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Zimbabwean Agricultural Recovery Faces Serious Hurdles

Agriculture earned Zimbabwe the bulk of its foreign currency before the country's land-reform program got underway in 2000. Production has plummeted since then. With the 2004/2005 planting season a few weeks away, Tendai Maphosa looks at preparations for Zimbabwe's two major crops - tobacco and corn.

Zimbabwe produced a record 237 million kilograms of tobacco, its leading cash crop, in the 1999-2000 growing season. It produced less than a third of that in 2003-2004.

The government is saying plans to raise production to 160 million kilograms this season are on track. The official government newspaper, The Herald, recently said the government is making resources and capital available to growers.

Andrew Ferreira the vice-president of the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association, whose members grew the bulk of Zimbabwe's tobacco, says an increase in production is possible.

"There is definitely positive indications, government have come on side, they have made finance available, they are ensuring that inputs are available," he said. "Potentially from seed sales, if we get every seedling planted, we will get 160-million kilograms; the seed has been bought and sown to actually achieve that. The trick now is to ensure that every seedling gets into the field."

At its peak, the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association had a membership of 1,800 large-scale and 3,000 small-scale tobacco farmers. Now the membership stands at 370 large-scale and six-thousand small-scale farmers.

Mr. Ferreira says the more experienced farmers are doing what they can to impart their knowledge to the new farmers to ensure the target is met. He said although there is a reduction in land under irrigation from last season, the new farmers should make up for that.

The other major crop is corn, which is the staple diet of the majority of Zimbabweans. The country used to be an exporter of the grain, but as a result of successive droughts and, according to some analysts, the chaotic nature of the land reform, Zimbabwe now has to import corn to meet its requirements.

Zimbabwe cannot meet its seed corn requirements, and with the rainy season only a few weeks away the country is still to import the bulk of the 100,000 tons it needs. Opposition Movement for Democratic Change spokesperson for agriculture Renson Gasela says the country is importing some seed from Zambia, formerly one of Zimbabwe's biggest customers.

Mr. Gasela, who sits on the parliamentary committee on agriculture, describes the situation as 'ironic' since Zambia is now managing surpluses because of the Zimbabwean farmers who moved there after losing their land.

The U.S.-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network, in its latest report, lists shortages and the high prices of seed, fertilizer, and fuel as some of the constraints facing Zimbabwean farmers.

As if this were not enough, the Southern African Development Community Drought Monitoring Center says the drought-causing el Nino weather phenomenon may strike again this season.