Lesotho – a slow descent into starvation

By Khadija Patel 30 June 2012

The relative prestige of South Africa has led, slowly, to a numbing against issues of food insecurity. Sure, the United Nations says almost one billion people go to bed each night hungry, but for many of us, that reality is buried safely in distance, becoming further and further removed. Only it isn’t, really. A quick look over our borders tells us Lesotho is grappling with severe issues of food insecurity – and desperate hunger. By KHADIJA PATEL.

On Wednesday, IRIN, the United Nations’ humanitarian news portal, reported that food security in Lesotho had gone “from bad to worse”. After two seasons of bad weather – too much rain followed by too little rain – an unprecedented number of small-scale farmers have harvested nothing this year. And to begin with, Lesotho is not exactly best placed to deal effectively with the effects of a poor harvest. 

Classified as least developed, low income and a food deficit country, even in good years, Lesotho rarely produces a surplus in cereals. And though the Basotho is largely a nation of subsistence farmers, the amount of suitable land for arable crops is in decline, owing to erosion and settlement encroachment. It is, after all, a mountain kingdom; the lay of the land impacts severely on its capacity to produce food.  

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active life  – which is certainly not the case in many parts of Africa, including South Africa. In Lesotho, the situation is particularly dire: in a recent agricultural census, 46% of Basotho households reported subsistence farming as their main source of income. Actually, agriculture and livestock activities are the main source of income for nearly 60% of households, but more than 95% of these cannot produce enough to meet their own food requirements. Even for those who have adequate land, homegrown food often lasts for less than five months of the year, even in good years. Lesotho is chronically reliant on maize imports from South Africa, as well as foreign aid, to feed itself.

World Food Programme Country Director for LesothoBhim Udas, told Daily Maverick in a telephonic interview on Wednesday that the most vulnerable Basotho were subsistence farmers living in the highlands. “Although they have some assets, like land and animals, the weather has made it impossible for them to plant on the land,” Udas said.

To cope, then, farmers are selling their land and livestock (and we won’t go into what will happen long-term, when those funds run out) taking children out of schools and reducing their food intake. Udas says these coping mechanisms have already been stretched. “There is little left for farmers in the highlands to do except to come down and ask for help,” he explains. Significantly, however, Udas points out that the last time Lesotho faced a severe problem of food insecurity – between 2010 and 2011 – the Lesotho government did not formally request help. This despite the 2011 Lesotho Vulnerability Assessment Committee finding that a total of 514,000 suffered severe food and livelihood deficits due to severe flooding. 

This year’s vulnerability assessment committee report is due to be released early in July, but already Udas says the consensus among NGOs working in Lesotho is that the situation is worse than last year. “The situation is already very bad,” he says. According to a crop forecast cited by IRIN, the overall area planted in the 2011-2012 agricultural year decreased by nearly 40% from the previous year, and the total expected production of maize, the staple crop, fell by 77%. Yields of sorghum and wheat have also declined significantly. 

The Basotho government’s capacity to design and implement appropriate social protection measures is described by researchers – perhaps euphemistically – as “limited”. They allege existing safety nets are inefficient at best, and corrupt at worst.  While inflation has contributed to the escalation of food prices in recent years, the removal of government subsidies to basic foodstuffs and services has also impacted negatively on food security. Researchers stress that there is a need to maintain targeted government subsidies to basic foodstuffs and services like maize meal, paraffin, water and medicine for the poor and the vulnerable social groups like children, the disabled and the elderly. They add, however, that it is not clear whether there is human or financial capacity, or indeed political will, to maintain effective targeting.  

In Lesotho, the relationship between food availability and food security raises important questions about agricultural production and imports – it is becoming increasingly clear that agriculture, as it’s currently being practised, is not a sustainable way for the Basotho to live. The lack of access to food, however, also raises questions about purchasing power and livelihoods beyond agriculture. And, of course, the whole situation’s parent issue – poverty. 

Poverty and hunger are, of course, not unique to Africa. Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo often quips that she is puzzled at the continuing use of emaciated African children as the face of aid organisations in the West when, in her opinion, South Asia seems to feel hunger much more acutely. Africa’s great rise in recent years, and its continuing growth, forces the world to see it as more than a cesspit of hunger and war. 

Be that as it may, however, food insecurity remains a significant challenge to the continent’s wellbeing. In April this year, the WFP and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) signed an agreement to work together to improve food and nutrition security in southern Africa. And this is why: “While most of SADC’s 15 member countries are experiencing significant economic growth, the region is suffering high levels of child under-nutrition, a devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic, and deep vulnerability to food and nutrition insecurity that is compounded by climactic and market shocks.”

We are more than the sum of our problems, but while proffering a more wholesome face of Africa to the rest of the world, we can ill afford to ignore problems like hunger. Hunger may not exist in the same frequency imagined by some in the West, but it does still exist. As we claim our right to tell the stories we want the rest of the world to hear, we still need the West to rush to our aid when there is a crisis of starvation. 

Udas says many of the contributions to WFP’s work in Lesotho come from the likes of China and the European Union. The most privileged pockets of the world have indeed long enjoyed a surplus of food – we are told often enough that there is no shortage of food in the world, only an injustice in the way it is distributed. So it is perhaps fitting, then, that the West plugs the gaps of food shortages. 

And yet shouldn’t the doctrine of African solutions for African problems extend to problems of hunger just as it does to conflict? What happens if something cuts off the aid supply? Who exactly will feed Lesotho if it cannot feed itself? DM 

Read more:

  • The Future of Food series in Slate

Photo: Herdsmen guide their cattle towards grazing areas near Makopanong village in eastern Lesotho. Winter temperatures in the southern African mountain kingdom often fall below freezing, and the country’s people are battling to feed themselves a little more each year. (REUTERS)



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