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Zimbabweans in 2011 consumed some 1.67 million hecto-litres of beer, the highest ever sales.
But as beer drinking soared, the output from the country’s farms sank to its worst since independence in 1980 (bar 2008 when inflation hit 500 billion%.)
It seems a nation of once hard-working peasant farmers are now spending their money in the pub instead of ploughing it into farming as they used to, according to Charlie Taffs, head of one of the country’s farmers’ unions. “That is an indication of a consumption-driven society,” he said.
In 2000 President Robert Mugabe launched a campaign of violent expropriation against the country’s 4,000-strong white farming community, in the name of a revolutionary land reform programme that he claimed was to restore to black peasant farmers the land seized from them by white colonial governments half a century ago.
But even audits by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party confirm that the large and highly productive spreads of the white farmers have been taken over largely by politicians, judges, top policemen, generals and editors of state newspapers loyal to Mugabe — widely dubbed “weekend farmers”.
SEEDS PLANTED TOO LATE, SO WON'T RIPEN
Agricultural output has largely collapsed and the country that was renowned as “Africa’s breadbasket” has become hit by shortages and hunger.
The government’s statistical office reports that for the summer rain season in November, 1.2 million hectares of land was planted with maize, the national staple.
That should have been almost enough to produce the 1.8 million tonnes Zimbabweans eat annually.
But instead — in a tragic repetition of every year since 2000 - the agriculture ministry managed to deliver seed and supplies only when the rains were already well under way. It has long been established by Zimbabwean agronomists that maize planted after December 31 will not ripen.
Taffs and other unions are warning that no more than 700,000 tonnes can be expected when this year’s crop is harvested — 1.1 million tones short of demand.
It will have to be met from costly imports.
UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, is already warning that 3.5 million children across the country will need to get emergency rations.
POLITICIANS' GRAB AND SELL
This season, the provision of cheap seed and fertilizer was renamed “the presidential inputs programme” — turning a routine central government-funded operation into an electoral gimmick to persuade farmers to vote for the 87-year-old Mugabe in elections expected sometime in the next 15 months.
“It was an unmitigated disaster,” said Taffs.
Farmers were only able to begin collecting their inputs on New Year’s day, when the rainy season was half over.
Peasant farmers watched as political heavyweights pushed their way to the front of the queues at rural depots and loaded up their trucks. Even urban minibuses were allowed to collect seeds and fertilizer.
They were seen selling the same subsidized fertilizer at the bus ranks in Harare a few hours later, at double the price they had got it for, reported the state-controlled daily Herald newspaper.
Most peasant farmers went home with little or nothing.
“Every year it has failed,” Taffs said. “There is no accountability for the people who get the inputs. People can do what they like.”
ZAMBIA SHOWING ZIMBABWEANS HOW TO DO IT
But across the Zambezi River in neighbouring Zambia there is an astonishing reversal of roles between the two countries.
For decades until Mugabe’s land grab in 2000, Zimbabwean farmers were producing surpluses that fed Zambians, whose own agriculture system was moribund.
Then in 2008, then Zambian president Rupiah Banda adopted new policies. Peasant farmers were sold cheap inputs, but they were delivered by September, in good time for farmers to prepare for the rains. Farmers were also closely monitored to ensure they produced crops, and then paid for the fertilizer and seed after they had sold their harvest. If they failed, they were disqualified from inputs the next season.
The result was phenomenal. Last year Zambian farmers produced a record surplus of 1.6 million tonnes — all of it exported to Zimbabwe.
“There was full accountability,” said Taffs. “The programme has come to an end now, but they have been given a lift up, and it worked.”
In Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s political farmers sold the inputs they were provided, and bought beer instead.