HITCHING a lift from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, to the sugarcane-growing town of Chiredzi in the south-eastern Lowveld at odd hours used to be easy as pi
e for commuters who turned up their noses at the sole, unreliable goods train service.
Not so anymore.
Hitchhikers have to draw on all their patience and desperately hope the unmistakable drone of a huge truck will drift their way. The long-haulage trucks that used to deliver unrefined sugar regularly from the cane mills at Triangle and Hippo Valley Estates to the refinery in the city are no longer as common as in the past.
The change of fortune for odd-hour commuters illustrates how the production of sugarcane and delivery from the cane fields has been severely curtailed by state-sponsored invasions on commercial sugar properties in the Lowveld.
Close to 180 so-called new farmers have settled themselves on Hippo Valley Estates, allocating themselves plots ranging in size from 20 to 60 hectares.
More than 140 others have seized land elsewhere on the sugar estates on plots whose sizes appear largely dependent on the political status of the individual. Some allegedly own multiple plots, among them MPs, a deputy minister, bureaucrats, policemen, and parastatal officials.
Many resettled farmers initially basked in the glory of harvesting a crop that they neither planted nor produced. Even so, they failed to cope with harvesting the cane in fields they seized owing to little or no expertise, no transport of their own and insufficient capital in spite of huge loans availed by a commercial bank.
This year production is projected to slump from a peak of 772 739 tonnes to 219 100 tonnes.
According to the Zimbabwe Cane Farmers Association 772 739 tonnes of sugarcane were produced before the seizures in 2002 from 6 928 hectares.
But because of a 440% decrease in hectarage, a mere 148 723 metric tonnes are expected from ZCFA members in the 2004 season.
And although resettled farmers seized a huge chunk of land spanning 5 350 hectares previously cropped by contract growers, production is set to decline by 210% to 219 100 tonnes this year compared to 2002.
Dispossessed growers argue that the manner in which the land acquisition programme was executed does not increase overall output by expanding the production of sugarcane, and thus sugar and eventually the economy.
Instead, it is a re-allocation of existing resources by a clutch of influential people to a handful of client beneficiaries.
“What is clear is that settlers have all been favoured with political patronage,” one of the white contract growers, who preferred to remain unnamed for fear of victimisation, told the Zimbabwe Independent.
In many instances those tasked with land allocation, mainly senior civil servants, are themselves the major beneficiaries.
He said senior sugar estate staffers and their wives, shopkeepers, teachers, and the ruling party faithful have also arbitrarily profited, as has a handful of emergent and successful black businessmen.
Agricultural experts say the total value of all white commercial cane farmers’ crop would have raked in $13,5 billion. The commercial white farmers at Hippo Valley Estates would normally produce $10,15 billion of this figure.
Yet Hippo Valley is presently producing only 60% of its mill’s output due to the roller coaster disruption on the cane fields that has had a knock-on effect on its own deliveries, they add.
And the irregular deliveries to the refinery have rebounded to haunt odd-hour commuters along the Bulawayo-Chiredzi highway.
“In the past, one was assured of transport without any hassles any time of the day,” bemoans Anita Mhukahuru, a cross border trader who buys items in Botswana for resale in Chiredzi. “There is little sugar to deliver and less traffic along this highway to Chiredzi.”
Hippo Valley Sugar Estate was initiated in the late 1950s in concert with the Mauritian Development Corporation. The Mauritians provided a sugar mill, technologists to erect and run it, and expertise for the cane fields. Pioneer growers cleared virgin bush, prepared land, constructed canals and other infrastructure to transform the erstwhile inhospitable, tsetse fly infested tracts of land into lush cane fields.
The first 50 out-growers were recruited from people with adequate agricultural expertise who had sufficient funds to stand financially independent on their own and pay for their own development without being a burden to the state.
Five decades later, a new breed of itinerant cane farmers threaten to unhinge Zimbabwe’s sugar industry alongside its prime citrus fruit export sector.
From 1995, after intermittent droughts in the previous three years, the sugar industry started to prosper, but high interest rates and the beginning of the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar in 1997 bred a steep decline in the industry’s financial fortunes.
Prices were kept artificially low enabling members of the ruling elite to buy cheap sugar and export it illegally to neighbouring countries.
At the peak of the land invasions, 60 000 tonnes were reportedly smuggled to Mozambique and a further 10 000 tonnes to Namibia and elsewhere, all representing 17% of domestic needs resulting in a national shortage of sugar on shop shelves in 2002.
“White commercial cane farmers tried to accommodate resettled cane farmers on a separate project of 4 500 hectares and offered their expertise to run the project for up to five years. As soon as they had learnt the ropes, the resettled farmers would cast off on their own,” according to the ZCFA.
If the recommendations were taken up, it would create wealth for a wider circle of participants, expanding the sugar industry and benefiting more entrepreneurs. It could bring about an expansion in the sugar industry, ultimately to the advantage of the country’s economy.
But Masvingo provincial governor Josaya Hungwe and his lands committee rejected the proposal.
“It appeared the prospect of reaping someone else’s standing cane crop was a far more gratifying proposition to look forward to,” the association said.