Zimbabwe plows ahead on its ambitious land resettlement program

Beneath a crinkled green felt hat, July Macoroni slowly and approvingly surveys his new plot of farmland.

He has yet to harvest his first crop. But he is convinced ''the soil is good.''

Another farmer chimes in: ''Here the plants grow without fertilizer. There they didn't grow even with fertilizer.''

Mr. Macoroni and his neighbor from a nearby village are recent beneficiaries of Zimbabwe's ambitious land resettlement program. They used to live on crowded tribal trust lands, places where blacks in this country have traditionally engaged in subsistence farming. Recently they were moved to a previously white-owned commercial farm some 75 miles north of Salisbury.

Land distribution remains a central issue in newly independent Zimbabwe. More and better land was promised to black Rhodesians by the guerrilla forces as they sought, and got, broad rural support for their war against the former Rhodesian government.

The government is attempting to deliver on that promise. In fact, it has recently adopted more ambitious objectives for its resettlement program than originally planned. There are clear political reasons for this: Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's support has slipped in the rural areas, some analysts say.

According to the Sunday Mail, Mr. Mugabe has indicated his government might seize white-owned farmland for the resettlement of black farmers if whites refuse to sell or if funds for the purchase of land run out.

The newspaper said Mr. Mugabe told political rallies in the eastern highlands Feb. 27 the rejection by some white farmers of offers for their land was hampering the government's resettlement scheme.

There is also a broader context for focusing on land resettlement. That program and rural development are considered essential if Zimbabwe is to avoid the too-rapid urbanization that has plagued many African states. Zimbabwe feels keenly the need to enhance its food production; its population growth rate - 3 to 3.5 percent annually - is one of the highest in the world.

However, all of this must be done in a country where ''there is not a hectare of land that is not already spoken for by someone,'' says Robbie Mupawose, secretary of lands, resettlement, and rural development.

White commercial farmers are already expressing concern that the government's accelerated resettlement plan will eventually work at cross purposes with commercial agricultural interests.

About 80 percent of Zimbabwe's 7.6 million people live in rural areas. Under white rule, blacks were allotted tribal trust lands of some 40.5 million acres.About 4 million blacks now live on that land.

White commercial farmers own about 34 million acres of farmland. There are some 4,700 white commercial farmers, although about 1.5 million people, including laborers, live on the commercial farms.

The government is trying to correct the inequitable and racially based distribution of land, Mr. Mupawose says. It wants to develop a ''new breed of small-scale, productive farmer.'' The alternative, he says, ''is to run short of food.''

The government's plans are ambitious. It wants to resettle 62,000 families over the next three years onto land that the government will purchase at the rate of 7.5 million acres a year.

But only some 8,000 families have been put on new land since resettlement began in late 1980. Mr. Mupawose says the meager performance to date is to be expected of a new government program of such magnitude. The program should now make faster gains, he says.

The government's plans to resettle another 50,000 families by year's end should not be thwarted by others unwilling to give up land for the newcomers, for the government's policy is to buy land on a ''willing buyer, willing seller'' basis. There is sufficient commercial farmland that was abandoned during the war or is newly available from white farmers leaving the country or changing occupations.

The way the Commercial Farmers Union sees it, there is enough land available to take the resettlement program comfortably through its first year. As union assistant director David Hasluck puts it, the transfer of the first 9 million to 10 million acres of land used for resettlement will ''be in the national interest.''

But beyond that, in his view, there is a rub. After 10 million acres, ''The benefits will no longer apply. The government will be buying occupied and developed commercial farm land that provides more employment than they can provide with resettlement.''

The Commercial Farmers Union argues that in the second and third years of resettlement, developed commercial land will be converted. And the result will be that the land will wind up supporting fewer people, albeit as individual farmers instead of laborers.

Further, the Commercial Farmers Union believes that after the first year, transfers will not be possible on a willing buyer, willing seller basis. It says the government will be able to achieve its goal of resettling 160,000 families - only by appropriating land.

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