Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Crop Failures Spark Famine Fears

Millions said to be in need of food aid, largely as a result of chaotic land reform programme.
By Elias Mugwadi

Zimbabwe is sliding inexorably into famine as crops fail and the ZANU PF government remains unwilling to import grain to cover the production deficit.

“Land preparation by resettled [black] farmers is way behind schedule,” admitted Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo, who is chairman of a government food supply task force. “We were targeting four million hectares [of tilled cropland], but only 900,000 hectares have been prepared.”

A report just released by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, FEWS NET, the regional prediction service, said 5.8 million Zimbabweans – half the total population – are in need of food aid.

The problem stems largely from the chaotic organisation of President Robert Mugabe’s land reform programme, in which white commercial farmers have been driven from the land since 2000 to be replaced largely by peasant subsistence farmers and government ministers, army officers, judges and top civil servants with no farming skills.

The majority of the new farmers have no ploughing equipment and they have been sowing maize, the country’s basic food crop, on untilled soils. In addition, because the handful of highly skilled maize seed farmers have been driven from their land into exile, this season’s crop has been planted with untreated, low quality seed. There have also been severe shortages of fertiliser and other critical inputs.

“The biggest drawback over the past four years we have seen here has been the lack of ploughing equipment,” Obediah Mupanganyama, a resettled farmer at Vairona, a previously white-owned farm near Mazowe, 67 kilometres north of Harare, told IWPR.

“Most farmers have been planting on unploughed land which brings us to the problem you are looking at. The weeds have overwhelmed the crops and we have no machinery or chemicals to deal with them.”

Mupanganyama said there were a few private tractors for hire, and the cost of doing so, 350,000 dollars [60 US dollars], was far beyond anything that any “new farmer” could afford.

Black settlers at the previous white-owned Bally Hooly Farm at Glendale, 83 km north of Harare and formerly a rich wheat and cotton area before Mugabe’s land invasion strategy was launched, told IWPR they had been unable to till their soil and had scattered only untreated maize seeds.

Elsewhere hungry Zimbabweans are staving off starvation by selling property or receiving money from relatives among the three million or more of their countrymen who have gone into exile. Many have sold cattle and the tools they need to produce crops. “There aren’t obviously starving people walking the streets, but people are having to resort to things like selling their last cow to buy food,” a senior western diplomat told the Reuters news agency.

The Independent, one of the country’s few remaining private weekly newspapers, reported that many people are now going without food for days, with children fainting in schools and women miscarrying as a result of malnutrition. Around the country, hungry and irritated people have been standing in long queues for hours to buy tiny rations of maize, and police have had to calm unruly crowds.

Eddie Cross, economic spokesman of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, described the situation as frightening. “Food shortages are causing extreme hardship across the board and across the country,” he said. “The political implications are profound. I would hate to run an election campaign amidst a food crisis for which there is no solution.”

By February, the maize crop throughout the country is usually at knee-high level. But IWPR’s enquiries showed that many farmers were still planting – far too late to secure a decent crop because the summer rains are now ending. The coming harvest is likely to be one of the worst ever because of poor planning, erratic rains and absence of low interest loans.

The forecast by international donors and the political opposition that the chaotic land reform programme would be unworkable and a recipe for disaster is turning out to be true. While no accurate figures are available, farm experts estimate that Zimbabwe’s agricultural production has fallen by 70 per cent in the last four years.

Just three years ago, Zimbabwe was still the breadbasket of southern Africa, fully self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs, with surpluses for export. Now it is a net food importer and production of such key crops as maize, wheat, tobacco, horticultural produce, soya and cotton has been slashed.

Last year, the ZANU PF government banned the import of food by international humanitarian organisations. It claimed a record 2.4 million tonnes of maize and wheat had been harvested. But this was shot down when parliament’s farm sub-committee said only 388,000 tonnes were produced, representing only one-sixth of the country’s requirements.

Minister Chombo’s gloomy harvest prediction has been contradicted by Agriculture Minister Joseph Made who boasted that the new settlers would produce a record grain harvest in the next few months of three million tonnes.

Following a harvest of less than one million tonnes last year, such a production total would be “a staggering turnaround, if true”, said James Morris, executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme, WFP. “If the projections are not correct, a great number of people will be very much at risk. I don’t know what the evidence is that things will be any better than last year. The next 90 days are going to be crucial.”

Elias Mugwadi is a pseudonym for an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.