historic power-sharing pact recognizes that the revival of the agriculture
sector is essential to the recovery of the country’s devastated economy.
Analysts blame President Robert Mugabe’s confiscation of white-owned farms largely for
the rapid decline of agriculture in the southern African nation. Since the
ruling ZANU-PF party began the farm seizures in 2000, the country is no longer
a regional breadbasket but an importer of food. Aid organizations say many
Zimbabweans are now facing serious food shortages. Mr. Mugabe, though, blames
drought and sanctions from some in the international community.
Zimbabwe’s new prime minister and the head of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai, calls the situation in his country “one of the worst man-made humanitarian disasters,” and says more than five million of his compatriots are endangered by “starvation and famine” – largely because of ruling party policies that have eroded his country’s once-thriving agricultural base.
“Large-scale commercial farm output…is a complete disaster,” says Deon Theron, vice president of Zimbabwe’s Commercial Farmers Union.
Production of staple food crops, such as maize (corn), is down, and in recent years Zimbabwe has consistently failed to meet its export quotas of beef, for example, to the European Union. So valuable foreign currency has been lost, deepening the suffering of the country’s people.
It’s in this context that a new-look government made up of former enemies will be expected to unite to resurrect Zimbabwean agriculture.
It’s a “frightening responsibility,” says Geoff Hill, the Zimbabwean author of several books about his homeland, which include analysis about its agricultural decay.
Infrastructure and expertise lacking
The United Nations rates southern Africa one of the world’s fastest urbanizing regions.
“There’s therefore a real need to grow crops on a big scale to feed people in the cities,” says Hill.
The UN estimates that up to 70 per cent of Zimbabweans live in towns and cities, far away from farmlands.
In a scenario such as this, argues Hill, and with a small economy, very large commercial agriculture is the only successful response to hunger in Zimbabwe.
“Tomatoes are cheap only if grown by the ton. Ditto most other foods,” he states.
Hill points out that it usually takes only a season to turn seeds into crops, and crops into food.
“So the problem isn’t in planting food. Zimbabwe’s huge problem at the moment is that there really isn’t the infrastructure and the expertise necessary for commercial farming. We need train lines along which you can cart the fertilizer, the roads to take crops to market, the tractor parts getting to remote areas to maintain equipment, the dealerships where farmers can buy essential products. All of this has broken down in the turmoil of the past decade or so.”
Hill says Zimbabwe’s entire agricultural sector “basically needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, and that’s going to take time and money.”
Acute shortages of fertilizer and seed and bad weather have also hurt Zimbabwean agriculture in recent years, according to Ben Gilpin, of the country’s Justice For Agriculture group. He says Zimbabwe is set to face the most serious cereal shortages since 2000.
Land reform mustn’t be ‘emotional’
President Mugabe has consistently maintained that his land reform program, under which farms owned mostly by the descendants of British settlers were sometimes brutally seized by ZANU-PF militants, the police and army, has worked. It’s been successful, he says, because it’s given land to impoverished black people.
Hill responds, “It wasn’t a land reform program, it was a land redistribution program. What happened was the land was simply given to Mugabe cronies, like war veterans and army generals, who didn’t know anything about farming. They use the land to entertain themselves and their friends.”
Hill agrees that “responsible” land reform is necessary in Zimbabwe to address the inequalities of the past, and adds that the “hopelessly irresponsible” land seizures are largely responsible for the country’s meltdown.
“Agriculture is not just about using land for food,” he explains. “Zimbabwe used to be the world’s number one tobacco producer, and a top producer of cotton. It was near the top in producing high-end foods and flowers, coffee and tea, for the world market – things that you can sell overseas in order to get foreign currency, with which you can buy petrol and car tires and all the things that Zimbabwe simply cannot manufacture locally.”
The power-sharing agreement commits the signatories to land reform in Zimbabwe, saying they’ll “ensure that all Zimbabweans who are eligible [shall] be allocated land and who apply for it shall be considered for allocation of land irrespective of race, gender, religion, ethnicity or political affiliation.”
But Geoff Hill counsels against a “mass allocation” of land to Zimbabweans.
“Agriculture should be looked at as a means of feeding the people, not as a means whereby people are settled on land. People need education to get better work, not parcels of land.”
Besides, he says, as the UN statistics show, Zimbabweans are continuing to move away from the rural areas and into urban areas.
“Worldwide – in Brazil, Philippines, Thailand, Zimbabwe – if you give young people an education, the first thing they do is go to town…. Now the challenge is to feed them once they’re in town.”
Hill says this challenge will only be met by “putting lots and lots of fairly low cost food” into the country’s stores. He’s adamant that agriculture should be the responsibility of a relative few skilled farmers who produce food and cash crops and not a “whole bunch” of small-scale landowners who won’t be productive.
“It is important get agriculture up to a commercial status as quickly as possible. That means you don’t want somebody growing a patch of tomatoes outside his or her hut; you want someone who’s going to grow ten hectares of tomatoes, do it properly, and get them into the shops at a rate that is competitive with what you’d pay in Johannesburg or anywhere in a country of similar economy to Zimbabwe.”
Hill says agriculture mustn’t be seen as a “place to hide unemployment by taking educated kids and dumping them on small plots of land to become peasants.”
He questions attitudes among some in the international community regarding land ownership and agriculture in Africa.
“When I give talks around the world on the books that I’ve written, always – in Sydney, or New York, or London – someone will ask me whether giving people plots of land is not a good way to stem unemployment. I’m never actually asked that question when I address people inside Africa.”
There’s a good reason for this, Hill says: most Africans want jobs to ensure their livelihoods, not land.
“There is this notion – it is racist but it’s not meant to be – that when white children get their (education), they should get a job in the bank, but when black children get the same education, they should be satisfied with a hectare of land and growing pumpkins; (like they’re) going to walk with a copy of Shakespeare in the one hand and a donkey in the other. And of course it’s just not going to happen.”
White farmers won’t easily return
The agreement accepts that land ownership has been “at the core” of Zimbabwe’s political fight, but recognizes that the parties differ as to the way land reform must, and should have, happened in the country. The pact, however, makes it clear that land taken from white farmers will not be returned to them, but that former colonial power Britain – under whose rule prime land was given to the whites – should compensate them for their loss.
Hill says even if the agreement had said the land should be returned to the white farmers, this would not have been practical. Many of them are now successful farmers in other parts of Africa, especially in Nigeria and Mozambique, where white Zimbabweans are credited with spurring agricultural productivity.
“It’s not so easy for these people to just literally pull up their new roots and return to Zimbabwe. It’s taken them years to establish themselves in other countries, you can’t just expect them to return to Zimbabwe at the drop of a hat,” Hill explains.
Besides, he says, Zimbabweans who left the country in droves in recent years are mainly waiting to see if the agreement results in meaningful reform in their homeland before deciding whether or not to return.
In the light of this, says Hill, says land reform in Zimbabwe must be practical, not “too emotional.”
Ultimately, he states, Zimbabwean agriculture will revive if the authorities realize that it’s not the farmer’s race that matters, but his or her ability to work the land productively.
“(The government must say) we’re not giving you land for a weekend retreat where you can take your friends for a (barbecue), like many of the ministers are doing; we’re not giving you land just to sit there and stare out at the open spaces, we’re giving you land to grow food economically, viably – either for export or to feed the nation. If you don’t do that, the government must have the right to throw people off (the land).”
Sam Moyo, the executive director of the African Institute for Agrarian Studies in Harare, agrees that a reversal of Mr. Mugabe’s controversial land redistribution process isn’t feasible, and won’t necessarily result in better agriculture in Zimbabwe. What’s needed, he believes, is training to ensure that the country’s farmers use the land in a sustainable, productive manner, and better economic policies.
Moyo says land redistribution should continue in Zimbabwe and should include white farmers. But he says the policy should be “one person, one farm.”
The power-sharing agreement does indeed make provision for a land audit, to eliminate “multiple farm ownerships.” If completed successfully, such an audit would remove farms from a number of the ZANU-PF elite, who now own more than one farm.
“The bottom line,” though, according to Hill, is “to get the land back into commercial production to feed the subcontinent and to generate foreign exchange to get Zimbabwe moving forward again.”