Thursday, February 19, 2009

Teach a Man to Fish...

by Aerin Curtis

As world leaders put forward bailout plans for their countries, Zimbabwean nationals propose an alternate track of reforming their agricultural system to ease the economic crisis in their country.

Before the economic downturn in Zimbabwe, the farming system was already delicate. The country’s agricultural program began producing less when President Robert Mugabe of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front, reenergized his party’s land redistribution movement in 1999. At that time roughly 11 million hectares were taken by the government and about 4,000 predominately white farmers were displaced.

According to Trevor Gifford, President of the Commercial Farmers Union in Zimbabwe, who started farming there in 1990, the exact number of displaced commercial farmers is unknown, but a large proportion have remained in Zimbabwe doing other occupations. He said, “Many of the younger [farmers] would [return] if they were given long-term land tenure guarantees.”

Land reform is a popular topic in Zimbabwe. The Movement for Democratic Change, the party of the new Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, ran with this as part of their platform. “Currently, the agricultural sector’s performance has been a cause for concern. Last season the country was not able to meet even 50 percent of its grain requirements. As a result, almost 60 percent of the population currently requires food aid,” said Dr. Ruvimbo Mabeza-Chimedza, former professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Zimbabwe. Over 200 aid organizations bring food and medical care to the country.

While aid organizations bring food and health care into the country, Zimbabweans see a different need. “Many of the economic woes we have been experiencing for several years stem from the virtual collapse of commercial agriculture on which much of Zimbabwe’s economic activity is dependent,” said Gifford. “It follows that setting agriculture back onto a growth path that regains what has been lost will do much to rectify the present invidious situation that we are in.”

Along with food, Anna Schaaf of the International Committee of the Red Cross said “there is a great need for education [in the farming communities] on hygiene and water issues.” A thorough restructuring of the agricultural system might not only ease the food shortage, but it could offer an increase in jobs to reduce the unemployment that affects almost 80 percent of the population. When the agricultural system collapsed it hurt the tourist and manufacturing industries as well.

"The agricultural policy environment and the institutional framework need to be overhauled,” said Mabeza-Chimedza. “The government’s role should be limited to creating a favorable policy environment. The government should not be a key player on the market.”

Keeping government’s intervention and control from the agricultural system is a major theme among those who proposed ways to fix the system. When President Mugabe seized the land he claimed it would be distributed to land-less Zimbabweans, but instead he offered it to political allies. Many of these people did not having the farming skills necessary to keep the developed land running.

“As long as there is no discipline in the government system we will continue to see farmers abusing input facilities… and land will remain underutilized,” said blogger Tapiwa Zivira who is also the information officer for the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ).

“Farm production is continuing but at a very low capacity, as there is a critical input shortage. … Many farms are operating at less than 10 percent capacity. Some farms have failed to cultivate any crops,” he said. He estimates that over 50 percent of the land under-produces.

Some people see the need for change within the agricultural system and have ideas for what can be done. “What I would most like to change is to liberalize the agricultural sector by reducing government’s involvement in agricultural markets,” said Mabeza-Chimedza. “The most important area for change, which I believe will revive the agricultural sector, is the institutional reform in the government system where farms are owned by those who are well connected and [who] have no capacity to run the farms as commercial entities,” said Zivira.

Such beliefs speak to the hope in the country. By proposing a reworking of the agricultural system, Zimbabweans say that their country’s economic problems can be rectified. “I believe that since our country thrives on agriculture, the first and most important step towards the revival is the agriculture sector. Whatever government gets into place should carry out a serious, independent audit that will expose those who are not producing and then the land will be reallocated to those with the capacity,” said Zivira.

If the new government power-sharing deal makes any effective structural changes to the agricultural system, then the repossession could start quickly. Though there has been drought in some parts of the country, which has damaged the crop yields, enough workable land remains that progress can be made.

Even with the economic crisis and rampant inflation, sources tell The Globetrotter that, with reform, the situation could be stabilized and rectified. Gifford believes that “for a few agricultural commodities that have very short production cycles full recovery could be within months… thus, the rehabilitation process could start fairly quickly.” He hopes to see a “vibrant agricultural sector providing food security for Zimbabwe and [the ability] to compete in world markets.”

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