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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 February 2006, 02:49 GMT
Lesotho starves in rich SA's shadow
Lesotho's relationship with South Africa has long been one of rich neighbour, poor neighbour, as the BBC News website's Justin Pearce found when he visited a village in southern Lesotho.

Moloko Lekhoana
Farmers like Moloko Lekhoana make do with less land and money
"There's not enough food. The fields have not been planted."

Moloko Lekhoana stands on the wall of an earth dam that he and his neighbours are building by hand, and looks at the ruined soil that surrounds his village of Morifi, in southern Lesotho.

His situation is no different from that of 500,000 people in Lesotho - a quarter of the population - who don't have enough food.

"Last year I produced only three bags of maize," Mr Lekhoana says.

It is not hard to believe that this land is unproductive. In places it looks like an elephant's hide: hard, grey and crinkled.

Elsewhere, the soil has been eroded into brittle ridges - in one place a column of earth rises two metres high, topped by a single bush whose roots are all that holds the soil together.

Over the hill, you can look down onto a plain where a line of trees marks the South African border. The commercial farms on the other side are smooth and green.

Overgrazing

Mr Lekhoana puts the desolation in his village down to overgrazing: "Animals have been wandering around everywhere."

LESOTHO'S PERMANENT CRISIS
30% HIV prevalence
Half of farming families lack labour
500,000 out of 2m people short of food
Agricultural experts also point to the practice of monoculture - growing a single crop, usually maize, year after year - as something else that contributes to the weakening of the soil.

In South Africa, the farms are larger, so there is less pressure on the land and the soil has time to recover between crops.

The damage now done, the cattle are fewer than they once were in Morifi, which is why Mr Lekhoana has nothing to pull the plough this year.

"Cattle died because they did not have enough grazing," Mr Lekhoana says. "Or they were sold because people are poor - so they can take care of their families."

Almost one in three people in Lesotho is HIV positive. After a few dry years, no one has cash left to pay for medical treatment - for many families, cattle are the only saleable asset, even if getting rid of the livestock means there is no chance of ploughing the following year.

Ox-drawn plough
Intensive farming is contributing to the erosion of soil

The HIV epidemic is one legacy of Lesotho's long history of contact with South Africa.

With Lesotho's land long unable to support its population, generations of Basotho became a source of cheap labour for the mines "next door" - migrant workers became Lesotho's most valuable export.

That has changed over the last decade, as mineral deposits have become exhausted, and South Africa's economy has become less dependent on mining.

"People have been retrenched from the mines. They used to help with farming needs, but not any longer," Mr Lekhoana says.

Lean season

Lesotho may be exporting less labour these days, but its current big export is water, through the Lesotho Highlands project: a series of dams and pipes that takes water from Lesotho's rainy highlands to quench the thirst of South African industry.

Women building a dam by hand
A much-needed dam in a country that exports water
Yet most Basotho farmers have no reserves of water to carry them through a lean season - this year's rains follow four years of drought.

The dam that is being built in Morifi is a joint project of the Lesotho government and the World Food Programme, which supplies food to those who work on the construction.

The workers - many of them beyond middle age, and the majority of them women - move back and forth with wheelbarrows, piling up earth and stamping it down by hand to raise the dam wall higher.

It has taken them a year to get this far - maybe by this time next year, they will have started reclaiming the gullies and storing water.

But there are a lot more villages in Lesotho that look like Morifi with its gullies and parched soil, and not many of them have dams.

The labour market and the water market define Lesotho's relationship with South Africa - so dependent is Lesotho on "next door" that some people wonder why it is a separate state.

Unequal neighbours

The answer lies in history. In the 19th century Basotho people found themselves trapped between the Voortrekkers - the descendents of Dutch settlers who migrated into the South African interior - and the Maluti mountains.

Advert for funeral parlour
Aids is striking down the economically active population
An agreement with Britain saw Basotholand - as it was then called - formed as a protectorate on what little land the Basotho managed to keep.

When South Africa was unified in 1910, Basotholand remained a separate entity, which became independent from Britain in 1966.

But economic independence was never a possibility for a country with so many people and so little arable land.

South Africa employed workers from Lesotho for as long as they were needed - but when the jobs dried up they had to go back to villages like Morifi rather than seeking new opportunities in the expanding economy next door.

The result: a land where one in four people go hungry.


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