Eric Bloch Column

Command economy is not the answer

By Eric Bloch

AFTER an immensely prolonged period of extolling and enthusing the alleged tremendous success of Zimbabwe’s land reform programme, the government has finally begun to acknowledge that the agricult

ural sector is in a state of great distress.

For many decades that sector was the foundation and mainstay of the economy. It employed more workers than any other economic sector. It was the principal source of foreign currency which, for a heavily import-dependent country, is its lifeblood.

That foreign currency was earned from the export of very considerable quantities of high quality tobacco, of the world’s foremost cotton, of maize and other grains to neighbouring territories, of sugar, citrus and much other produce. It generated vast amounts of expenditure into the downstream economy, distributive, financial and services sectors.

But all that was in years gone past. Progressively, as the government pursued its programme of land acquisition, redistribution and resettlement, and especially so as it intensified its pursuit of that programme from 2000 onwards, agricultural productivity declined more and more. Much of the previously very extensive agricultural infrastructure was destroyed.

While some new settlers had genuine desires to work the lands acquired, to achieve economic empowerment through agricultural production, and to play a meaningful role in the advancement of the Zimbabwean economy, greater numbers either sought to “get rich quick” by demolishing the improvements that former commercial farmers had effected, at very great cost, or were without either skills or, in the alternative, resources necessary for productive land usage.

Those desirous of rapid enrichment dismantled fencing, power lines, pumps, sheds, irrigation systems and much else and sold them in complete disregard for the negative consequences to the future usage of the lands they had occupied.

And those lacking the skills or resources required looked to the farmers they had displaced, and to the government, to enable them to prepare the lands, plant, cultivate and harvest crops. But most of the displaced farmers had been deprived of the means to assist the new settlers.

Moreover, having been robbed of lands which they had lawfully acquired, it was unrealistic in the extreme to expect their support. They had been deprived of their source of livelihood and dispossessed of not only lands they had legitimately obtained, but also of the improvements they had effected to those lands, and of their machinery, equipment, irrigation systems, stores and crops.

The justification of the state for these actions was the allegation that the lands had been stolen from the indigenous population of yesteryear. This was almost wholly devoid of substance and credibility for, when the colonial era commenced, the indigenous population was of a size that most of the lands which are now Zimbabwe were uncultivated, unutilised, and unoccupied. In such circumstances, to expect evicted, poverty-stricken former farmers to aid the new occupants of their lands was unrealistic in the extreme.

But, year after year, the government would not admit the failure of the programme and in particular, the responsible minister and public servants for agriculture, and the cabinet, dared not acknowledge that the programme, which they had so loudly acclaimed, was a disaster. Instead, each year excuses were imaginatively created to explain away the failure to produce the bountiful crops that had been foreshadowed, but which had not materialised.

So great were the annual expectations that in 2004 the government grandiosely informed the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Food Programme (WFP) that Zimbabwe no longer needed food aid, save for Aids orphans, as it was wholly food sufficient. Projected crops were heralded of at least 1,8 million tonnes of maize, and 600 000 tonnes of other grains, being volumes not produced in any of the previous four years.
Equally far-f
etched projections were ascribed to other crops, including a forecast of a tobacco crop of at least 160 million kg (albeit early a third less than the record 2000 crop of 237 million kg.) By early 2005 the government admitted, with some embarrassment, that the crop would, for various specious reasons, be between 120 million kg and 135 million kg. And, furthermore, at least 60% of the crop is low “filler” quality.

In like manner, Zimbabwe is faced with chronic shortages of milk and other dairy products, necessitating the imports by Dairibord. Many other agricultural scarcities exist, including beef.

However, being a past master at denying responsibility and blame, and attributing fault to causes beyond its control, the government has had no hesitation at ascribing the disasters of the latest agricultural season to drought. A low quality tobacco crop of half the originally projected size, a maize crop of about one-third only of the nation’s need and of prior assurances, and similarly great differentials between other crop forecasts and actual outturn, are now attributed by the government to drought.

It cannot be denied that drought has had some significant effects, but not to the extent that the government pretends, for substantial crops could have been produced under irrigation if a sufficiency of seeds had been planted, irrigated, fertilised, properly tended and brought to a harvestable state. However, seeds that are not planted cannot grow, importation of fertilisers after crops are fully grown and the like cannot yield crops.

The government should stop prevaricating and acknowledge facts. It should vigorously pursue the very commendable and down-to-earth statements of Vice President Joseph Msika that the government needs white and black commercial farmers, working side-by-side, cooperating, and although not specifically stated by him, that must be in an environment of security, justice, equity and mutual respect.

That would be the first and decisive step towards restoring agriculture to its former glory. But doing so must be timeously followed by compensating for destroyed infrastructure and misappropriated equipment, and by equally timeous enablement of importation of essential inputs as required for the 2005/2006 agricultural season.