Zimbabwe creates an `agriculture miracle' in Africa - but can the continent's newest nation sustain it?

Mountains of bagged corn stacked at grain depots throughout this southern African nation tell the success story that is Zimbabwe's agriculture. Africa's youngest nation is also one of its most productive. This year, with good rains following last season's disastrous drought, agriculture is booming. Total farm income should rise 31 percent, says Bob Rutherford, outgoing chairman of the Commercial Farmers Union.

While many African nations have become dependent on food imports in the last two decades, Zimbabwe today is self-sufficient in food and sends excess to as famine relief to neighboring states.

An ``agricultural miracle'' is how the Hunger Project, a United States-based agency dedicated to bringing world hunger to an end, describes Zimbabwe's achievement since independence in 1980. For that reason the group recently gave President Robert Mugabe its annual $100,000 Africa Prize for Leadership.

Despite the accolades, however, Zimbabwe faces long-term problems in the farming sector, such as the plight of more than 100,000 families still waiting for a piece of land to till, the deterioration of land fertility in overpopulated communal areas, and an uncertain climate that has delivered fair to good rains in only five of the country's eight years of independence. Last year, pockets of hunger were reported in some regions.

While the largely white commercial farming sector, a legacy of white minority rule, remains strong, President Mugabe's government has gradually extended support to 800,000 peasant farmers who till increasingly barren communal lands.

These communal farmers, who once produced mainly for subsistence, now account for more than 50 percent of Zimbabwe's grain production, compared with less than 10 percent at independence.

And with the encouragement of the government, these farmers are diversifying into crops such as groundnuts, sunflowers, cotton, sorghum, and even tobacco.

Credit for such a performance, agricultural experts say, goes largely to pragmatic pricing policies that allow farmers a profit, and provide them with rural extension services, credits, and grain depots in outlying areas.

``Since independence, the government has scrapped discriminatory treatment of the farmers,'' says Gary Magadzire, president of the Zimabwe National Farmers' Union, a group of 10,000 black private farmers. ``Our farmers, white and black, are now on an equal plane.''

Still, Zimbabwe's 4,500 - mostly white - commercial farmers enjoy significant advantages over their communal counterparts. Before independence, the settler government segregated Zimbabwean farmers, giving the whites the most fertile third of the country.

``We are seriously jealous of the success of the commercial farmers,'' says Mr. Magadzire, who owns a 2,000-acre farm about 50 miles north of Harare, the capital. ``We do not want to replace them, we want to emulate them.''

But for the nation's communal farmers, who have inferior land, little money, and little transport, duplicating the performance of the commercial farmers will not be easy.

Like the rest of the Zimbabwean economy, the agricultural sector was designed for whites, says Robinson Gapare, president of the National Farmers' Association of Zimbabwe, which represents communal farmers. ``The grain marketing board, which was set up for 4,000 farmers, now must service 400,000,'' he says.

Despite the generally good marks farmers give Mr. Mugabe's policies, commercial farmers this year have complained that the grain prices (about $107 per ton of corn) set by government are too low and have resulted in a drastic reduction in the acreage big farmers are dedicating to corn.

Some economists warn that if the rains fail this season, grain reserves will dwindle and Zimbabwe will be in no position to take advantage of export opportunities created by the drought in the United States.

But government officials argue that if Zimbabwe is to earn precious foreign exchange through exports, farmers must produce crops other than corn, such as groundnuts and vegetables, which are of more value in worldwide markets.

If the government is to make sure that the ``agricultural miracle'' continues, says Mr. Gapare, it must continue to build new roads into isolated areas, make sure peasants can bring produce to market, extend more credits for farm improvements, and ensure that new technologies are developed for communal farmers.

An ambitious resettlement program for the landless mapped out at independence has been slowed by a lack of finance and readily available land.

So far, about 37,000 families have been given land, and the pace is now about 5,000 families a year, compared with the original plan of 15,000 a year. But some farmers believe that the slowdown of the resttlement has been a blessing, and that the program was unrealistic to begin with.

``If the resettlement goes wrong, the agricultural sector can go up like a whirlwind of fire,'' Magadzire says. ``You cannot easily reclaim land that is badly used. So we should be slow and careful in determining our destiny.''

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