Scores of white commercial farmers who left Zimbabwe after their farms were seized as part of President Robert Mugabe's land reform policies are returning home as the promise of greener pastures elsewhere in southern Africa fails to materialise.
Justice for Agriculture (JAG), an independent organisation established to support about 4,000 farmers left landless after implementation of the 2000 fast-track land-reform programme to redistribute land to blacks, said about 100 farmers who had left to settle in other countries in the region had returned to Zimbabwe.
"It never rains but pours for the commercial farmers. Following numerous constraints that almost turned them into paupers in countries like Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi, the farmers decided to come back, and more could be returning," JAG chairman John Worswick told IRIN. It is not known how many farmers left the country as a result of the land-reform process.
|It never rains but pours for the commercial farmers. Following numerous constraints that almost turned them into paupers in countries like Mozambique, Zambia, and Malawi, the farmers decided to come back, and more could be returning|
"Their difficulties were mostly financial: after being invited by some private organisations to help boost agricultural production [in other countries], particularly in tobacco farming, they set up farms but were later dumped by their financiers and had no choice but to pack their bags and head back to virtual emptiness here."
Although the prospects for the farmers in Zimbabwe appeared bleak because of the country's economic meltdown and the absence of investment opportunities, he said there was optimism that farmers would, in the end, be given back their properties.
Most Zimbabweans are trying to cope with an annual inflation rate of around 4,000 percent - the highest in the world - and there are widespread shortages of basic commodities and foreign currency.
"Long-term prospects are bright for the commercial farmers. Justice will one day prevail, even if it means twenty or thirty years. We have seen private individuals being given back their properties in countries like Mozambique and Uganda, decades after oppressive governments had taken them over," Worswick said.
Most of the commercial white farmers ejected from their farms kept the documents proving their ownership of the property and have challenged the seizure of their land in both local and international courts, although the ZANU-PF government has repeatedly vowed that the land acquisitions would not be reversed. Beneficiaries of the land redistribution exercise receive 99-year leases on the farms where they have been resettled.
Rod Swales, 52, a tobacco farmer, decided to return from Mozambique's Manica Province, which borders Zimbabwe. His farm was taken from him in 2002, and he was detained and assaulted by war veterans and members of the government's youth militia, also known as the Green Bombers.
"With the steep decline in tobacco production in Zimbabwe after the land seizures, the companies invited us to Mozambique, saying we could fill the void by producing in that country on a large scale, and we jumped at the opportunity," Swales told IRIN.
They were contracted to produce tobacco over seven years and would be required to make yearly loan repayments, but did not receive sufficient funding from the companies that had taken them on board and produced poor quality tobacco because they started late in the first farming season.
"We also got poor prices for our tobacco and in subsequent seasons our woes persisted, and we had no choice but to tell the company that we could not keep on farming because the money we were getting in loans was not sufficient to establish ourselves," said Swales.
They lost their farming equipment to the companies after deciding to quit tobacco farming and, Swales said, even their efforts to have the Mozambican government intervene were fruitless.
The language barrier also made it difficult for the farmers to operate in their adopted country. English is widely spoken in the former British colony of Zimbabwe, while Portuguese is the lingua franca of Portugal's former colony, Mozambique.
Swales considered himself "at least lucky" because he managed to keep his suburban home in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, where his family now lives.
"That we had to come back to Zimbabwe was a hard pill to swallow but, for people like me, this is the only home I know. My grandparents settled here and bought a farm, which was inherited by my father. I bought my own farm in Darwindale [in Mashonaland West Province], from which I was unfortunately ejected," said Swales.
It pains Swales that his farm, once thriving and producing enough tobacco for local and international markets, is being underutilised by resettled farmers who are planting small plots of maize, even though the land is not suited for that crop.
Because the land redistribution exercise was hurried and haphazard, thousands of new farmers lacking in expertise were settled on plots of land without the necessary infrastructure, leading to severely reduced production, while influential politicians and government officials obtained multiple farms that, in many cases, have become derelict.
As a means of making a living, Swales has teamed up with others and formed a farming consultancy to help "new and ailing" farmers establish themselves, "but our activities are limited to those who bought their farms, not the ones that grabbed them".
The fledgling company is finding it difficult to obtain bank loans to establish itself because none of the shareholders have access to the collateral that their farms would have provided.
While Swales has seized on an opportunity to reconstruct his life, others have no means of making a living.
Living off charity
Kennedy Swaggart, 60, who experienced difficult times in Malawi as a barley farmer, decided to come back to Zimbabwe and is now living on the charity of a South African church.
As a widower without any children, he felt that there was no need to keep properties in Zimbabwe, so he sold his farm equipment and a house in the capital to raise money for his new farming venture when he left for Malawi in 2001.
|After falling on hard times because the barley market was no longer profitable for me, coming back was the only option, even though I knew very well that I would have to struggle to find even a roof for my head|
"After falling on hard times because the barley market was no longer profitable for me, coming back was the only option, even though I knew very well that I would have to struggle to find even a roof for my head," Swaggart told IRIN. "Fortunately, fellow farmers sent out an SOS to charity organisations and I have been placed in a retirement home by a South African church."
He is now seeking compensation from the government for improvements made on the land he lost, as was promised to the farmers.
Swaggart said he had made many trips to the lands ministry since his return to demand his money but, in most cases, he was turned away, with officials asking him why he had not made his application several years ago.
"On my last visit I was told not to bother visiting their offices, but to wait until they approach me with the payment. As far as I am concerned that could be forever, but I need the money desperately," he said.
The government claims that it has paid out millions of dollars in compensation, but most farmers say the money is too little for their properties; some accuse the state of confiscating their equipment, for which no payment has been forthcoming.
Swaggart, like many other farmers, believes that "God will intervene, and political sanity will prevail and the good old days will return when we get back our farms".
Some of the farmers, particularly grain and cereal producers who relocated as far afield as Nigeria and Australia, have managed to farm successfully, boosting agricultural production in their adopted countries.