Land Use Cycle

What with all my adventures largely centered around walking off into the bush, and my obvious interest in agricultural systems, I’ve started to notice a lot about land use. I’m not exactly breaking new intellectual territory here, but one thing to realize about the area is that there really isn’t any “virgin” land. Agriculture has been going on in this region for at least a millenia or two, and pretty much everywhere that can be farmed has been farmed at some point.
In Religious and Ethical Values in the Proverbs of the Mambwe People, Fr. Andrzej Halemba describes the cultivation system:

“In the forested areas… to enrich the soil with the requisitie potassium and phosphorus, the Mambwe people have for generations used a method of shift cultivation called citemele. This requires the soil to be improved with the ashes from burnt branches and trees. This allows fields to be utilised for the period of three to five years, whereafter the people set off in search of new richly forested land.”

So there is a general pattern to land use around here. The most amazing thing to me is how easily you can see the evidence of prior land use all over the place, mostly in the form of ridges. As I must have described by this point, most of the forest in this area is a short sort of scrub forest. There are few or no large, towering trees. From my readings on the Stevenson Road, this appears to always have been the case (though in that article they blamed termites). I don’t know if it is just the type of tree, but it seems to me like it could be from the cycle of land use.
Since it is a cycle, I’ll just start with cultivated land. After land has been cleared, ridges are formed and crops planted. The same fields are used for a period of years, and from the two growing seasons I’ve seen it looks like similar crops are planted in the same fields for multiple years (ignoring intercropping). Here is a cassava field:

After a while the field is left fallow. The below picture is of a field very recently left fallow. Turns out it is way hard to photograph ridges in a way that makes them super obvious in pictures, but in the below picture the grass is more or less growing on the ridges. That gap in the middle of the grass is the area between the ridges. From almost any distance away it just looks like a grassy field, but if you walk over the land it is obvious there are ridges there.

After the field is left fallow for a few years, the forest takes back over. Again in the below picture are some ridges, starting in the lower right corner and center of the picture and extending off into the distance. This stretch of forest isn’t exactly old growth but it is pretty well developed, and still there are ridges. Really the whole point of this blog post is me expressing how amazed I am that ridges stick around for so long, even as a forest grows over them.

The forest isn’t just useless to the people; beside letting the area regain some nutrients, the villagers use the forest to gather wood for cooking and building. The forest also provides a location for bees and other polinators to live, and although bushmeat isn’t a very large part of the diet in my village that is also a bonus. When it comes time to start the cycle again, they’ll clear a patch of forest. The trees are chopped down and then used to make charcoal. They then sell the charcoal or keep it for their own fuel use.

In the middle background there is a mound of charcoal burning (or I guess really wood being turned into charcoal).

The LIFE program has at least some focus on reducing climate change and reducing deforestation. These are noble goals (and I do see a lot of news articles about deforestation in Zambia), but on a small scale at least I think this method of land use is probably pretty efficient. Even with charcoal making/burning, these guys have a way smaller carbon footprint than almost anybody in the West.
Besides ridges, there are a few other indications of land use. Sometimes you run across old foundations of houses or other buildings. I am always amazed when archeologists dig up an ancient city that a whole city could become buried, but seeing how quickly things can get overgrown and buried it isn’t too much of a surprise:

As a final example, the below picture is of a furrow (this whol article I kept typing “furrow” when I meant “ridge” but hey now I’m onto furrows). It’s an old furrow my host dad plans to refurbish, and he has cut away the grass to get to it. Seeing this sort of stuff in the modern-day world really helps to put into perspective how easy it is to miss the signs of “advanced” civilizations when you’re talking about indigenous cultures. If you’re thinking about cultures like the indigenous peoples of the Americas, they might not have left large stone cities, but mastering irrigation and agriculture is pretty advanced (to be clear here, I’m not patronizing the villagers I live with, but trying to put the civilizations we only know about via archeology in context) and sometimes the only signs of it are going to be a very shallow ditch in the field. That’s something to think about.

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