HomeOpinionZim's agricultural crisis deepens

Zim’s agricultural crisis deepens

By Eddie Cross

IT is astonishing to report that, after seven years of continuous decline and five years of radical land reform, the economy still shows all the signs of “broad-based contraction” and that the

agricultural sector is still shrinking.

The actual facts are quite stark. Gross domestic product is down to about US$4,8 billion from US$8,4 billion in 1997; exports are down from US$3,4 billion in the same year to US$1,23 billion last year and goodness knows what figure for the current year.

But it is farm output that gives rise to the gravest concern, as this has been the subject of intense attention over the past four years since the government has implemented its fast-track land reform programme.

Only last week a government minister told an African Union meeting that “Zimbabwe was on the edge of a dramatic agricultural recovery which would see two million jobs being created”. For a minister in a government that has seen the formal sector job market shrink from about 1,4 million jobs to probably 800 000 in 2004, that is quite a claim to make.

The reality is that all sectors of the agricultural industry are in steep decline – and continue to shrink at an alarming rate.

We heard this week that the “Grain Marketing Board (GMB) has 298 000 tonnes of maize in stock”. This was very carefully phrased – not 298 000 tonnes purchased, but 298 000 tonnes in stock!

That is halfway through the GMB intake season; it has increased its stocks from an opening figure of 220 000 tonnes to 298 000 despite significant imports for which no figures were tendered. That means that with eight months to go before we can expect any significant deliveries of the 2004/05 crop, we have two months’ supply of maize in stock. Only in 1992, when we suffered an almost total crop failure due to drought, have we been in a more dangerous situation.

But the maize situation should not obscure the fact that all other sectors are shrinking with equally disastrous results.

Wheat output – already down in 2003 to 14% of previous levels – is set to shrink still further. Milk production is down to 35% of production, meat output is also down and prices in Zimbabwe are now higher than in South Africa in real terms – a first for this country that is a large producer and consumer of all meat products. Oilseeds, critical to the stockfeed industry and for edible oils and fats production, is now down to less than 40% of demand.

The list does not end there – coffee, tea, fruit and sugar are all experiencing significant reductions in total output while the export industries of horticulture and tobacco are now down to 50% and 35% respectively of their normal output.

This has resulted in many shortages and perhaps, more seriously, a very big increase in prices of food in Zimbabwe – once the cheapest in the whole region, but now costing as much or even more than in our less well-endowed neighbours.

With 25% of our adult population HIV-positive, such a development has serious implications as infected individuals require a very much better diet to survive, especially in a country where only 0,2% of all infected persons receive medication.

There are no signs of recovery, none at all. In fact, virtually every sector looks as if this coming season will be worse than the last – even if we get normal rains.

In April the tobacco industry should have completed land preparation; in May and June seedbeds should have been planted. Land preparation and early-planted crops should go in about now. Very little is happening on the ground and a significant number of growers who produced a crop this past season will not grow this year.

Inputs of seed and fertiliser as well as essential chemicals and fuel are all in short supply. Right now, when the industry is normally at its peak in demand, there is a serious and growing shortage of fuel.

I have spent my whole life in agriculture and I can see no signs of any turnaround in this situation. We have a dull Agriculture minister, army officers trying to run the GMB and everyone else trying to steal what is left. It is a catastrophe.

The displaced farmers, who have been illegally kicked off their properties, are trying to put their shattered lives back together. I spoke to one the other day.

He has gone to Zambia where he now runs the largest coffee farm in the world with 1 600 hectares of coffee. His one son goes to school in England and his daughter to university in South Africa.

In Botswana, just over the border with Zimbabwe, I have a friend who is clearing wild bush for Zimbabwean displaced farmers. He tells me he has years of work, that at some points you cannot see the end of the lands in question – they stretch to the horizon.

These stories can be repeated for many African states that have taken these productive refugees in. I am told, for example, that one well-known Zimbabwean grower has established the largest tobacco unit in the world – also in Zambia.

What is often not appreciated is that these are fourth and fifth generation African farmers, with essential African experience and skills. They are also excellent managers and know how to operate in an African environment. It’s not an easy environment – much less manageable than the agricultural conditions in the USA or Europe.

Yet the madness goes on. Just this past month Eric Harrison, probably one of the best irrigation farmers in the country, has been forced off his farm.

A standing crop of citrus and sugarcane, worth a conservative $5 billion, has been stolen and destroyed. Thirty years of work has been lost and today Harrison and his wife, completely shattered by the loss of their home and business, are in Australia for a break while they decide what to do.

Their sons are trying to recover what they can so that they have something to live on. The year 2003 was the first in their whole married life that they had grown their crops without an overdraft. Do many of us appreciate that simple statement?

Last Friday the Hennings, having been encouraged to grow a winter wheat crop and also significant producers of tobacco and paprika, were told to leave the farm or else. They packed a few bags and fled to Harare.

At the weekend, the acting mayor of Harare, a woman who has switched sides to give Zanu PF control of the city after the opposition Movement for Democratic Change took 85% of the popular vote, arrived. “This is my farm now” she announced to the press from the lounge of her new rural home.

Apart from the sheer stupidity of such a statement, every other investor in the agricultural industry and beyond watches this sort of thing and starts closing down what is left of their own operation.

Next time they ask a few farmers to plant a crop in a last-minute desperate exercise to get something into the ground, there will be few takers.

Then last week we also had the spectacle of the police driving off new “settlers” from farms targeted for occupation by a Zanu “heavy”. First it was the 30 000 odd people on Porta Farm, then the settlers on Little England – David Smith’s old place – so that President Robert Mugabe’s sister could take it over.

Now Mugabe has even pointed his poisoned chalice at the mining industry. Well, at least he is consistent.

*Eddie Cross is economic advisor of the Movement for Democratic Change.

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