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HARARE, 10 January (IRIN) - Most of Zimbabwe's newly resettled farmers have had a slow start to the main planting season, and experts warn that this might jeopardise the country's food supply this year.
New farmers, particularly those who were given the A1 communal model farms during the fast-track land redistribution programme that commenced in 2000, cited a lack of draught power as the main obstacle to planting.
At an A1 farm about 40 kilometres north of the small town of Mvuma in Midlands province, more than half the settlers said they had been forced to adopt zero tillage, known locally as "chibhakera", a simple technique of planting seed into the soil with little or no prior land preparation.
Tavaka Bhasera, 54, told IRIN that since the first rains fell in the second week of December last year he had managed to cultivate less than half an acre of land. Bhasera moved to the farm in January 2003, while his family remained at his rural home in Chivi, over 180 km away.
He had decided to leave most of his family members behind because the government had instructed them not to build permanent structures on the new plots, a situation he said made him uncertain about his future as a new farmer.
"The situation here is disturbing. I, like most of my neighbours, do not have cattle to use as draught power. As you can see, I don't have a cattle pen and a goat is the only form of livestock I can boast of. As a result, I have been forced to use my own hands to till this land, which is almost virgin," said Bhasera, who is also the headman of the farm.
He said he had also left his cattle in Chivi, partly because of the uncertainty and also due to the lack of means to transport them.
Resettled farmers have been promised tractors to help them with tillage through the government's District Development Fund (DDF).
"All the time we travel to Chivhu, [where] DDF officials say they are coming soon, claiming that they are ploughing in other areas. However, we wonder at which places they are using the tractors because we have not heard of anyone in this area who has received their services," Bhasera remarked.
The official Herald newspaper recently quoted DDF director-general James Jonga as saying that less than half of the fund's 733 tractors were still operational due to the lack of foreign exchange to keep the ageing fleet running.
Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo, who is also chairman of the cabinet task force on inputs supply and distribution, said farmers were encouraged "to use all forms of tillage, namely mechanical, manual labour, animal draught power and tillage co-operatives, in order to bring more land under production in this agricultural season."
Director of the department of Agricultural Research and Extension Services (AREX), Shadreck Mlambo, warned that this year's harvests were under threat. "Right now, we are still far away from completing land preparation, and time is fast running out," he said.
In the Guinea Fowl area, a former dairy farm hub about 50 km south of the Midlands city of Gweru, farmers are pooling resources to till as much land as possible.
"The DDF has helped some of us, but the number is very small. Considering also that we do not have cattle and donkeys to use as draught power, we sat down and decided to come together as families to [plant] ... using chibhakera [zero tillage]. The programme is done on a rotational basis to ensure that every household gets its chance. Also, those who have cattle have come to our rescue, but they do so for a fee and are overwhelmed," said Guinea Fowl resident Margaret Chimbwa.
Thanks to this communal programme, known as "nhimbe", Chimbwa's family had managed to plant two acres of crops, but this represented a small fraction of her 15-acre plot, which had largely lain fallow since she moved to the farm three years ago.
Even though the government had provided each household with 30 km of maize seed and two bags of Compound D fertiliser, for use when the crop begins germinating, the effort would be wasted if farmers were unable to till enough land, she added.
Davison Mugabe, president of the Zimbabwe Farmers' Trade Union (ZFTU), an organisation representing about 12,000 black farmers, urged the government to invest "massively" in agriculture if the land reform exercise was to succeed.
"Land reform will become a success story with massive injection of investment by the government. There is need for bigger credit facilities for the farmers and much more mechanisation, as well as the rebuilding of the national herd of cattle, while inputs [should be] provided at affordable prices. Without this, we will continue to underperform," Mugabe said.
Last year the government predicted a bumper maize harvest of 2.4 million mt. However, a report released by the parliamentary portfolio committee on lands and agriculture said as of October 2004, the state-owned commodity buyer, the Grain Marketing Board, had received only 388,558 mt.
A Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVAC) report in April 2004 projected that around 41 percent of the rural population (3.3 million people) would be food insecure from December 2004 to March 2005 if the price of maize reached Zim $750/kg. Maize is already selling at above Zim $1,100/kg in most rural areas, reaching Zim $2,000/kg in the worst hit districts, FEWS NET said in a report released in November.
"At current prices, therefore, the projected food insecure rural population is arguably higher than 3.3 million people," the US-funded early warning unit noted.
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