You Can't Eat Coffee
THE maize looks like it’s been blasted in a coke oven. All but a faint blush of green has been baked out of the coarse razor-edged leaves. The few’ scattered cobs on the thick stocks are pitifully stunted.
‘The drought has been hard on our maize,’ says Michael Gombera gesturing to the yellowing field in front of us. ‘The rains were light again this year in Zimbabwe and then when they finally came, it was too late.’
Three years of unprecedented drought in southern Africa has shrivelled crops and turned pasture to dust from Botswana to Zambia. But Michael Gombera is luckier than most peasants still trying to make a living off the land.
Gombera and his 80 co-op partners are amongst 42,000 peasant families who have benefited under the Mugabe government’s resettlement programme; a mammoth effort to relieve pressure on the over-crowded ‘Tribal Trust Lands’ to which black Zimbabweans were confined before Independence. Ownership - and use of land was at the very heart of the long battle for black rule in the ex-British colony. During the 90 years of white supremacy a few thousand commercial farmers had gained control over half the country’s land, while nearly seven million blacks were forced to survive on the remaining half.
This takeover of vast tracts of Africa under colonial rule was commonplace. From Senegal, Ivory Coast and Ghana to Kenya, Malawi and Zambia, mines and plantations lured workers from their villages and gobbled up huge chunks of the best agricultural land. Cash crops blanketed areas formerly given over to subsistence cultivation and livestock grazing.
This growing dependency on cash crop exports was to have a profound effect or African agriculture and inevitably on the ability of the continent to feed itself. Today Africans are the world’s hungriest people This year’s food deficit is three million tonnes, twice the figure in 1973 when the Sahel was racked by drought and famine. When black leaders came to power in the 1950s and 60s the system was firmly in place. Cash crops were the cornerstone of African agriculture and peasant farmers - still nearly 80 per cent of the population - were seen as a sign of all that was wrong with African farming; technically backward, unsophisticated and unproductive.
In white-ruled Rhodesia the rural population was largely ignored. Commercial farming areas dominated the high veldt which stretches from Bulawavo to Harare, then northeast to Mutare and the Mozambican border. The high veldt has the region’s most fertile soil, with the highest rainfall and most pleasant climate. Well-maintained highways link the major cities, providing speedy transport to processing and export markets for crops from the white-owned farms.
In addition, technical support for peasant farmers was slight and credit minimal. In 1978, for example, white farmers received $216 million in credit while blacks got just 2.4 million. Life in the Communal Lands (former Tribal Trust areas) went from bad to worse. Three-quarters of the black farming areas are on stoney or sandy soil in the hottest and driest parts of the country. The pressure of too many people on too little land took its toll. Many young men left to find jobs in Harare or Bulawayo, while others went to work as labourers on the commercial farms. But there were still too many mouths to feed. More and more land in the Communal Areas was ploughed for food. Soon fallow land was being cropped and grazing areas squeezed - and the ecological balance began to dip wildly.
But despite the downward spiral, Zimbabwe was until very recently self-sufficient in food production. The peasants were still able to grow’ or buy enough food to feed their families.
Now that has changed. Zimbabwe was once touted as the food basket of black nations in southern Africa. But in 1984 the country had to import maize - the main staple - for the first time in living memory. A further 600,000 tonnes of maize and 100,000 tonnes of wheat are still needed.
What went wrong? The region-wide drought has brought the country to a sobering halt. But it has only served to underline the real source of the country’s food deficit; the blatantly unequal distribution of potential food-growing land.
Zimbabwe is one black African nation that has tried to do something about land tenure. The resettlement of people from the Communal Areas onto new land is still a centre-piece of government policy - at least rhetorically. But the programme has run into a tangle of problems and barely a quarter of the government’s target of 162,000 families have 50 far been resettled.
‘We have to face reality,’ sax’s Movan Mohaci, Minister of Lands. Resettlement and Rural Development. ‘Reality in this case is a combination of drought, global recession, mounting debt and - most critically - the persuasive economic clout of 4.500 white commercial farmers. Combating the drought has drained resources away from resettlement. Mr Mohaci’s budget was slashed by 51 per cent in 1983.
The biggest barrier to government resettlement policy is the political and economic muscle of Zimbabwe’s 451)11 commercial farmers; they earn nearly half the country’s foreign exchange and produce 90 per cent of agricultural goods outside the subsistence sector. Some say the voice of the white farmers, the Commercial Farmer’s Union (CFU), is the most powerful organization in the country next to Mr Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party. And the CFU’s Tennessee-educated Director, Daxid Hasluck, is sanguine about the government’s resettlement goals.
‘We don’t want to be smug or complacent about resettlement, says Mr Hasluck, chosing his words with care. ‘But we believe there is no way the resources or the political commitment remain to carry out that kind of programme; 162,000 families would take 70 per cent of commercial farmland.’ And that, according to Mr Has-luck, is simply not on the cards.
Many of those in the resettlement areas are beginning to lose patience with government promises. Some critics are more blunt. ‘This government has forgotten about the rural areas.’ one high-ranking aid agency official charged. ‘The only way to solve the food problem is to confront the power of the commercial farmers and so far the government has been silent.’
So the sides are drawn. In Zimbabwe, as in most African nations, the question is how to restructure an agricultural model geared to exports, subsidised by cheap, black labour and designed to benefit a small but influential group of city-dwellers and large landowners.
Peasant producers are routinely paid lip service by African leaders. But for the most part their needs are ignored as aid agencies and government planners attempt to expand the agricultural system inherited from their colonial past. Large-scale, mechanised projects have been seen as the logical solution to food shortages. If it worked in France or Australia then why not in Zambia or the Sudan?
And the peasants? Occasionally, as with a Canadian wheat-growing project in Tanzania, they lose their land. (There, the pastoral Barbaig tribe was moved aside to make way for a 60,000 acre prairie-style wheat farm - with subsequent overgrazing of surrounding land.) Sometimes there are a few jobs for farm labourers. But mostly they remain untouched by these megaschemes, living in poverty and watching the new crops flow to their city brothers and markets abroad.
The attraction of the quick fix is obvious. It avoids having to tackle the more fundamental question of why peasants remain poor and why peasant productivity is decreasing. (Food production per person dropped by 15 per cent in Africa during the 1970s.)
Zimbabwe’s Movan Mohaci sees motivation as the problem: ‘there are still many peasants who think, "what is the point of producing more than I need for my family?" But such an attitude cannot prevail under the modern economic system we’ve inherited. We need to motivate our people to plough both for domestic food requirements and for export.
It is precisely this lack of motivation which lies at the heart of Africa’s food problem. Peasants will only be motivated to produce a surplus when the financial returns are worth it. And they can only begin to think about that when they have adequate land and government support. That means taking a hard look at who owns the land, what is grown on it and who profits from it. It also means designing policies which will put peasant producers at the centre of food production - diverting money away from expensive Western-style agriculture towards support for improved marketing, storage and farming practises for small producers.
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.