The effect a farming season’s maize surplus would have on Zimbabwe’s land reform

Nov 13, 2011

by Chido Makunike

After many years of stagnation and regression, there has in recent years been a sense of Zimbabwe’s agriculture being positively on the move. As the 2011/12 cropping season gets under way, if the rain pattern is favorable, the country will take another annual step towards what will be a watershed event with very far-reaching effects in Zimbabwe and beyond: the first maize surplus since land reform began a decade ago.

For several years after the controversial fast-track land reform programme began around the year 2000, bad agricultural news each season became the depressing norm. The many interlinked reasons/excuses given each time are beyond the scope of this post and are in any case not its subject matter.  

But since political and economic stabilization began in 2009, positive signs are beginning to be seen each year amidst the still very considerable difficulties, with dramatic increases in maize and tobacco production in particular.

In Zimbabwe as in much of Africa, maize is king as the very definition of ‘food,’ with just about everything else considered as secondary in importance. Maize has been allowed to become far too important in the diets and economies of Africans. This will become gradually more apparent as the climatic conditions for growing this once but no longer well-adapted-to-Africa crop become more uncertain and poorer.

‘Food security’ principally defined by having enough maize is increasingly, dangerously becoming a gamble dependent on equally increasingly unpredictable climate. The declining ability of African nations to ensure sufficient maize for their populations for one reason or another is on its own becoming an increasing and dangerous famine factor, whether it is also drought-linked or not.

So Africa’s maize dependence needs to be decreased, with other, better climatically-adapted sources of starch being thrown into the agricultural and dietary mix. But this is a huge, perhaps generational paradigm shift that has not even really begun yet. Unless climate shifts become more extreme, resulting in greater frequency and severity of maize famines, forcing mindset/attitude changes to maize faster, the crop will unfortunately not tumble from its unsustainable dietary/economic/social/political pedestal in Africa any time soon.      

As such, maize is vastly more important than just as a food, whether in its own right or as an ingredient in various processed products. Its mythic status in both the African diet and mind means having enough or extra of it is also a tremendously important symbolic representation of general well-being, whether at family or national level.

Therefore, for example, when a once chronically maize-famine plagued country like Malawi can say it has a maize surplus several years in a row, it is a development of tremendous national significance on many more levels than is obvious or can be easily explained.

Equally, it has been a particular source of shame for once agricultural powerhouse Zimbabwe to have to depend on maize imports, including from a neighboring Malawi with a much less ‘developed’ agricultural system and economy. Of the many criticisms made against the government of Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe for his style of land reform, perhaps the most biting, searing one has been, ‘‘Rather than ’empowering’ your citizens as you claimed to be setting out to do, you have diminished/shamed them into being unable to be self-sufficient in maize, the society’s basic and most important representation of sustenance.’’

In Zimbabwean cultural terms, this is a far more grave accusation than it is possible to convey in writing or in English!

Such is the importance of national maize self-sufficiency that there were simply no excuses (climate, economic sanctions, the challenges of agricultural transition, etc, etc) that the government could give to effectively counter this terribly damning indictment of its performance, and of having to depend on purchased imports and foreign aid handouts to provide many citizens the country’s premier staple food.

Adequate and affordable provision of standardized seed, fertilizer and other inputs have recently been improving after several years of severe disruption, but it will take a number of years of sustained economic recovery before they are widely and reliably available to most farmers. The re-introduction of a small ($45 million) inputs assistance scheme for ‘vulnerable’ farmers this year is an astonishing development given the dire economic doldrums Zimbabwe was in until a couple of years ago. But even this helpful, significant development does nothing to guarantee the one essential ingredient beyond anybody’s control: whether the quantity and distribution (geographic and temporal) of rain will be favorable for a good maize crop.  

But if all things should line up well enough for the country to meet or exceed the roughly 1.8 million tonnes that are said to be its annual maize requirement, it would be a particularly momentous achievement with very far reaching repercussions.

It would be the first maize ‘bumper harvest’ since land reform began in 2000. Among  the obvious effects it is not even necessary to dwell on here would be obviating the need for maize imports, making prices of maize and many other goods more affordable, rebuilding a maize reserve and so forth.

However, there would be many more consequences beyond these obvious ones. It would be a huge propaganda coup for the Mugabe government to be able to say, “We always knew/said land reform was not an event but a process. After several years of working out the bugs, we have begun to deliver that empowerment we promised by creating the conditions that again make maize bumper harvests possible, but now under a radically re-ordered system of agriculture.”

With a maize surplus in the storage silos, no amount of pointing to the very many other problems still plaguing Zimbabwe’s agriculture and economy would have any effect at all in diminishing this post-land reform ‘victory’ for the Mugabe government in particular, and for the country in general. It would also take away from the  government’s domestic and foreign foes one of the most effective criticisms to illustrate the much cited decline from agricultural ‘breadbasket’ to ‘basket case.’ ‘Breadbasket’ in much of Africa, including Zimbabwe, firstly and mainly means having enough maize.

With a pivotal election seen being held sometime in the next year or so, a maize bumper harvest before would quite possibly significantly shift the political power balance between Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and its uneasy coalition government partner, the quite ideological apposite MDC party, in favor of the former. In a deeply agrarian country where land reform has been hugely popular even as it has been controversial and plagued by problems, the emotional and political pull of Mugabe’s party being able to say, “Against huge odds and tremendous local and international opposition, we controversially expropriated land grabbed during the colonial era and paid heavily for our perceived impudence, but now look at these first signs of success.”     

As agricultural success in Zimbabwean/African terms primarily means a maize bounty, this claim would carry very considerable weight, regardless of what is going on in the rest of agriculture.

This hugely symbolic success would be taking place in a time of continuing Western ‘targeted’ economic and diplomatic sanctions against the Mugabe government. This would add yet an additional level of symbolic importance to the maize harvest, with vast potential to be milked for propaganda and electioneering purposes.

Even if one season’s good maize harvest were followed the next year by a reduced one for one or another reason, the symbolic die would have been cast. Land reform, as defined by the all important criterion of showing ability to achieve enough ‘food’/maize, would have been shown to be a success in a way the majority of Zimbabweans/Africans can very easily and readily identify with. Potshots about the many other lingering problems will have little and diminishing effects once the watershed of a maize surfeit has been achieved.

Apart from the narrow partisan political angles mentioned here, it would give an overall boost of confidence to the country, regardless of political affiliation, as few other things could do. It will then become easier to imagine successfully turning around other more ‘specialized’ sectors of agriculture.

Some of these sectors that thrived under large-scale, long-established white farmers with ready access to credit will permanently fall by the wayside, but new ones will also come up as a new crop of black commercial farmers develop and become entrenched, as the white farmers did over several decades.

‘Breadbasket’ as it was previously used with regards to Zimbabwe meant much more than growing lots of maize, obviously. A maize surfeit/surplus alone would be very far from restoring that hallowed status. And such a breakthrough bumper harvest may not happen this farming season or even next. But if it was almost unimaginable three or five years ago when nothing seemed to be going right in agriculture or the economy in general, a maize bumper harvest now seems objectively on the horizon. The prospect of one has very much returned to the realm of quite achievable possibility.

Zimbabwe’s land reform has had and continues to have deep, complex reverberations across continents. Regardless of what farming improvements take place, there will be some who will never be able to see the land reform exercise as anything other than a type of ‘illegal,’ dangerously precedent-setting forced change of the way the world is ordered that should never have been allowed to happen. So whatever successes are notched in Zimbabwean terms, there will be quarters that will always see and measure the country’s radically altered agriculture and land-holding in terms of its perceived ‘wrongness.’       

However, when a long, historical view of land, politics and agriculture in Zimbabwe is taken; factoring in the very eventful past ten years of radical, controversial reform, and then mixing in the iconic socio-political status of maize, its first post-reform bumper harvest will blow many things off the charts in ways this article has barely begun to scratch, with far-reaching repercussions.

The Zimbabwe Review         


Ashley Williams said...

Thank you for the thought provoking article and i liked it!!

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