I HAD always assumed that all Zimbabweans who were given farms seized from white commercial farmers desperately needed land to till. The situation on the ground has prov
ed me thoroughly mistaken.
Although government’s motive could have been a noble desire to rectify skewed land ownership patterns and reclaim an important national resource, it now looks as if the whole exercise was inspired by greed and subliminal racial hatred.
A drive along the Harare-Kariba road shows a shocking picture of the effects of the chaotic land reform programme that has destroyed the agricultural base and left many hitherto productive farms as dustbowls.
I travelled to Kariba during the weekend for a parliamentary reporting workshop. I used the opportunity to assess the situation on farms along the highway. I only saw six farms under wheat cultivation along the 360-kilometre stretch of what used to be the nation’s breadbasket.
This was unbelievable, especially after Agriculture minister Joseph Made recently claimed 80 000 hectares of wheat had been planted this year.
The first wheat field along the road was just before Gwebi College, about 40 kilometres outside Harare, two others between Banket and Chinhoyi and the rest after Angwa River towards Karoi. Thereafter, nothing.
I was curious to know what the new farmers were doing if they were not tilling the land. It’s either they are cutting down trees or harvesting grass – and not crops – for resale.
Stacks of firewood and thatching grass are the hottest selling commodity on both sides of the road. Hungry peasants dumped on virgin farmland under the fast-track land reform programme have to find the means to survive after failing to productively till the land. They have taken to logging big time and damn the consequences. Poaching of wildlife – and sometimes domestic animals – is rampant as a result of the failed resettlement of villagers.
The fields are vast stretches of dried grass, crop residue and hastily cut tree stumps. Where the dry grass has been cleared, there is extensive burning, with the fires sometimes turning into uncontrollable blazes that destroy all pasture.
But what should be happening to these fields if they are not under winter crop? Land preparation for either irrigated early maize and tobacco crops or even for the dryland crop should at least be taking place.
Most of the new farmers say they have no resources such as draught power or money to farm. They have no money to buy fertilizer. In fact they have no other means of survival except cutting and selling firewood on the roadside.
It is hard to understand why then government grabbed over 11 million hectares of land when only a tenth of that could be utilised. It is difficult as well to escape the conclusion that wholesale land seizures were motivated by political survival and self-aggrandisement by those in power. But at what cost, is the big question?
Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) Mashonaland regional executive, Ben Kashula, said it was sad to see the destruction wrought on large-scale commercial farms in the name of land reform.
“There is no doubt the place no longer looks like it used to be before the land reform programme,” Kashula said.
“It’s sad because the land is not being fully utilised. Lovely green fields stretching as far as the eye could see were common in the winter season on both sides of the highway but all that has been reduced to scattered little patches.”
The Nicole family and Les deJager were among the top farmers in the rich Mashonaland West province. They used water from the multi-billion-dollar Biri dam to irrigate thousands of hectares of winter crops.
Farmers who spoke to the Zimbabwe Independent this week said the havoc in Mashonaland West was a microcosm of a national tragedy after a noble cause went horribly wrong.
“We have the same calamity repeated along the Mazowe valley estates,” one farmer said. “Farms such as Thromes and Boroma Estates which used to produce a lot of wheat and maize for the nation have been forced to close down and that spells doom for commercial agriculture and the economy.”
According to a CFU annual congress report for 2003, commercial production since the beginning of the fast track resettlement in 2000 has declined as follows: flue-cured tobacco (-72%), maize (-72%), cotton (-95%) and soyabeans (-70%).
By the time of its congress on August 3 this year, the CFU estimated that of the 4 500 white commercial farmers who were on the land in the year 2000, there are now less than 500 who are either fully or partially operational.