Cecilia Moya and her daughters rise each day in the early light of dawn to work their fields before the midday heat. For two hours, they kneel in the earth, carefully digging small, rectangular holes in the parched winter soil that will nurture their seeds when the rains come.
Here in Lwimba, sparse rainfall has led to dwindling food supplies. But Mrs. Moya and 10,000 other small landholders using new conservation farming techniques that will be a major focus of the 10-day World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa all grew enough corn to see them through the next harvest in April.
"My neighbors understand this year...." says Moya, a thin, wrinkled woman who feeds 11 hungry mouths. "But last year they were laughing at me."
This year, Moya reaped ten 110- pound bags of corn from her third-of an-acre plot. She harvested only three bags from the 1.25-acre plot she planted using traditional farming methods two years ago. Nationally, conservation farmers are achieving yields twice as big as traditional farmers and 25 percent better than commercial farmers.
"I had to sleep in my fields to prevent my neighbors from stealing," she said, waving her hand over the newly cleared field where she slept. "They were desperate, because their crops had failed and mine had not."
Monday, some 40,000 participants and 100 world leaders are in Johannesburg to gauge the progress and further implement the plans made at the Rio Earth Summit 10 years ago. One major theme of the summit is sustainable agriculture conserving water, minimizing the use of fertilizers, and protecting land to extend its arability.
While the immediate causes of the food shortages threatening more than 12 million Southern Africans with starvation are two years of bad weather and government mismanagement, the region's land is overworked and becoming less productive. The conservation farming project used by Moya, which is being run by a US nongovernmental organization, is showing how environmentally friendly agricultural methods can also help subsistence farmers increase productivity.
"Conservation farming is about conserving resources, especially water," says Chris Muyunda, an agribusiness specialist at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) which is funding the program. "The new farming techniques we are teaching are going to maximize the quality of the land."
Nearly 65 percent of Africa's arable land has been affected by soil degradation, and the United Nations predicts that if steps are not taken to reverse the trend, in a few decades, the continent's agriculture yields will fall to half their present levels even as population rises.
"The soil here was already degraded, but the amount of rain reducing, and the changes in weather patterns was the nail in the coffin," says Rubin Banda, an agricultural economist with the Cooperative League of the United States (CLUSA), which runs the Zambia program. "We're going to see more and more of that unless we take steps to improve the quality of the land."
Most of the techniques being used in Zambia are the product of decades of wisdom about land conservation and sustainable farming. What is unique about the Zambia program, however, is the way in which CLUSA has packaged these technologies together into a comprehensive farming program for poor farmers.
The program, in its second season, costs $8 million and is funded by USAID. Farmers are expected to pay back the seeds and fertilizer they are lent through the program
Last year, after the death of the oxen she once used to plow her fields, Moya agreed to try CLUSA's conservation farming program, which replaces traditional tilling with hand-dug small basins.
Standing in on a plot of land she is preparing for the coming planting season, Moya, a grandmother who recently learned to read with the help of the CLUSA, explains the importance of crop rotation and how leaving the residue of last year's crop on the field which would normally be burned can prevent soil erosion.
She then kneels down in the soil, her colorful skirt wrapped around her legs, demonstrating how the foot-long, six-inch-deep basins she has dug in neat rows concentrates the fertilizer and water around the plant.
Small farmers are also being taught how to grow cash crops like paprika, cotton, and soy beans using conservation farming techniques. CLUSA is also making efforts to try to open markets around the world.
This year, Rubin Mudima began planting a small winter paprika plot using conservation techniques and a small water pump donated by USAID. The peppers, ripening to a dull red in the field, will earn him 1.5 million Kwacha about $350 a small fortune in rural Zambia.
Overall, conservation farming in Zambia has been so successful that the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN agency responsible helping communities recover from disasters, plans to teach these techniques as part of their postcrisis farming program.
Still, observers say that Africa's food security problem cannot be solved by conservation farming alone.
Farmers need access to better seeds and fertilizers, and to reduce their dependence on a single crop and on crops such as corn that require large amounts of fertilizer, experts say. They need better irrigation techniques and access to world markets for the their produce.
Additionally, many of the techniques being used, like the basins, are labor-intensive and need to be adapted to large-scale farmers using animals or machines. In the short term, however, for farmers such as Moya, conservation farming techniques are making the difference between starvation and survival.
The summit runs until Sept. 4 and will also discuss energy, health, water, and forest preservation issues.