Droughts are global phenomena and must be understood and researched as such. In these anthropocenic times, we are increasingly aware of the scales and networks of climate change and its effects. One such case is the drought cycle experienced in Southern Africa in recent years, generally attributed to a disruption in the annual rainfalls caused by the El Niño climate event. In this framework, the region of Southern Angola has experienced an extreme cycle of drought that has built up on previous cycles and culminated in the disastrous year of 2019, with millions of livestock dead and an estimated 2.3 million people facing food insecurity in the provinces of Cunene, Huila, and Namibe (Amnesty International 2019). The latest UNICEF report on the Angolan Humanitarian situation mentions over 390,000 children screened for malnutrition resulting from the drought (Reliefweb, February 2021).
In our recent research conducted in late 2020 in the provinces of Huíla and Namibe, however, we have realized that beyond the general explanatory narratives, there are specific local processes and formations that produce different kinds of drought experiences. We call them ‘drought terroirs.’ ‘Terroir’ is a concept commonly used in enology to describe the particular topographical and climatological conditions under which a specific wine is produced, enabling its uniqueness or particularity and subsequent marketization. From this perspective, the concept necessarily embodies a political economy (e.g., Demossier 2011). And, in fact, as described in Thomas Painter et al. (1994), terroir was also an agrarian theory and, later, a rural policy developed in West Africa in the 1990s (terroir villageois), based on targeted initiatives for improving agriculturists and pastoralists’ livelihoods, grounded into ideas of ‘territorial specificity’ and ‘locality.’ Such development initiatives highlighted terroir as a ‘socio-spatial construction’ (Bassett et al. 2007: 108) that articulates environmental conditions, subsistence and livelihood, governmental rule and neoliberal formation. Inspired by these approaches, we import the concept of terroir as a ‘space of socio-natural convergence’ to talk about the specific conditions under which drought situations emerge beyond the ‘general climatological context.’ This implies joint consideration of climate conditions and human-related factors to explain drought. By human factors, we think specifically of forms of governmentality or lack thereof (Hellberg 2018).
We take as an example a ‘counterintuitive situation’ we encountered in Humpata, a municipality situated a few kilometers southwest of Lubango, the capital of the province of Huíla. We say counterintuitive because, unlike other areas of the province severely hit by low annual rainfall such as Gambos, Humpata has experienced less rainfall but has also remained a relatively humid municipality throughout the current drought cycle. This is explained by its mountainous and plateau topography and abundant water flow (both surface and underground) coming from the nearby Chela mountain ridge  - a microclimate that also explains why both indigenous ova-nyaneka communities and Boer and Portuguese settlers exploited the area for their herding and agricultural endeavors throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of the hydraulic infrastructures we find there (the Neves dam and the open-air water canals stemming from it) are remnants of those settlements. Today, the main road that intersects the municipality (connecting Lubango to the province of Namibe) is populated by larges-cale agro-industrial ventures, specializing in a range of produce from citrines and strawberries to dairy and meat products. Around such fazendas, moving away from the main road is where we find small-scale farming and herding communities (of ova-nyaneka, nganguela or even ovimbundo ethnicities), who live mostly off selling their goods and produce in the local Humpata market.
It was among these communities where we encountered a ‘drought terroir.’ The problem began in 2018, when one of the water canals that carried the water from the Neves dam collapsed due to a sudden episode of flooding of a river that intersected with the canal infrastructure, after construction work undertaken upstream diverted its usual flow intensity (see Figure 1). The flooding exerted too much pressure on the old infrastructure and led to its collapse, causing a dispersal of the water flow and the subsequent interruption of downstream distribution. This affected several hectares, leaving herders and small-scale farmers suddenly without any access to water. We estimate approximately 2,000 people directly affected by this circumstance. Inversely, the collapse did not dramatically affect the agro-industrial projects located south of the terroir, mostly because they had the necessary infrastructural resources for water autonomy, namely private water holes (See Figure 2).
Meanwhile, the affected populations in the terroir have sought different solutions. Farmers in the northern section and with sufficient financial resources paid to build their own water holes and chimpacas (water reservoirs) that could either collect rainwater or retain underground water from the mountain ridge. Others resorted to artisanal methods, using engines to pump water from upstream into containers. But those in the southern areas and with fewer resources, who relied on the canal for their lavras where they cultivated corn, potatoes, carrots, or sprouts to sell in the local market, have had to take their business elsewhere, and seek other goods to sell in the market, or ultimately move to the city of Lubango to find jobs.
In response to the events, the local administration declared that it did not have the funding to address the problem on short notice, despite the recent municipal funding programs promoted by the state (PIIM). Thus, the local dwellers mobilized and decided to develop a provisional reconstruction of the canal based on voluntary work as well as material and transport donations from both the administration and the nearby fazendas (Figure 3). Considering the voluntary nature of the reconstruction, and the recent exodus of many locals to Lubango, as of February 2021, the work continues.
Thus, the drought terroir in Humpata appears as a consequence of a convergence of ‘socio-natural’ conditions conjuring a specific drought event. In particular, the contemporary dynamics of local governance and administration in southern Angola, which on the one hand allowed for the full-blown development of large-scale agro-industrial exploitation of the landscape, and, on the other, did nothing/little to accommodate the local communities and their reliance on the material infrastructures inherited from colonial times.
The case of Humpata is not unique in southern Angola. In our research so far, we have encountered multiple other micro-instances of drought produced by ‘socio-natural processes.’ In this respect, a ‘terroir approach’ can be understood as a methodological contribution to ongoing research on the social impact of climate events such as droughts, highlighting the scales of convergence of different agencies and infrastructures at a local level.
Ruy Llera Blanes, anthropologist, is an associate professor at the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University. He has conducted research for several years in Angola, where he has studied issues of political activism, religious movements, and memory/heritage.
Carolina Valente Cardoso, anthropologist, postdoctoral researcher at the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University. She has conducted research on Portuguese migration in Angola.
Helder Alicerces Bahu, anthropologist, professor at ISCED-Huíla. He is an expert in Southern Angola, and has conducted research on several topics ranging from religion to education, history, landscape and biodiversity.
Claudio Fortuna is a researcher at the Center of African Studies (UCAN, Luanda) and a PhD candidate at the Anthropology program in ISCTE-IUL (Lisbon). He has a BA in Anthropology from the Universidade Agostinho Neto in Luanda. He is a long-term specialist on urban issues and the public space.
1. In fact, Serra da Chela water is one of the most popular water brands marketed in Angola.
Amnesty International. 2019. The End of Cattle’s Paradise. Johannesburg: Amnesty International.
Bassett, Thomas J., Chantal Blanc-Pamard, and Jean Boutrais. 2007. Constructing Locality: The Terroir Approach in West Africa. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 77 (1): 104–29.
Demossier, Marion. 2011. “Beyond Terroir: Territorial Construction, Hegemonic Discourses, and French Wine Culture.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17 (4): 685–705.
Hellberg, Sofie. 2018. The Biopolitics of Water: Governance, Scarcity and Populations. London & New York: Routledge.
Painter, Thomas, James Sumberg, and Thomas Price. 1994. Your ‘Terroir’ and My ‘Action Space’: Implications of Differentiation, Mobility and Diversification for the ‘Approche Terroir’ in Sahelian West Africa. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 64 (4): 447–64.