Tough times for Zimbabwe farmers

In a dusty field in northern Zimbabwe, villagers clapped and sang as they received desperately needed seed and fertilizer for their crops, their only source of food and income.

In this poor village in the Bindura district, about 70km north of Harare, families live and die by the seeds they plant and the rains that fall.

Donors have given $74-million in aid to Zimbabwe’s traditional sustenance farmers, a windfall for communities like Bindura.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts that donor-funded projects could produce 450 000 tonnes of grain, about one-quarter of the nation’s needs.

“We had no hope of getting seed, and at the same time we did not know how we would get seed in time” for the planting season, said Christopher Mafusire, who received 10kg of seed from the scheme.

The 67-year-old said he could now plant two acres of land, which should be enough to feed his family—if rains come on time. “This village had hunger, but now we will not starve,” Mafusire said.

Many Zimbabwean farmers aren’t so fortunate.

Once an exporter of grain, Zimbabwe has relied on international food aid for the last decade.

The food crisis peaked in 2008 with about half the nation’s 12-million people needing aid, as the failure of crops and the collapse of the economy left fields barren and store shelves empty.

Last year the food crisis eased thanks to better rains and economic reforms by the unity government that took office last February.

But at least 1,9-million people are still expected to need aid this year, according to initial UN estimates.

Bindura was once part of a vibrant farming sector that until 2000 was able to help feed the nation and export cash crops, accounting for about 40% of the economy.

A decade ago, President Robert Mugabe launched controversial land reforms to forcibly resettle mainly white commercial farms with new black farmers, in a process tainted by widespread political violence.

Donors haven’t provided seeds to the new farmers, who complain that the government hasn’t given them enough help to get their crops into the ground—raising questions about how big the national harvest will be.

Without aid, the resettled farmers have little means of financing their operations. Mugabe’s land reforms did not give the owners title to the property, leaving them unable to access loans from commercial banks.

The unity government plans to conduct a land audit this year to determine who really owns the land, and then issue deeds so banks can again finance farming.

“That security of tenure has got be worked out this year in conjunction with the audit so that people can feel secure,” Economic Planning Minister Elton Mangoma told Agence France-Presse. “The government is committed in seeing this through,” he said.

Bringing Zimbabwe’s farms back to their productive peaks will be expensive.

Finance Minister Tendai Biti says $45-billion is needed to return the overall economy to its peak, when agriculture was the backbone of the economy.

Charles Taffs, vice-president of the mainly white Commercial Farmers’ Union, said Zimbabwe’s farms haven’t grown enough food to feed the nation since 2000.

“We borrowed $1,8-billion dollars in order to get that crop. This year we see a situation where finance is very limited,” he said.

Nationally, he estimated that about $350-million was available from donors, the government and the private sector for farming this year.

He predicts this year’s harvest will yield at most 600 tonnes of the staple maize, only about one third of the nation food needs.

The FAO says it’s impossible to predict the size of the harvest so early in the season.

But the UN has already asked donors for $378-million to aid Zimbabwe this year, partly to feed those who will certainly face hunger again.—AFP

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