BAFIA (AlertNet) - Cameroon’s farmers have run into trouble after unusual early rains two years in a row pushed them to begin planting ahead of time, especially in the south. The rain soon dried up, causing confusion over the farming calendar and leaving crops withering in the fields.
When the rain arrived abnormally in late January and early February, many farmers set to work planting crops like maize, beans and groundnuts, believing the growing season had begun.
But the rains then stopped, and the intense, prolonged sunshine that followed dried up the young plants, saddling farmers with big losses.
At the March launch of a national campaign to modernise Cameroon’s agriculture in the southern town of Bafia, regional farmers’ representative Clement Zambo lamented the erratic rainfall, wondering aloud why nature has been treating them so unfairly.
“We don’t know how we are going to begin work when the rain that started only last month has suddenly disappeared,” Zambo said in a speech at a ceremony attended by the agriculture minister. “We don’t know what will become of our crop yields this year. Mr. Minister, please, we need rain.”
He appealed to the government to reduce the price of fertiliser, agricultural chemicals and seeds to encourage farmers to produce more.
Annual rainfall varies across Cameroon, with some southern areas among the wettest places in the region. But the dry season, which normally runs from October to April, generally brings sunny, dusty conditions across most parts of the country with almost no rain.
This month, some farmers were reluctant to start planting even when the rains began, because they felt unsure whether they would continue as normal, or stop again.
Climate scientists say it is too early to know what is behind the atypical rain pattern. ''These early February rains are out of the norms based on our experience, but studies are still ongoing as to the cause,” said Wassouni Amadou, a climate expert at Cameroon’s ministry of environment and nature protection.
Some believe there a may be a link with high rates of deforestation in the country, but that has yet to be proven, he added.
Another farmer from the Bafia region echoed Zambo’s fears of poor yields due to weather uncertainties. “We usually begin planting as soon as the first rain signals, and this has been the tradition, but we are surprised at what has been happening this time around,” Paul Engoz’o told Alertnet.
He said his five-hectare maize farm had dried up barely five weeks after planting in February, causing him a loss of over 200,000 Central African (CFA) francs (around $398).
"Even if the rains come again, we are not sure the yields are going to be encouraging as in the past,” he added.
Expressing sympathy with their predicament, agriculture minister Essimi Menye urged the farmers to stick to the official planting calendar in future to avoid being caught out.
“Farmers are advised not to plant at the signal of early rains in the month of February, but rather to wait for the late March and early April planting calendar,” he said.
At the campaign launch, the minister’s team also provided farmers with training in local dialects on key concepts of climate change such as global warming, climate abnormalities like more intense rains and droughts, and the need to adapt to climate shifts.
Whatever the reason for the early bursts of rain in the past two years, there is no doubt they are confusing the production calendar and harming the production of most crops.
“This is a result of climate change, and unfortunately our farmers have been victim to this abnormality, incurring heavy losses,” said Dangobert Djakou, chief of situation analysis and agriculture policy in the ministry of agriculture and rural development.
When the rain does come, it tends to be more intense than usual, triggering the spread of plant diseases such as black root among cocoa, and blight on vegetables and the leaves of other food crops such as potatoes, cocoyam and tomatoes, Djakou said.
It has also washed out the mostly earth roads used by farmers and merchants to transport goods to market.
As a result, both farmers and merchants have seen their incomes drop sharply, and have hiked the sale price of their products to make up for it. Falling food production in many areas has also increased the need for imports to fill the gap, Djakou added.
Cameroon spent more than 500 billion CFA francs (close to $1 billion) in 2011 on imports of rice, flour, fish and other food commodities, according to the minister.
Given that agriculture contributes over 40 percent of Cameroon’s gross domestic product (GDP), the government will step up efforts to support farmers and boost production, he said.
This year, it plans to encourage mechanised agriculture by distributing tractors to farmer groups across the country, supported by the establishment of a tractor assembly plant near Ebolowa in the south.
Twelve groups in Bafia have received 36 tractors between them, as well as several tonnes of farm tools and inputs. The materials include truckloads of fertiliser, wheelbarrows, hoes, watering cans and spades.
The minister emphasised that Cameroon’s agricultural sector needs to modernise, because it is a major pillar of the national economy.
"Agriculture should be seen as a business, as agribusiness - that is why we want it to be mechanised to encourage large-scale and quality production," he said.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.