Zimbabwe braces for food crisis

Last week officials announced 800 more farms will be seized, but it's unclear when.

Three years after colonial rule, Zimbabwe was full of promise for Frederick Chizanza back in 1983.

The agriculture school graduate was one of the first people to be resettled in a government program to buy up white-owned farms and resettle blacks. His family and about 135 others were given tractors and reorganized as a cattle and tobacco cooperative on Alban Farm outside Harare.

Today, only 17 families remain. The farm that was supposed to emancipate blacks from white oppression has gone bankrupt. And Mr. Chizanza's dreams of self-sufficiency are shattered. His story is a dark reminder of the risks that lie ahead for Zimbabwe.

With the violent seizure of some 1,500 Zimbabwe farms (one-third of the nation's operating farms) in recent months by war veterans and ruling party activists, Zimbabwe now faces a profound economic crisis that portends a famine.

International aid agencies are bracing for what could become an acute food shortage in years to come. And Zimbabwe is largely dependent on agricultural exports for foreign currency to purchase such basic needs as fuel.

"Food imports will increase in the final months of the year, and food prices will increase sharply over the next few months, pushing inflation higher than previously forecast," Standard Chartered Bank said in his recent economic analysis of the nation.

Already, the prices for vegetables - principally grown on occupied commercial farms - have skyrocketed some 200 percent. Winter wheat plantings are down one-third because farm invaders have prevented new plantings.

Economists predict severe bread shortages within six months, when the present crop should be heading to flour mills. That could necessitate the import of an extra 100,000 tons of wheat. But currency is scarce.

Oddly, it seems that few people - if anyone - in Zimbabwe are actively pursuing a contingency plan.

Officially there is a land committee composed of the minister of agriculture, Chenjerai Hunzvi, leader of the war veterans, and the head of the Commercial Farmers Union. Together they are supposed to negotiate a rapid distribution program of the seized land, but so far it is a free-for-all. Mr. Hunzvi has vowed to begin distributing land before the June 24 elections on a murky first-come first-served basis to squatters.

However, the Commercial Farmers Union estimated production on those farms last year was worth $6.2 billion but would decline by $5 billion under Hunzvi's scheme.

The pending crisis is partly to blame on the invaders. War veterans have blocked the planting of about a third of the land normally dedicated to wheat, a crop nearly exclusively grown by white commercial farms because of its need for careful irrigation.

Vegetables, also mainly grown commercially, are in short supply and prices up some 200 percent, while tobacco, the country's biggest foreign-exchange earner sits mostly unprocessed in tobacco barns because many white farmers have abandoned their land. That promises to worsen the already dire foreign-currency shortages that are the reason why cars and trucks now must wait in mile-long lines to buy gasoline and diesel.

But Zimbabwe faces a deeper challenge. When British settlers first moved in force into Zimbabwe in the 1880s, their agricultural technology wasn't much different from that used by blacks. There was no fertilizer, plowing was by oxen, and harvesting by hand. Whites, in steady contact with the outside world have kept pace with modern farming, and today run highly mechanized, modern farms.

Zimbabwe's peasant farmers lag behind. Most plowing is still by oxen. The white government did little to improve black farmers' know-how. And the post -independence government's efforts have been disastrous.

Mugabe has expanded agricultural colleges and deployed farm advisers to rural areas, but they have been unable to significantly change the basic farm methods employed. Communal farmers still largely throw down fertilizer by hand without measuring or testing soil conditions.

Worse, their best efforts have been overwhelmed by Mugabe's economic mismanagement, which has hurt the rural poor most. He has consistently run government deficits of 8 to 10 percent of GDP and dismissed as colonialism IMF and donor demands that he put forward a plan to close that gap. Without rigorously cutting government spending, Zimbabwe cannot survive without major infusions of outside cash.

That has a very direct bearing on people like Chizanza, who has no savings and must borrow money for fertilizer, seed, tractors and harvesters. And there is no money in government coffers for support loans or start-up equipment - which effectively condemns newly settled farmers to operate at subsistence level.

Inflation, running around 55 percent, has ravaged many small farmers by increasing the costs of production, clothes, school fees, and healthcare.

Another aspect to Zimbabwe's crisis, also linked to lack of capital, is irrigation. Severe droughts typically hit every five to eight years.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, between 30 and 40 percent of commercial farmland is irrigated. But once land is transferred into resettlement schemes, the rate falls to less than 1 percent, because most farmers fail to maintain irrigation ditches or run pumps.

As a result, when the last major drought hit in 1992, white corn production plummeted to just 10 percent of pre-drought levels, leaving a massive need for food imports.

"The headlines are all talking about violence, but the biggest problem is the economy," says Hugo Firks, a white tobacco farmer. "No money is changing hands. We are buying fertilizer at an average exchange rate of 54 to the US dollar and we are having to sell tobacco at $38 to $1.

"You don't have to be a mathematician to figure those numbers will make you go bust."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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