Comment: Farming Disaster Looms

Spin-doctors have already started to look for an excuse for the impending failure of this current farming season. Finance minister Tendai Biti beware!

The litany of excuses in the past has ranged from droughts, floods, and economic sanctions to poor funding. The government has never really admitted to failure to plan adequately as a factor in agricultural failure.

The latest assessment by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation says that the country should produce about 25% of the staple maize crop.

FAO’s operations officer Michael Jenrich said Zimbabwe is expected to reap 450 000 tonnes of maize during the next harvest in May, against 1,5 million tonnes this year. The government estimates that the country needs 1,8 million tonnes to feed its people. Most of the anticipated maize will be grown using inputs made available by donors. The government has started to move the inputs to GMB depots where farmers are expected to access them.

But not all farmers will be able to access the inputs. There are administrative hurdles and issues to do with security before inputs are released. In other words, it’s not business as usual for farmers who have been raised on a make-lazy diet of freebies, most of which they resold in an orgy of arbitrage.

Meanwhile Agriculture minister Joeseph Made had until yesterday gone cold. He had said little or nothing on plans for this farming season.

 

From his cocoon, he can only contemplate the frenzied activity of years gone by when — together with RBZ governor Gideon Gono and the military — he played a benevolent grand dad of farming, dishing out tractors, animal-drawn implements and seed.

In this frenzy government forgot to put fertilisers on the shopping list and sort out land-use issues. The result was a disastrous season, a creation of poor planning. Because the game has changed communal and resettled farmers have to be educated on how to run their farms as businesses. The era of patronage is over. It is incumbent upon the ministry responsible for farming to banish from the mindset of farmers the “dai hurumende (if only government can help with…)” syndrome.

This basic process to facilitate change has not taken place because the powers that be have not seen the need to do so. What they will definitely do is to blame failure this time on the paucity of agri-finance.

 

The most obvious fall guy this time around will be Biti, to whom a lot of failures in government are currently being attributed. He stands accused of “blocking” lines of credits and procrastinating in the disbursement of a loan facility provided by the IMF. Gono has lately been pushing for the immediate disbursement of the funds, and at a recent press briefing to discuss funding for this season’s crop put in motion the process of putting Biti through the wringer.

 

“The Reserve Bank wishes to advise that from this agricultural season (going onwards), the central bank will not be able to support the farmers,” said Gono. “This is a result of government’s change of policy which clearly states that the responsibility now lies with the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development and the banking sector.”

Focus will soon be on Biti who will stand accused of failing to fund new farmers. All this will be pitched in the all-too-familiar mantras of the MDC trying to reverse the land reform programme.

 

This policy of retrogression will however ensure that we remain poor as a nation. Financing is not the only problem in agriculture at the moment. The bigger picture on the land is dominated by an apparent aberration in land-use in this country which can only be put right by a proper non-partisan land audit.

We have at the moment a poor land husbandry scenario where rural areas which are supposed to produce the bulk of the maize crop are still congested despite the so-called resettlement programme.

 

Prime land in natural regions one and two where new farmers were resettled has remained fallow because of multiple farm ownership and absentee owners.

 

On the other hand, there are farmers invading and being resettled in dry semi-arid conservancies in regions four and five where they have cut trees and poached game on the pretext of trying to grow food. The net effect of this state of affairs on the land is poor crop yields even in the event of farmers accessing funds.

 

Poor land-use is a major threat to food security in this country. Government must initiate a land audit immediately to ensure that mistakes made during redistribution are corrected. Lands and Resettlement minister Herbert Murerwa has said US$30 million is required to carry out the audit. G

 

overnment has said it does not have that kind of money but the EU recently said it is willing to assist government carry out “an inclusive, transparent, and comprehensive land audit . . . which should be aimed at resolving the land issue…

“This is the bigger picture,” it said, “which cannot be ignored if Zimbabwe’s agriculture is to become highly successful again.”

But there is a proviso to such assistance: “Government has to take its responsibilities,” the EU said. “The decline in the agricultural production is indeed related to failing government polices. These need to be addressed by government.” Our rulers have refused to admit mistakes were made in land resettlement.

 

The offer from the EU might not be taken up for narrow political reasons. That would be disastrous. We will be importing maize this time next year.