Robert Mugabes proposal to forcibly buy 1500 commercial farms in Zimbabwe and
redistribute the land has received a lot of publicity worldwide. Lincs farmer Nicholas Watts,
who went there last month, found an understandably gloomy farming community
THERES nothing new about Robert Mugabes bid to "acquire" more land from European farmers. It had been planned since 1980, soon after the Mugabe government took over from Ian Smith. The original plan was to acquire under-utilised land, land sited next to African communal land, and land belonging to owners with more than one farm.
In November 1997 the Zimbabwean government announced that it would acquire 5m hectares (12m acres) of land – more than half the total area presently farmed by European farmers. A list of 1503 farms to be acquired was published.
Contrary to the original plan, the list included many of the best farms in Zimbabwe. The effect of the announcement has been catastrophic. In November last year there were 15 Zimbabwean dollars to the English pound; by January there were 31. Farmers have put any improvements on hold or cancelled them, machinery sales have ground to a halt and farming-related industries are severely depressed.
The list of farms contains many quirks. Of the 1503 holdings listed, 29 have been listed twice and one has been listed three times. Several are already farmed by Africans. Only 60 farmers have not objected.
When will all this take place? No one really knows. The government has said that it will not pay for the land but will compensate owners for improvements like buildings, fences, irrigation schemes and houses. It hopes that the British government will fund this.
Of the 3.2m ha (8m acres) already taken, not all is being farmed productively. Several farms were allegedly handed out to government ministers who had no previous experience of farming. Many of the other farms, claim European farmers, were given to people with very little previous experience. Production on the 3.2m ha is only half that of land farmed by European farmers.
Several weeks after the announcement of the plan, the minister of agriculture has not been available to answer any questions. What has been obtained is a map of the country with farms marked for acquisition on it. On this map are farms whose owners have not been notified, suggesting that even more questions remain to be answered. Most of the farmers I spoke to didnt think that the acquisition would go ahead. Since then, though, Robert Mugabe has been assuring everyone that the acquisition will take place, which has obviously depressed farmers even more.
Its not just farmers who are fed up. The fall of the Zimbabwean dollar has doubled the prices of many basic commodities in the shops and prompted rioting in the streets of the capital, Harare. So instead of gaining popularity for the government, the land acquisition plan seems to be having the opposite effect. On top of that western governments have threatened that they will halt aid payments if the land-grab goes ahead.
At the end of January the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), the equivalent of our NFU, made an offer to the government to release 1.5m hectares (3.7m acres) of land immediately and help raise billions of dollars for the resettlement of peasants.
It says assistance and training would be provided for peasants given land to ensure the land reform programmes success. The CFU had already secured 15bn Zim dollars from foreign donors to go towards poverty alleviation through the resettlement programme, compensation to white farmers whose land would have been designated and to develop irrigation schemes.
Zimbabwe lies within the tropics and its land is between 2000 and 7000ft in altitude. A large range of crops can be grown. The main export is tobacco and other exports include sugar, cotton, flowers and vegetables to Europe.
There are two main markets for the exported flowers and vegetables. One is to send the produce to clock auctions in Holland, the second is to grow direct for customers such as Tesco or Sainsbury.
UK farming groups often claim that these foreign producers are not subject to the same safety, traceability and staff welfare requirements as UK producers. On my visit at least, this did not appear to be true; in fact as most workers live on the farm where they work, their houses are inspected and the wages they are paid come under scrutiny.
Wheat, barley, maize, soya beans and sunflowers are all grown in Zimbabwe. Growers have distinct advantages over many countries of the world. They have a warm but not too hot a climate and many areas are able to irrigate either from boreholes or dams. This enables them to produce two crops a year in many areas. Labour is very cheap which makes many services cheaper than European equivalents.
None of the combinable crops are in surplus so the price farmers can get for these crops is the world price plus the cost of overland transport through Mozambique or South Africa. Beira in Mozambique is nearer but the difficulties of dealing with a country with an extremely poor infrastructure mean it is more economic to import the produce through Durban in South Africa. So farmers enjoy a premium price of about £20/t above world prices.
Left: Nicholas Watts with a growing crop of tobacco. Below: Santa Gertrudas cattle originate in Texas. Bottom: Few Africans have running water.