Zimbabwe: Focus on farm evictions

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
HARARE, 26 June (IRIN) - This is the first time since 1958 that farmer Graham Douse has not been able to produce enough food to feed the people who work on his land, or to sell at the market.

"Me and my family have been producing food for many, many years. But this year we have not been able to even feed our workers as I have been shut down," said Douse as he walked through a paprika crop, almost ripe for picking.

Douse has been served a Section 8 notice which means he must vacate his farm by 8 August. If he harvests his crop he could be jailed for up to two years, pay a US $363 fine, or both under a controversial land law passed by the government last month.

While Douse is making plans to leave the country, some six million people - half of Zimbabwe's population - will be in need of food aid by the end of the year as a result of drought, and the government's fast-track land reform programme.

Even for those with money, there is simply not enough food in the supermarkets. Salt is just the latest commodity to join the long and still growing list of scarce goods.

The government's reforms are ostensibly aimed at correcting the colonial legacy of skewed land ownership. It has given black settlers from overcrowded communal areas access to the vast fertile estates owned by roughly 4,500 white commercial farmers. Some 50 percent of those farmers have been served with Section 8 notices.

The fast-track programme has been condemned on several levels. On more practical grounds, analysts argue the inadequate preparation by the government for resettlement means that the new small-scale black farmers lack the experience and support to maintain previous standards of production.

But the government and its supporters disagree.

"There is ample capacity to continue farming in all commodities except where there is a need for high capital, like greenhouses. We acknowledge we will have problems in say flower production, but not in general commodities like tobacco, paprika, maize, groundnuts, sunflower, fish, livestock and dairy," said Lovegot Tendengu, executive director of the Farmers Development Trust which trains new small-scale farmers.

"We have the capacity, skill, knowledge and we have trebled our training to empower the new farmers. We are all geared up to enhance productivity both in terms of quality and quantity. We are working much harder because we have a point to prove that we can be as productive as anybody," Tendengu told IRIN. "Our main challenge though will be support from the banks."

A Cabinet Action Committee on Land met in Harare on Monday to discuss, among other issues, the role of the banks in ensuring the viability of the resettlement programme. "The support that white commercial farmers got from the banks should also be extended to the new farmers," Zimbabwe radio quoted Lands and Agriculture Minister Joseph Made as saying after the meeting.

But according to Margaret Steel, whose family have been farming for the past 50 years but have now been forced to stop, "if this situation continues, I don't see how anyone will be able to feed their families ... It does not matter how high an income they have, there simply won't be any food in the shops."

There are already fears of a bread shortage. Production of winter wheat currently being planted is forecast to fall sharply as it is almost exclusively grown on the large-scale commercial farms.

According to figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP), between now and June/August, 5.3 million Zimbabweans will require food assistance. That figure is set to rise to just over six million from the end of this year until the new main harvest in March 2003.

Even before this year's crop failure, 75 percent of the population were classified as poor, with 42 percent deemed very poor. Most of these worked in the agricultural sector, which provides more than half of the country's employment.

The Commercial Farmers Union has estimated that about 300,000 farm workers will lose their jobs as a result of the reforms, which would have knock-on effects for about 1.5 million family members and dependents.

Zimbabwe is the world's second largest tobacco producer and it is the only commodity that retains some sparkle in an otherwise depressed economy. Tobacco's contribution to Zimbabwe's gross domestic product (GDP) reportedly now exceeds 30 percent, bringing in about 54 percent of foreign currency earnings this year.

"Unfortunately the enfranchisement politics sweeping through agriculture have eventually and finally caught up with tobacco and everyone wants in," a senior tobacco industry official told IRIN.

"We are sitting on a very delicate situation wherein if we make the wrong decisions, we can lose a whole livelihood on the altar of empowerment, by letting slip a captive international market that is excited by the quality of our tobacco flavours," said the official who declined to be named. "This is simple business reality that has nothing to do with the politics of the story."

Eighty percent of tobacco farmers face eviction orders, and "the future is uncertain at the moment," said Kobus Joubert, president of the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association (ZTA). The impact of a decline in tobacco would also be felt by downstream industries.

"The danger is that if we have a sudden transition, it may all go wrong. I don't see these resettled farmers producing the flavoured tobacco in a year. It takes time. A long time," Joubert said.

He added: "The easiest way to lose money is to grow tobacco. If you lose it, you are gone. It's not a racial thing but you just need the experience. It's the only economic activity we have to save us or start to get us out of this economic mess. But there are too many agendas. Too many people running agendas which are detrimental to tobacco."

Small-scale producers say they can grow tobacco just as well as the established commercial farmers. But purchases of chemicals and seeds are reportedly two-thirds down on last year.

"This gives an indication of what we will produce next year. We can't afford to lose production by that much," warned Joubert. "What will next year hold? I don't know. What's happening on the farms makes it hard for forward planning."


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