other’s field. Due to the pandemic, some families are now reluctant to gather in groups, and this is affecting the labour supply critical for the second planting season. The ganho-ganho system (hired labour) is also affected as mobility is constrained. With these dynamics, farmers have to rely on family labour for cultivating their plots. Relying on family labour may affect crop outputs as labour force is reduced. Costa Estevão, a peasant farmer in Nampula province, failed to hire labour as people thought it was risky to work on his field due to the pandemic. As a result, he is relying on his wife and two children. It now takes the family more time to complete field tasks.
Fourth, the peasant associations are under pressure from the government to adopt genetically modified seeds in order to increase yields under the current crisis. This is more pronounced in areas where the last farming season was bad. For example, there were excessive rains in Gurué last year, which affected crop yields. Th government projects that most families in that area are going to run out of food by January 2021. The farmers’ hope was on maximising production during the second farming season. Now faced with the double burden of coronavirus, some government officials are arguing that the only way to maximise food production and avert a disaster is to immediately adopt genetically modified seeds. However, a civil society alliance coordinating Covid-19 responses in Mozambique has criticised the idea of introducing the genetically modified seeds under the pretext of mitigating the effects of natural disasters worsened by Covid-19. They argue that this will pose serious threats to biodiversity, food and economic sovereignty long after the crises.
Given these four impacts, the state, civil society and international donor agencies must forge an alliance and step in so that the peasant supply chain is not disrupted during this state of emergency. These three actors should support peasant communities at a district level with appropriate technologies to work the farmland at a time when traditional labour regimes are affected by social distancing regulations. For example, a tractor can be assigned for tilling the land in each of the districts that are engaged in production for the second agricultural season. In addition, the three actors should ensure availability and transportation of organic seeds and fertilizer to the rural areas during the emergency to rescue the second farming season. This is critical for future local and national food supplies. There is no need to use the pandemic outbreak as an excuse to secretly liberalise genetically modified seeds under the pretext of addressing productivity during the crisis. As for transportation and price inflation, the state should lead to ensure movement of food products from the rural communities to the market centres and to reign in swindlers. The peasants generate the bulk of their income from their harvests, and they need fair prices to sustain their livelihoods. Since smallholder farmers have already made losses, a disaster relief fund that captures the lowest caste is strongly recommended. However, to ensure compliance with important health safety regulations, the three actors must ensure provision of protective gear, sanitisers and promote social distancing along the supply chain. Such tailor-made interventions will assist in mitigating the negative impacts of regulations on the poor peasants, and at the same time help in curbing the spread of Covid-19.