Zimbabwe land

19 May 2000

Zimbabwe land-

grab could spell

disaster for all

The occupation of commercial farms in Zimbabwe isnt just a

crisis for the farmers concerned. Its likely to be a disaster for

farm workers, the economy and the squatters themselves, as

Richard, the son of a farmer from the north of the country

(who dare not reveal his identity) explained to farmers weekly

ZIMBABWE sounds like a farming paradise. Good soils, lots of sun, ample irrigation, the ability to grow anything from wheat to sugar cane, soyabeans to maize and coffee to citrus fruits. And yet in the space of a few weeks it has become a farming nightmare for the countrys 4500 white commercial farmers as farm after farm has been violently occupied by groups of squatters.

Though Zimbabwes president Robert Mugabe calls these squatters "war veterans" and gives the impression that they want the land to farm, the reality seems rather different. According to the CFU (equivalent to the NFU), only 5% are genuine veterans of the civil war of the 70s. Most are too young to have fought in that war and are, in fact, working on behalf of the ruling Zanu PF party.

Their actions, says Richard, are designed to demonstrate to voters in the forthcoming general elections that the president is living up to his promise that he would return the land to the people. They also serve to divert attention away from the governments economic shortfalls.

For Richard, currently working in the UK, the news he was dreading came during Easter weekend – his familys 800ha (2000-acre) farm, which grows wheat, barley, maize, tobacco and soya, had been occupied.

"On Easter Saturday, during the evening, my father was apprehended on our farm by a mob of drunken, axe-wielding supporters of President Mugabe," he says. "The gang embarked on an hours worth of intimidation, which culminated in him being forced to sign away the ownership of the farm on a notepad grabbed from his desk. Probably the only reason that he escaped a beating is because his leg was in plaster from an accident at the time."

Many other farmers are in a similar position. The CFU reckons 500 to 550 farms are being occupied at any one time. In the south of the country, 200 farmers have moved off their land to the local towns, only returning by day to check on cattle and crops.

Often the squatters set up camp nearby, says Richard. They turn up at farms and demand food, livestock, tractors and lorries, threatening to burn equipment and buildings if the farmers refuse. With the squatters armed with modern automatic weapons and the police largely supportive of them, a state of lawlessness effectively exists.

Farming operations are grinding to a halt. The squatters have said that the soya crop can be harvested but that nothing can be planted and no sprays or fertiliser applied. This is the time of the year when wheat is normally drilled, but no-one knows whether it will get into the ground. Fertiliser sits unused.

In fact, Zimbabwes commercial farm sector, which contributes 40% of the nations export revenue, 60% of its GDP and a quarter of its formal employment, is now profoundly unsure whether it has any future at all as long as Robert Mugabe remains in power. Many have started to look into emigrating to Canada and Australia and white farmers in neighbouring South Africa are getting distinctly worried too.

Whose land is it anyway?

Mugabes argument that the white farmers "grabbed" the best land years ago flies in the face of historical truth, says Richard. Until Cecil Rhodes arrived in the country in the 1890s, the population of the country (which is nearly twice the size of Britain) was just 350,000 and large parts were uninhabited.

The majority Shona people had itself colonised the country several centuries ago, wiping out the handful of san bushmen who are the only truly indigenous Zimbabweans. Ironically, the Shona welcomed Rhodes, since he protected them against raiding parties from the neighbouring Matebele people.

Some 70% of current farmland has changed hands since 1980, when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. There was an influx of farmers from the UK in the 1950s and though the land was cheaper than in the UK, it was by no means given away.

His own 800ha (2000-acre) family farm, says Richard, was bought in the 1970s for the current equivalent of £1m and it took 20 years to pay off the loan.

Which is the best land?

Mugabes assertion that white farmers own 70% of the best land is also wrong, says Richard. Land in Zimbabwe is graded from one to five and, according to the CFU, only 30% of grade one and two land is farmed by white farmers. The rest of this grade one and two land is either in the hands of government ministers, derelict or farmed by subsistence farmers. There is also a growing number of black commercial farmers.

"The irony is that my familys land is not so good – its grade three with a high clay content," Richard says. "If we get hot sun after heavy rain, the top 6in can bake hard. So we have to do things like direct drill soya beans into wheat stubble and plant fibre crops like mustard to break up the structure and we often have to re-drill if the soil has capped. The soil in the local communal areas 10 miles away is much better than ours."

Land reform

The current structure of land ownership in Zimbabwe needs reforming – and most commercial farmers admit as much. But, says Richard, the land is available without having to grab it forcibly from the commercial farmers.

Since Robert Mugabe came to power in 1980, 3.4m ha (8.5m acres) has been bought by the government for resettling its subsistence farmers. Most of this land was already being farmed successfully; some of it was sold to the government by willing sellers, other areas were compulsorily purchased but the owner compensated.

However, thanks to government inefficiency and lack of funds, the resettlement projects have largely been a failure. According to the CFU, up to 2m acres are currently derelict, at least 1.2m acres have been given to senior government officials since 1997 (and are not being farmed properly) and the rest has been handed over to 91,000 subsistence farmers without any thought being given to advice, equipment or inputs.

"A lorry would pick up subsistence farmers and then drop them off in one of the new resettlement areas," says Richard. "Usually, there was no government back-up, no advice on what to grow or what stock to keep, no finance, no fertiliser and no seed."

Given the lack of experience and help, these farming attempts, unsurprisingly, often failed. Field crops would be abandoned and cattle brought in until the vegetation no longer supported them. "Then goats would eat the rest of the plants and roots and the topsoil would lose its structure and be washed away. As a result many of these resettled areas cannot now even support subsistence farming. However, the government statistics still listed them as successful resettlements".

Where advice, finance and training have been provided (as in the case of the handful of "model" farms), these farms have continued to function reasonably successfully. But even here the fear is that if the relatively high inputs of money and know-how are stopped, the farms may fail.

A group of commercial farmers in the Angwa district even tried to run their own resettlement programme, but the Minister of Agriculture refused to give it the go-ahead on the grounds that there wasnt enough government involvement. Yet government involvement, says Richard, inevitably means dealing with so much corruption, bureaucracy and inefficiency that any project is almost bound to fail.

Ironically, land reform could work in Zimbabwe. There are the 4m acres of derelict or poorly-used land for a start, plus the farms that come on the market each year. If a genuinely independent body was put in charge, finance would be available from the World Bank, IMF and individual countries and progress could be made.

Staff take the brunt

While the white farmers can take refuge in local towns, Zimbabwes 350,000 full-time farm workers and their families are currently having to bear the brunt of the squatters violence and intimidation. Again its largely a matter of politics rather than land redistribution.

"In the early days, there was still an hangover from the old colonial era, with few blacks occupying any of the responsible jobs," says Richard. "But since then, relations between farmers and their workers have improved and are now, on the whole, very good. Since most farms have a school, the workers are one of the better-educated groups in the countryside. The standard of living – certainly in terms of housing, sanitation and sports facilities – is higher than in subsistence areas.

Jobs up to the level of farm manager are widely held by black workers and can provide the platform for a farm worker to become a commercial farmer in their own right.

However, the fact that farm workers are widely supportive of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party means they have been particularly targeted by the Zanu PF-sponsored squatters gangs. Intimidation is widespread, with "re-education" centres being established in occupied farm buildings with the aim of converting farm workers to the Zanu PF cause.

The new Ethiopia?

Zimbabwes population is now 12.5m, which is fed by a combination of the output of 4500 commercial farms and by 6m subsistence farmers. But though average rainfall in the high veldt is 910mm (36in) a year, the Nov-Mar wet season is unreliable. Lack of adequate rain means subsistence farms cant feed themselves and rely on wheat and maize grown on commercial farms, most of which have irrigation.

If Mugabes plan to destroy the commercial farm sector succeeds, Richard points out, their ability to provide this extra food will be severely limited. His own family farm, he adds, currently supports 400 people, whereas on a subsistence basis he reckons it would support fewer than half that number.

Zimbabwe, he says, could well go from being southern Africas bread-basket to its new Ethiopia.

"If Mugabe wins the elections, the occupation of commercial farms will probably speed up," says Richard. "If he loses the election, he may declare a coup and seize power anyway, so the effect would be the same.

"Our hope is that the opposition MDC wins and that the international community will force Mugabe to recognise the result. Zimbabweans are eternal optimists, but perhaps its time to be a little more realistic."

Those following the Zimbabwean crisis can find up-to-date details

on three web-sites.




Tobacco is Zimbabwes main export earner.

Most commercial farms in Zimbabwe provide a school, shop and sports facilities for workers. The sector employs 350,000 full-time workers.

Passion fruit are one of the many crops that can be grown in Zimbabwe.

Cattle ranching is important in the south of the country.

Milling wheat and malting barley are becoming more widely grown to cater for increasing taste among Zimbabweans for bread and beer.

Land-grab diary

Nov 1997: Mugabe issues list of 1470 commercial farms to be acquired at "government valuation".

Early 1998: High Court forces government to "de-list" half the 1470 farms. Some 170 farms agree to sell.

Dec 1998: Government holds aid donors conference. International community says it would fund "transparent" land reform within the law.

Feb 2000: Mugabe holds referendum to decide whether government should be given right to seize farms without compensation. He loses it, but starts campaign of illegal seizures and intimidation anyway.

Mar 2000: Bill rushed through parliament holding Britain responsible for compensation.

Apr 2000: Mugabe uses "special presidential powers" to acquire land without compensation.

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