January 31, 2003

Govt woos white farmers with land promises

Relations seem to be thawing between the government and white commercial farmers evicted under Zimbabwe's controversial land reform programme, but analysts this week said the reconciliation was too late to save the 2002/2003 agricultural season or ensure the country's food security.

Agriculture Minister Joseph Made, who at the height of the government's appropriation of white-owned farms refused to meet leaders of the Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU) saying they were "racist and fascist", held discussions with the CFU last week and Monday, January 27. The two parties are said to have discussed the possibility of CFU members making available agricultural equipment to farmers resettled under the agrarian reforms, with the CFU leaders being assured that white farmers who wished to continue farming would be allocated land.

"Minister Made personally called (CFU) president (Colin) Cloete on his cellphone and suggested that it was time a meeting was held between him and the CFU," the organisation's vice president, Doug Taylor Freeme, told the Financial Gazette. "The meeting was an icebreaker." "(But) at no time did the CFU pledge equipment to the government," he added, refuting claims by Made last week that the white farmers' union had promised tractors, disc ploughs, combine harvesters, harrows, irrigation pipes and tobacco-curing equipment, among other machinery. Both subsistence and aspiring black commercial farmers allocated land have been hard hit by the lack of farming equipment and inputs, making it impossible for many of them to prepare their land for planting.

About two months after the start of the 2002/2003 rainy season, a significant proportion of resettled farmers are said to be struggling to secure machinery, seeds, fertilisers and chemicals, which most of them do not have the financial resources to buy or hire. A government bond issue floated last year to fund farmers resettled under the A2 or commercial farming phase of the land reform programme also failed to raise sufficient funds. Although Made declined to speak to the Financial Gazette this week, it is also estimated that more than 60 percent of the 50 000 successful applicants for the A2 farming scheme have not taken up their plots, leaving large tracts of land lying idle.

Opposition Movement for Democratic Change shadow minister for agriculture Renson Gasela said it was possible that the government had belatedly realised that the new farmers could not drive commercial agriculture without adequate infrastructure.

Although some beneficiaries of the land reform programme have seized equipment left by white farmers forced to abandon their properties, most machinery is stored in warehouses or is being sold. The rest of the equipment has been taken out of Zimbabwe by farmers who have relocated to neighbouring countries. Gasela said: "There is the realisation that the new commercial farmers will not be able to drive commercial farming on their own. They need support. You will realise that even the people allocated land who took up the farms have failed to get enough inputs, which has only served to worsen the situation."

But analysts said even if experienced white farmers were roped into the land reform programme or provided infrastructure for the reforms, it was too late to save this year's farming season, which is already underway. They pointed out that under normal circumstances, most planting would be complete by this time and farmers would only be concerned about whether the country would receive adequate rainfall. Farmers said even if CFU members applied for and were allocated land and resettled farmers secured adequate resources, it would take years to repair the damage done to Zimbabwe's agricultural sector, the backbone of the country's economy.

The seizure of white-owned farms has slashed output from the sector by more than 50 percent in the past year, affecting local companies that rely on farmers for raw materials and markets as well as the country's exports. Production of tobacco, Zimbabwe's main foreign currency earner for instance, is expected to drop to a mere 75 million kilogrammes, from 167 million kgs last year and 216 million kgs in 2001. The wildlife industry, another foreign currency earner, says it has lost more than $6 billion worth of animals in the past two years because of rampant poaching during the land seizures. The carnage in the wildlife industry also led to Zimbabwe being denied permission last November by the United Nations' Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species to sell ivory stocks accumulated over the last five years.

Commentators said government efforts would also not improve food security for close to eight million Zimbabweans who need emergency food aid because of drought and the land reform programme, which have combined to slash food production by more than 60 percent. They pointed out that Zimbabwe, which could be affected by another drought this year, could remain a food importer for at least another two years because of inadequate rains and instability in the agricultural sector.

In a separate development, the Zimbabwean government has admitted that some "administrative errors" had occurred during its land reform process, as South African Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Thoko Didiza said on Thursday, January 30. These errors included that some commercial farmers whose land was seized for redistribution, were left without any land, despite the government's policy that they should be allowed to keep one farm, she told reporters at the Johannesburg International Airport after returning from a two-day visit to Zimbabwe. Other examples of administrative errors included that two prospective new land owners were allocated the same farm, and that applicants for land were allowed to settle on that land, only to find out later that the farm had been allocated to someone else. "The government and the commercial farmers have started discussions to correct the administrative irregularities." (Financial Gazette, Harare - SAPA, Johannesburg - The Namibian, Windhoek)

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