Zimbabwe peasants reap huge harvest

Zimbabwe's peasants have produced a huge windfall of surplus food crops, thanks to financial incentives, improved farming techniques, and abundant rain. But the chances of maintaining such high production levels are threatened by heavy soil erosion, scientists here say.

Denis R. Norman, the minister of agriculture, has announced that he expects Zimbabwe's poor peasant farmers and affluent commercial operators to produce 2 million tons of maize this coming harvest.

Mr. Norman said the peasant farming sector of some 900,000 families was expected to produce half the harvest.

That means they will have produced enough to feed the country, which consumes 1 million tons of maize annually.

Rain has been falling in Zimbabwe since November, ending three years of the worst drought in the country's history. Some 225,000 tons of maize had to be imported last year.

But ``the rain would have been wasted,'' said Norman, were it not for the use of fertilizers, the availability of loans, research work, and a drive to group peasants in cooperatives.

Before independence in 1980, the largest crop marketed by peasants was 67,000 tons.

Their ``farms,'' tiny two- or three-acre plots, are in areas classified as ``marginal,'' suited only to cattle rearing because of poor soil and erratic rainfall. Yet poverty and population density have driven them to till this soil.

Johny Hayward, director of the department of agricultural and technical extension, says Zimbabwe has the highest per capita use of fertilizer in Africa.

It's also the only country on the continent where a drought-resistant, high-yielding seed, which is highly suited to the country's tropical climate, is used.

Some 90 percent of the peasant farmers use the seed, and many are beginning to use pesticides and herbicides.

The maize price, pegged at 180 Zimbabwe dollars ($112) per ton, has been an incentive, while some 10 percent of the farmers here receive loans.

There has also been a drive to persuade peasant farmers to group themselves into cooperatives. Although hundreds of the peasants have fallen into serious debt, the government has generally allowed them to pool their finances and order fertilizers in quantities that make it worthwhile for transporters to travel to their remote farms.

But this season's optimism may be short-lived, says Dr. Henry Ellwell, researcher in land use at the University of Zimbabwe.

If the destructive land practices that dominate peasant farming continue, he says, the country will lose much of its precious topsoil, on which all vegetable growth depends; large areas of the country will be exposed to barren subsoils; and water will become scarce.

The Natural Resources Board, which monitors the state of the brittle ecology here, says that roughly half of the peasant farmland is either very severely or severely eroded. Most of the remainder is moderately eroded. Within 30 to 50 years even the small area now classed in good condition is expected to be unable to produce subsistence yields.

Dr. Ellwell cites random surveys of small dams in the two drier provinces of Matabeleland and Masvingo which show that 13 percent are totally useless, having being entirely silted up by erosion, and another 50 percent have less than half their full capacity left.

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