DANI MUTSOTO is a communal farmer in the stony hills of Chikukwa, close to Zimbabwe's eastern border with Mozambique.
Farming on eight acres of communal, government-owned land, Mr. Mutsoto grows sufficient corn for his family, and in a good year has a surplus to sell. He also finds space to grow wheat, citrus fruit, coffee, and 4,000 gum trees, amid which he keeps 17 beehives.
The productivity of his plot results in part from a concerted government program to assist communal farmers with better farming methods and marketing and credit services. Yet such proud achievements mask the growing disgruntlement in the rural areas of this southern African nation. Thanks to the slow pace of a post-independence resettlement program, coupled with population growth of 3.2 percent a year, the fragile communal areas where the majority of Zimbabweans live are bursting at the seams.
One in 12 Zimbabweans is said to be a "squatter" living illegally on land owned by the country's 4,500 white commercial farmers. Their big farms occupy about half of Zimbabwe's best land and contribute 80 percent of the nation's agricultural production. Export crops, mostly from these farms, account for 40 percent of foreign-exchange earnings for the nation of 10 million.
Zimbabwe thus stands at a crossroads as it tries to balance its strength as a food exporter against political pressure to divide up land more equitably.
In March, the government passed a far-reaching Land Acquisition Act that may finally make good on President Robert Mugabe's longstanding promise to redistribute land to peasant farmers.
Two years ago, the government announced its intention to acquire about 13 million acres (or about half) of white-owned farmland for resettlement by the year 2000.
As chairman of the local coffee growers association, Mutsoto visited a 3,800-acre white commercial farm in the neighbouring Chipinge district. He left impressed but embittered at the small size of his own holding, which will pass on to three sons.
"Where communal farmers have shown that they are capable," he says, "they should be given a chance to expand."
Commercial farmers here achieve yields comparable to those in the industrialized world. Yet the growers privately concede that the land - much of which they inherited or obtained cheaply - is not optimally used.
In Chipinge, for example, a coffee farmer who asked not to be named said that prime commercial farmland that should be intensively cultivated is being used for ranching. He acknowledged that 30 to 40 percent of commercial land in the area is underutilized, a figure in keeping with national estimates.
The Land Acquisition Act does not target underutilized farms. Instead it allows the government to designate areas it wants to purchase, based on the rationale that it is cheaper to resettle peasant families in big blocs rather than piecemeal.
Moreover, the government will for the first time fix the price of the land and pay that price in local currency over a 10-year period. At the last minute, under pressure from human rights groups and Western donors, the government inserted a clause in the controversial act that permits disputes to be taken to court. But farmers will only be able to contest whether the correct procedure has been followed in determining the price they receive for their land, rather than the price itself.
Privately, white farmers are not as worried by the policies as one might assume.
"There is a certain amount of political posturing in all this," says a farmer in the northeast Bindura district, sipping a cup of tea in a palatial farmhouse that has been in the family for several generations.
The Constitution that ushered in Zimbabwe's independence from white settler rule in 1980 stipulated that, for at least 10 years, land could only be acquired on a "willing buyer, willing seller" basis, at market prices, and in foreign currency (enabling white farmers to emigrate).
Partly due to these restrictions, and partly because Britain and the United States reneged on verbal pledges to provide money for resettlement, Zimbabwe has acquired only about 8 million acres out of 23 million the government intended to purchase by 1990. This has provided new homes for 51,000 families, compared with a target of 165,000 families.
These land schemes involve carving up commercial farms into individual holdings of about 10 acres each. These small farms are not as efficient as the large scale-farms. But when provided with extension facilities and proper infrastructure, the program has improved the lot of peasant farmers.
Esther Kashiri and her husband are among 320 peasant families who have moved since independence to the Bumpa resettlement scheme in southeast Zimbabwe. Before, in crowded and stony communal lands, the couple produced 10 bags of surplus corn each season. Now when the rains are good they have 200 surplus bags. "For the first time we have money to spend," she says.
At the opposite extreme are Zimbabwe's numerous squatters - peasant farmers who moved onto white land either because their ancestors owned it before white settlers arrived in 1890, or because it was temporarily abandoned by white farmers at independence. The law says squatters must move, often back to communal lands.
Somewhere in between these extremes are the industrious communal farmers who - though usually less productive than their resettled counterparts - have shown enterprise and ingenuity.
In a good year communal farmers now grow half the country's marketed corn. This year a severe drought has caused Zimbabwe, which always used to have enough food to feed itself and even export to its neighbors, to seek food aid.
Adverse pricing policies have also hurt corn production. In an effort to keep food affordable to urban consumers during an austerity program encouraged by the World Bank, the price paid to farmers here slipped to about half the world market price.
Later the government boosted producer prices. But the damage was done. Commercial farmers reduced the area they devoted to food crops to one-third of previous levels.
Since the passage of the new Land Acquisition Act, the government has so far designated only 13 farms in the Mutare area for resettlement. These are for peasant farmers being moved to make way for a new dam. The time it is taking for the government to work out a compensation package has given some white farmers hope.
Nonetheless, numerous white farmers are reported to be contemplating moving to neighbouring Zambia, which is wooing agricultural investment after years of ignoring agriculture in favor of mining.