Robin: 'We'll be ready as soon as the rains come. The sorghum will produce a successful harvest.'
Robin is 53 and has a wife and four children. He has always lived in Antanimora. An agricultural farmer who also raises livestock, he describes the impact of a changing climate on his livelihood.
He explains that “the big thing…which I prize above all in my life, is to have cattle. It has its place at bereavements, it is important economically…for the milk [and] for its value for our own food”. However, the drought and lack of harvests mean that he can’t feed his livestock. He says that his steers “didn’t die of disease, they died of scrawniness”.
Robin’s main cash crop is peanuts, which he processes himself to produce oil, using the residual pressings for livestock feed. He talks about the need for tools to improve his production but says there are no micro-credit options available that would suit him.
Robin talks about the community’s isolation and the importance of good roads for survival in rural areas. He says that when there is no harvest and the rains come, “there will be a week where the trucks are all stuck… And all the people here will starve…”
My name is Robin. I was born in Antanimora and have never left here. I should be about 53 years old. I have a wife and four children, three boys and one girl.
Sure, I can tell [you] about [my life]… Well, each has their own story, and it may be of the mundane or of farming or handiwork. My profession is that I’m a farmer and raise animals.
The raising of animals before and now is basically the same, but there is some difference regarding the difficulty of [obtaining] feed. Before we didn’t have to go far – we didn’t have to seek bran, it came to me, or scraps of manioc were delivered to me by people, as there were few who raised animals then. There were big harvests before and there were very few raising pigs. Because in this area [there are] many for whom the eating of pork is taboo and so one could count those raising pigs – perhaps only five did…
Then all the fonctionnaires (government workers, from outside the area) arrived, many who are not subject to the taboo on pork, and their families increased. Now it’s about 80 percent of Antanimora who raise pigs. But now…there is no supplier for animal rearing. The farming isn’t sufficient [to feed] the pigs, for it isn’t even sufficient for us people. Therefore it becomes a challenge to keep them.
I raise pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys, goats and cattle. The goats subsist in the forest [and] I pay to pasture the cattle. But the animals I raise here, the pigs and birds, I must seek feed for. Corn, manioc…all that makes feed for the animals we raise.
“Squash really saves us”
My land is 2 hectares passed down from my parents, but as that’s not enough for me I’m borrowing from another man, a relative in the country…10km from here.
We plant corn, round beans, vañemba (small red bean), peanuts, manioc, sweet potatoes, squash, watermelons and sweet melons. Sorghum was just introduced here anew, but we can call it a traditional plant, like in Ambovombe [we] planted a lot of it before. And [now] many have joined in that effort here…with sorghum brought in by ALT.
Squash, I must admit, is the forerunner [among food crops] and really saves us here. Squash plants really spread out, and though it might be a drought year, if there is some squash, or even its leaves, then we’re satisfied food-wise. A month [after planting] they flower and then the small squash form our meal. And the watermelon are like that – and we eat the young ones, boiled.
But we wait for corn and vañemba for months, and manioc for years. But the first fruits that satisfy us early are watermelons, squash; those are what save us early in the year if the rains are good.
Strong winds; failed crops
If we compare the climate before, it provided – but now what that rain does to us! If we get two days of it we’ll plant, but it may not come again for a month. Like us here, we had rain in November and we all hurried and planted, but it was only that rain. Then not until 16 December did we get rain again, a pretty good week of it, and we all planted again. The sprouting plants looked good, but then they were struck by strong sun and wind, and all of that planting died. So that’s the difference between how it was and is [now].
There wasn’t wind before, but now [there is]. It might be according to the voice of those foreigners – who are preaching that we [must] take care of the environment, the forest and not cut it down, but preserve it to ensure that the rains will come.
Secondly, it is [the forest] which makes precipitation: if there is no forest there is no rain here and it becomes strong winds. And when the red winds (winds carrying red dust) come, it’s windy even in the morning and at night, there’s no respite. So sun…won’t kill the grass, nor will it kill our crops, but that wind alone is what kills it.
Everything depends on agriculture
The effect of that [change in climate] is severe, because the farming we depend on doesn’t supply [enough]. Secondly…let’s say we’re going to sell a hog, it should go for AR 200,000, but will be sold for AR 80,000. But at least we have that 80,000 to purchase food; it’s better to die tomorrow than today, according to the saying…
It is agriculture which should support the animal husbandry that we were depending on for the schooling of our children, and their health. If we had a harvest that would add to the value of the animal husbandry, but where is that at this time?
So we have to sell our chickens unwillingly, which should have got AR 6000, but because one is impatient it must go for AR 3000 – with 2000 of that going for the children’s school needs right now, the tuition and the notebooks, and running after kerosene, and all those odds and ends like soap.
Peanuts: “the economic leader”
As I explained earlier…our basic foods are young melons, including squash. [This is] the harvest that we look forward to. It can’t be stored, but must be eaten when green because it spoils easily. The long-lasting food we harvest is corn, and manioc, and our cash crops are peanuts and red beans, peanuts being the economic leader here… If the year is good than we of Antanimora are the forerunners, that’s our income. I split my peanuts: half is sold and [from the other] half I extract oil.
I [use] the pressed [peanut] meal for my animal husbandry, we add that to the pig feed, and the chicken feed. [And] it makes the chickens and pigs fat in a hurry. The peanut oil is sold to those who fry meat pieces for sale, and the restaurant owners, and is used by my wife to fry bread: so that’s my use of the peanuts I grow… Peanuts are the basis of my income, and if what I harvest isn’t enough for me, I still have to purchase them.
The employees of Relance (former agricultural livelihoods project) showed me [how to process peanuts]; they sent a delegate to train us. We were given peanuts to press, and the income from the oil was returned to us trainees. And then it was up to us to feed and house the trainer, with the money from the oil we produced. And he [advised us] to purchase a meat grinder…and that’s what I use to grind the large peanuts. Once ground they are cooked, then pressed in the oil press which I built; that’s how I process them.
First experience with sorghum
I received six kapoake (standard cup for measuring grain) of sorgum from ALT. And I didn’t plant all that six kapoake at once, for one kapoake can go a long way, and also at that time the weather was only giving spits of rain at odd intervals. One lot would die and we’d plant again and again. I planted two kapoake the first time, and that all died. Then I put in another kapoake…
[It] netted me three gunny sacks of white sorghum [but] we didn’t have anyone to tell us when the grain was ripe. We waited as this was not a crop we were used to planting: if we had known from the beginning how to tell when it was mature, we might have somewhat better harvests…
ALT told us that when it “opens its eyes” and still is milky then cut it down, and put it in a cool place for a week, together with all the leaves… So now we won’t be deceived when we plant it. We’ll be ready as soon as the rains come. It will produce a successful harvest and we’ll fight off the sparrows.
We used all [of the harvest] for food. When we were given the sorghum seed, we didn’t look for any more seed to fill our land but used the sorghum, as the cost of corn and peanut seed was very expensive then, climbing to AR 1,000 for a kapoake of corn seed.
“Our problem with farming: insects”
For us then, the problems we had within agriculture were insects: grasshoppers, weevils, cutworms and cochineals. When [planted] a little late, late from the constraints of rainfall, the vañemba we plant now in February will be attacked by the agnano (pest that attacks vañemba) which will rot the beans, leaving empty pods. And instead of the 500kg expected for harvest we’ll get only 200 kapoake (approximately 58kg). That’s our problem with farming: insects.
And there is no insect remedy, even to buy… For the grasshopper men, we have to request them through the mayor, and he sends a letter to the grasshopper killers, but at the voice of a single farmer, he won’t be here. He won’t come for me alone, for even the cost of his transport is a problem. So that’s what bothers us in our farming.
They don’t help our livelihood, those plant eaters, because they decrease production greatly…the yield doesn’t even pay our expenses on the field, the rent of the plough, the wages of the cultivators…though I do that work myself.
Consider the cost of farming out [that work]: among my expenses are my own strength, and so all my effort is without fruit, a loss…[but] if we do have food on the table, we don’t count our losses doing all that weeding. But for those who pay for that weeding, [they] will probably not have a return on it. That’s what those plant eaters do to us farmers.
“They died of scrawniness”
Regarding the health of the animals I raise…we do the vaccines, but it’s as if they make disease worse, and certainly don’t diminish the infection, and of course the vaccines depend on us having cash at that time. The other problem…is that they need to be refrigerated and ice isn’t found here. I personally have been trained regarding the vaccines, but there is no way for me to store them in my house…
That’s the problem with raising chickens. We just lose money on those chickens, even as we speak. But I’m never giving up in my farming. I continue to input and input, and what dies, dies; what lives, lives. What isn’t too bad about the chickens is that as soon as they are sick we kill them, to make stew. Now the cattle…we do vaccinate [them]… But my problem is that…given the bad year my steers didn’t die of disease, they died of scrawniness. They had to be eaten.
It is a problem with the drought, especially finding wood for cooking, to burn [the spines off] the prickly pears. And if we can’t burn the prickly pear [for animal feed], it culminates in the death of our livestock. So our animal rearing at this time causes us considerable consternation, lest they all die of starvation.
Now in this 2008 there will be a crisis regarding cattle if other pasture is not found for them. Those who can lead their animals far away are blessed. If they have a relative over 30km away, or 40km, they may find pasture and moisture.
Before, it was easy to fetch wood through the Water & Forests [Department], back when the forest was in good condition, but now that’s not easy, for the forest is thin, and truly bare. And most of that has become fields now. The population has increased, and the land has become tight… For instance the fokontane (smallest administrative entity) of Ankilefaly, the clan there…got a permit from the Forests [department], and with the permit in hand they were free to cut down the forest.
Today, however, it’s difficult to do that – they won’t give [the forest], but protect it. There are forests that cannot be entered at all, and which have a policeman [to guard them]; there are other forests where one can enter into the reserve [area], and where medicinal plants may be fetched from within.
Let’s say there is a bus that is coming this way from Ambovombe…the 62km road that the driver takes used to take four hours, but now it’s in a bad shape, and the bus springs break from the state of the road. And it’s like that all the way from Ambovombe to Ihosy – it’s a bad road, which make us suffer. So if we happen not to have rice or manioc, and the rains happen to come, there will be a week where the trucks are all stuck in the mud, from the poor roads. And all the people here will starve, waiting for the trucks from Ambovombe.
It was that which really brought in the critically hungry periods in those various years of hardship here. But if there had been good road communications, then we might have been starved for money but not starved for food; we would have had empty pockets, but not empty stomachs.
“Taboos are held very strongly”
Those customs which stem from tradition and from our ancestors are still maintained. The clans among us here in Antanimora are the Andriamagneregne, Te-do, Tagnalavey, Afomarolahy. These comprise the majority of the original inhabitants of Antanimora.
And the customs that are still holding today, they’re the taboos regarding food, for the people here still do not eat pork. Those taboos are held very strongly. But there are all manner of people who’ve come in: the fonctionnaires (government workers) of all kinds – doctors and midwives, police and teachers, and office workers of all sorts – are here and will eat pork, so there are many here who keep pigs. We have a pig butcher. He does not butcher in the market place; that’s something we’ve agreed here in honour of the traditional taboos. He brings a table from his house, and sells the meat in an isolated place.
[Also] the water of the Bemamba river is consumed by all, so let’s say I eat pork and I’m going to wash in the water of Bemamba which will be drunk by many – that’s guarded. Whoever is caught doing that is fined. And at the wells, no pail with pork fat on it may be dipped into the common well. Those are the rules we’ve made for social order here. And they are still honoured along with the traditional customs.
Honouring the dead
It’s like that also with the funerals, the customs that are still maintained. The Antandroy here, when a relative dies, we…kill an ox…we can’t eat the meat of that sacrifice…that animal is not eaten by the relatives according to tradition.
And at the grave site there are two oxen killed, or [less], depending on one’s means, for instance if I don’t have many animals…[or] maybe the deceased had a last word in which he dictated not to kill all of his cattle but to “leave them as an inheritance for the children, as wanton slaughter serves no purpose”.
I’ll use myself as an example: my grandmother died and I recalled all of those who had served me at their [funerals]. I must follow the heart that beats within me and my spiritual life, as there are those who have embraced me. So I bought rice, killed goats; I have cattle so I killed cattle. And all who spent the night singing here at my place, I must do what seems right to me and feed all these people, purchase coffee, buy liquor. That’s a socially accepted way to do it here.
Those with money purchase the burial casket already built. Those without the means purchase tin roofing, and planks of eucalyptus or mendoravegne, and the people build it together, out of kinship, and that is beautiful. Whether Christian or traditional, it’s many helping the one – fellowship.
Then there are those with no means, or without family, who die here, and then the town makes donations out of love. The Catholics or Protestants or the non-Christians place a table with a notebook on it and each pledges a donation, whatever his heart wishes. And whatever money is received is pooled and used to purchase the coffee and rice for the all-night wake, and also to build the coffin, and cover the burial costs. There is no one saying, “Just let him be”, but that we must all behave in that manner for the unity of our community, and do so to this day.
Importance of cattle
Cattle do have a big place in my life… With respect to this elder of mine, or this brother still locked in the web of traditional customs, there are those traditions which still apply to me… My being a Christian doesn’t hamper me… I’ll produce an ox as needed, so I need to have them to hand.
So the big thing, and that which I prize above all in my life, is to have cattle. It has its place at bereavements, it is important economically, and it is needed just in the matter of animal husbandry – for the milk is needed, whether for the foreigner [to buy] or for its value for our own food.
Joy in 2007
My happiness is threefold: the child that I taught and didn’t cost me anything, passed all the exams in the subjects which I taught her, so my time and energy was well spent as well as any expense in having her taught. The rainy season came and everything I planted produced a harvest…for sorghum can wait out a drought, compared with corn which is easily burned by the wind…and then the unexpected [third thing] of being offered a free radio because of the relation with the sorghum project – and we got all that sorghum seed.
For me at this time, my long-term goal is to move from the small to the large… My oil press is small, and to produce 10 litres of oil now will cost me a lot of firewood. So there are heavy expenses in that. I’d like to improve so that I can produce 2 or 3 litres with one load of firewood. It need not be an electric press, but a larger artisan’s, to decrease the cost of the firewood.
Secondly, I’d like to aim to get a larger grinder, or a type of crusher that will mill the product more finely – our current grinder has openings that are too large, so the nut is not adequately pulverised. There was an engineer…sent by FASARA (large agricultural project run by the NGO, GRET), and he said that our press only extracts about 20 percent of the oil, but that we should be able to extract 100 percent if we had a good quality grinder.
Not having proper tools seems to keep my life in suspension, and seeing ‘what might be’ motivates me for the future. Before there was a bank, BTM, which supported us farmers, with loans that could be paid back annually. Oxen, ploughs, ox-carts and the like could be applied for from that bank. A development organisation is making small loans right now, but only AR 30,000. I wouldn’t know how to use just 30,000. And there is monthly interest due on it, so I can’t get into that. So that’s the gap in my life: tools.
So those are all goals I’m working to, towards my future. Those are what I’m researching even now, and may the work of my hands be successful – for one’s profession is what invigorates, and all those aspects of work interact, so I depend on the climate, the tools, and the raw materials.
This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.