Zimbabwe's struggling agriculture sector can be turned around with more "nuanced" government support targeting smaller-scale farmers, agricultural experts said.
Reserve bank governor Gideon Gono this week signalled an end to preferential loans and inputs for wealthier black commercial farmers in the next growing season, the official daily, The Herald, reported. He argued that seven years since the start of land redistribution, the so-called "A2" farmers needed to be "weaned off" government support.
Gono said the government would rather now concentrate on assisting small-scale "A1" farmers.
Zimbabwe's chaotic fast-track land reform programme, launched in 2000, nationalised all agricultural land and then leased around 4,000 previously white-owned commercial farms to landless blacks for 99 years. The programme, condemned by Western governments for its forced evictions, slashed the country's foreign exchange earnings and helped trigger the current economic crisis.
Sam Moyo, a Harare-based land expert, said it was "correct to call for priority support to be directed at more farmers", but not all the new black commercial growers have had access to government assistance. He noted that of the 15,000-odd new A2 farmers, the bulk - 7,000 to 8,000 - were from the rural and urban working class, who had little or no personal savings and plots averaging 50ha each.
Moyo pointed out that in contrast an elite section of about 3,000 commercial farmers, most of them politically connected, had been allocated 350ha plots and enjoyed access to preferential loans. These farmers were often reluctant to invest their personal savings in their farms, relying instead on government handouts.
|Milestones in Zimbabwean land ownership|
|1889:||Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, is colonised by Britain|
|1930:||Land Apportionment Act restricts black access to land|
|1960s:||Black nationalist groups emerge; liberation war follows|
|1980:||Robert Mugabe and his ZANU party win first post-independence elections|
|1998:||Major donors participated in a land conference and agree on land reform on condition there would be a two-year inception phase, during which various resettlement schemes would be tried.|
|March 1996:||Mugabe wins uncontested presidential election|
|June 1999:||Draft constitution includes land reforms, with farmers compensated by "former colonial power"|
|February 2000:||Squatters and ZANU-PF liberation war veterans seize white-owned farms|
|April 2000:||Constitutional amendment says Britain should compensate evicted farmers|
|July 2000:||"Fast track" land reform launched to resettle 162,000 families on some 5 million hectares of white-owned farmland by 2004|
|2001:||Zimbabwe pledges to end illegal occuptions at Abuja commonwealth meeting. Laws amended to allow expropriation; owners have no legal recourse.|
|November 2001:||Laws amended to allow expropriation; owners have no legal recourse|
|April 2002:||State of disaster declared as food shortages worsen|
|November 2002:||Agriculture Minister Joseph Made announces end of white-owned property seizures|
|June 2004:||Lands Minister John Nkomo replaces title deeds of seized farms with 99-year leases|
|November 2006:||Government starts issuing 99-year leases to resettled farmers|
|Sources: Global Integrity, IRIN, BBC, CNN, The Herald|
Former white commercial farmers owned estates averaging 1,500ha, but under the land reform programme these were sub-divided into smaller plots and distributed among landless black farmers. Many analysts believe the well-connected got the most developed portions of the expropriated farms.
On Tuesday, The Herald applauded the government's decision to discontinue support to A2 farmers, but urged the authorities to consider "those other farmers who were just allocated barren land without any buildings and tillage equipment. These should not be lumped together with those who got fully developed farms. We feel this is the group which is productive and should continue to be in the government inputs programme for a while."
Moyo suggested the government should "develop a more nuanced approach - providing assistance on the basis of the earnings [and] type of crop, and should also take into account the macroeconomic environment in the country". It was "extremely difficult" for any farmer to function in an "abnormal economic situation", characterised by hyperinflation and a shortage of foreign currency, which severely affected the supply of fertiliser and fuel.
Despite the odds, tobacco production, once the country's top foreign exchange earner was improving. "Tobacco production, which was about 40 million kg in 2005, rose to 55 million kg in 2006 and this year  we are expecting 65 or 70 million kg. It is of course nowhere near the peak 220 million kg production [before land reform] but it is recovering," Moyo said.
However, Chris Sukume, an agricultural economics expert at the University of Zimbabwe, pointed out that many tobacco growers had been contracted by multinationals and a large portion of the foreign exchange earned went into their hands. "At the current exchange rate, even the little bit of foreign exchange earned does not amount to a lot. The farmers need the forex to purchase much needed agricultural machinery."
Maize production in Zimbabwe, previously a grain exporter, has slumped. A recent report by the United States Department of Agriculture forecast a reduced national crop of 850,000mt, at most, from the 1.3 million hectares planted in the 2006/07 season. Zimbabwe's annual maize consumption is estimated at 1.4 million mt per annum, in a country that used to produce more than 2 million mt.
Moyo said it was a misperception that maize production had collapsed directly as a result of land reform. "Seventy percent of the country's staple crop, maize, was produced by small-scale farmers. Recurring droughts, lack of inputs [as a result of the economic crisis], such as fertiliser and seeds, has affected production."
Sukume also blamed government control of seed and fertiliser distribution. "A core of the communal farmers would prefer to buy their seeds from the market, but since the government took control many of them have been unable to access the inputs on time. Often fertilisers are not available on time and, if found in the private markets, it is extremely expensive."
Sukume felt production could recover if the government relaxed control of input distribution. "Rains have improved in some of the areas this year; unfortunately the inputs were not available on time."
The government's bid to buy produce from farmers at higher prices had also misfired, Moyo added. "The prices [offered by the government] were still nowhere near what the communal farmers could have fetched in the market at market-related prices."
Evicted farmers were prepared to lend their expertise to help Zimbabwe recover, according to John Worsley-Worswick, chief executive officer of the Justice for Agriculture Trust, an organisation fighting for the rights of black and white former commercial farmers and their workers.
More than 2,000 farmers have moved to neighbouring countries such as Zambia, Mozambique and South Africa, and further afield to Nigeria, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States of America.
Most of them are battling to get compensation for their seized properties. Under current Zimbabwean law, former commercial farmers can be paid compensation for improvements, such as houses, barns, dams, roads and farm equipment, but not for the land.
Between 300 and 400 A2 farmers have signed 99-year leases. "The farms have to complete a survey process for valuation, which is happening at a slow pace," Moyo said.
In an interview with The Voice, a state-controlled newspaper, the permanent secretary in the ministry of land reform, Ngoni Masoka, said new farmers were reluctant to sign the 99-year leases.
"Thousands of people are coming to our offices to collect the application forms [for 99-year-leases] but only a few people are returning the forms for processing. This is probably because some of them are reluctant to pay for the developments made on the farms on which they have been resettled, as required. A significant number of our farmers do not appreciate the value of the 99-year lease agreement," Masoka told the newspaper.
According to some analysts, despite assurances by government that new farmers would be able to use the leases as collateral for raising finance, it was unlikely that banks would accept the leases as guarantees for loans, as lenders would be unable to repossess leased land if the loan fell into default.
Moyo said most farmers were aware that they had to pay for the improvements when they took over the farm. Government evaluators have put the total value of improvements at US$3.6 million. "Some of the farmers have paid for the improvements ... It is now up to the authorities to pay that money to the former commercial farmers."