My research fieldwork in a foreign country has been a life changing experience

I am Rudo Violet Denga, a Zimbabwean studying PhD at Copperbelt University, Zambia. I obtained both BSc Hons. in Development Studies & MSc. in Development Studies from my home country. My research interests are in social-ecology with particular focus on sustainable environmental management, river bank cultivation and land use/cover change (LUCC).  Currently I am pursuing a PhD in Plant and Environmental Sciences, School of Natural Resource Management, African Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Mining (ACESM), Copperbelt University, Zambia. I am a beneficiary of the RUFORUM scholarship under the Social and Environmental Trade-offs in African Agriculture (SENTINEL) Project. Coming from a background in development work, I hold a strong understanding of sustainable livelihoods, rural development, poverty, gender issues, food security, sustainable development, climate change and globalization. Development discourse is central to my heart and the zeal to want to learn and know more on this area encouraged me to take my study career to the next level.


My topic of research is “Investigation of the Drivers and Impacts of Riverbank Cultivation on the Upper Kafue River Basin in Zambia’s Copperbelt Province and their Implications on Environmental Social Sustainability”.  The study aims to comprehend patterns, drivers and impacts of riverbank cultivation and its implications on environmental social sustainability. My research work intends to contribute to policy by aiding the Government of Zambia (GoZ) to entrench awareness and understanding of its environmental policies to communities that are cultivating on Kafue River banks as well as its tributaries in the context of Land Use Changes (LUCs). Clearly, the conversion pressure to cultivate along the river and stream banks is mainly driven by the population which is in dire need of food but the upland is fast becoming very unsuitable for agricultural activities. Society responds by resorting to riverine cultivation which is unsustainable. Zambia is no exception, Government of Zambia (GoZ) has put in place several policies and conventions to support sustainable agricultural development. These policies and conventions appreciate that agricultural development and environmental management are critical for the amelioration of poverty. They have however, failed to stimulate economic growth mainly due to lack of political will, low support to implementation and inconsistences in both policy and legislation.

It is my dream to live in a world were future generations will also benefit from these natural resources that we and are still enjoying. I believe that evidence when put in monetary value can influence policy change. My study will analyse Land Use Changes (LUCs) that have taken place over a period of 30 years (1989 to 2019) at 10-year intervals. Demonstration period for the study will date back to 20 years and projection period will be 10 years ie. from the year 2024 to 2033. The study will focus on a 40km stretch along the Kafue River in Copperbelt, Kitwe as well as the several perennial streams that feed into it. Buffering will be 10km on either side of the main river. This will enable for the capturing of activities taking place around the study area ie. within the urban area where there are high socio-economic activities as well as high population. Agriculture remains the single contributor to deforestation and environmental degradation. As a result, land use (LU) is facing challenges due to a number of factors including population growth, pressure on land resource, agriculture expansions, technology, climate change and politics. Therefore, because land expansion is limited, inappropriate and unsustainable land use practices will continue to increase in order to feed the rapidly growing population at the detriment of the environment. LUCs strongly connects to climate change and the ultimate goal of the study is to contribute to policy recommendation at policy, programmes and operational levels. This will be achieved by answering the following questions:

(i)   What are the socio-ecological consequences of riverbank cultivation on local land-use changes?

(ii)  What are the projections on spatiotemporal process of the encroachment of agricultural expansions into riverbanks over the past 30 years? (iii) What have been the historical trends of subsistence agriculture and riverbank cultivations?

(iii) What have been the historical trends of subsistence agriculture and riverbank cultivations?   

The Kafue River is the third largest river in Zambia with several perennial streams feeding into it. The river flows entirely within the country providing a livelihood to about 50% of Zambia’s population. The river plays a significant role in sustaining Zambia’s economic systems from various activities including agriculture, mining, industrial, tourism, hydropower generation, natural resource and fishing. Copperbelt was once the industrial hub of Zambia that provided a lifeline for the country since the 1950’s. Privatisation and sale of these mines by the Government of Zambia (GoZ) in the early 1990s gave rise to unprecedented unemployment and high poverty levels. This unemployment saw an increase in subsistence agriculture, mostly encroaching the Kafue River Basin banks for all-year-round food production. As a result, subsistence agriculture along this river and its tributaries is more pronounced now than before. In Kitwe specifically, there was in increase in demand for housing settlements both legal and illegal due to influx in human population driven by rural-urban migration. This demand translated into an increased demand for housing and farming land. This forced the helpless communities to unsustainable utilise river and stream banks as they provided fertile soils and high moisture for all-year-round food production.

Current findings from my fieldwork show climate change as the greatest contributor to rural-to-urban migration. Upland soil fertility has reduced drastically and is no longer productive, bringing untold hardship to these communities forcing them to unsustainably utilise the riverine areas. To some extent, the energy policies of Zambia are blamed for fuelling the demand for charcoal and firewood considering that the cost of electricity is prohibitively expensive and beyond the reach of ordinary households. The same open land along the riverine areas has also been converted into a residential place – legal and illegal. Just to give a synopsis of the important roles which the Kafue River plays in sustaining Zambia’s economic systems. Studying the impacts of agricultural expansions along this river’s system will provide the much-needed evidence-based support to policy review and formulation. At this juncture, it is not enough to sit around tables and ratify to all environmental treaties over a cup of coffee.  Instead, it is about time that people realise political will backing is imperative to these treaty resolutions such that they can be adopted and implemented at policy, programmes and operational levels.

Rudo doing fieldwork in Bulangililo along Kafue River, Kitwe, Zambia

The road has not been a smooth drive due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I appreciate that RUFORUM expects me as a student to have completed the study within the stated time period. Unfortunately, this global pandemic has slowed things down for me when schools and universities closed in March 2020. Added to that, the university went on indefinite strike further affecting my work. That did not deter me from fighting to meet my targets as and I have learnt to “work in fear without fear”. Bolting through the first part of field work in the midst of a global crisis last year, I am now working on the second part of my fieldwork and hope to continue and complete the final part by end of this year. The experience I have obtained from the little fieldwork conducted so far has been somewhat life changing. The household questionnaires speak more on land, tenure and water pollution issues and this is very sensitive issues of discussions/talks here in Zambia. As a foreign student, asking such questions raised a lot of suspicion amongst the respondents. My being a female foreign researcher who was in the company of male Zambian Research Assistants further soiled the situation. It was not fieldwork as usual. Fortunately, my Supervisors had oriented me on dress code, identity and approach. Wearing a worksuit, a reflector, name badge and student identification, in the company of male Zambian Research Assistants whom were familiar with the area, fluent in the Bemba language as well as the culture. This still remained a toll order for us. On arriving at the farming field/housing settlements, we normally were received by the females whom would take us to where their husbands or heads of households would be. As for those women whose husbands or heads of the households were not present, they went through the trouble to explain why they were participating in answering the questionnaire and how it would have benefitted us if we had met with the head of the house. This therefore consumed a lot of the discussion time, but knowing that “patience is a virtue”, it did pay in the end.

My study has a total of four research objectives and the second objective demands that I use geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing (RS) technology in order to understand LUCCs that have taken place between 1989 to 2019 and also be able to make further projections for the next 10 years ahead. To overcome this challenge, my Core Supervisor who in his own extra time took the trouble to walk me through some GIS &RS training. I am also very grateful to RUFORUM for organizing virtual GIS & RS training which came at a time when I needed it most. A big thank you to all the Sentinel Researchers for taking their time and training us virtually on qualitative methods and data analysis. Despite my having poor internet connectivity, this training will go a long way in shaping my study. I intend to use AMOS for analysis in my study. I request to RUFORUM to organise more of these virtual training sessions during this time when conventional learning will not be possible. By the time of finishing this study, it is my hope that I would have published four journal articles.  

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