Re-building Zimbabwe’s agriculture: Between a rock and a hard place.

Taruvinga Magwiroto

Veld fortification using silverleaf desmodium Pic T.L. Magwiroto

One of the foundational premises that should anchor any development plans for Zimbabwe and other developing countries is the centrality of land as the primary economic resource.

Indeed, this fact is recognised in Zimbabwe. That, ostensibly, is why the land reform programme was launched in the first place. Fundamentally, it was about re-distribution of the national cake, broadly speaking.

However, no sooner was the distributional question answered than efficiency and sustainability questions were raised. Could the nation’s food security be entrusted to part-time farmers and cell-phone, urban-based farmers? The jury is still out on that one, though it’s clear that Zimbabwe is losing the food security war. More needs to be done to make the new land owners to become better, more efficient producers of agricultural food.

Another crucial question is the environmental sustainability of land use.  This is especially an acute problem because of the artisanal mining that has become a widespread source of livelihoods for young and old people alike, in a country with rampant unemployment. Gold panning is an attractive option for youths with little or no capital, who only count upon their muscles and daring to eke out a living from a bleak and unforgiving economic environment.

But the mining activities are exacting costly collateral damage. The indiscriminate excavations are reducing the once-beautiful landscape into pork-marked death traps to unsuspecting humans and animals. In certain places, particularly Mazowe area, some whole areas have become useless badlands where no grass or vegetation grows, and only the gaping pits and gravel mounts remain the physical rebuke of the earthly rape.

However, the destruction of the physical earth may actually be a less evil. One of the most disturbing results of the mining activities is the contamination of the environment with heavy metals like mercury and cyanide used in gold purification.  Chrome dumbs are also dotted all over the country, and these developments pose questions that require answers sooner rather than later.

Heavy metals eventually find themselves in water sources, both underground and surface. This has many implications for animal and human health. Surface water bodies are home to fish and other aquatic life, which tend to accumulate these metals. These metals accumulate in this aquatic life, and upon eating the contaminated aquatic food, human become poisoned. Because they cannot be digested, heavy metals can accumulate in the body until they reach toxic levels.

If underground water sources are contaminated, this is even worse, because humans may directly ingest the heavy metals, causing acute toxicity. Because of the desperate nature of Zimbabwe’s situation, these issues may sound remote risks, but if one thinks deeply, they are quite imminent risks. The responsible authorities need to take action soonest.

The next logical question would be: who are the responsible authorities? This sounds like a simple question yet in the Zimbabwe context it is quite complex. A lot of boards and agencies have a stake in these issues: the Ministry of Mines; the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands; the police; the environmental watchdog EMA; local authorities responsible for water; the board responsible for riparian water management (ZINWA); Parks and Wildlife responsible for lakes, dams and game parks; veterinary epidemiology and veterinary public health; Public health department; environmental health department; private land owners.

As one can imagine, it is a complex situation, especially if one takes into account the fact that artisanal mining is being done with tacit government approval. The country depends on gold from the artisanal miners to shore up gold and foreign currency reserves. Theoretically, that would be a good thing since the forex is used to procure essential medicines, food and other necessities that we need to import.

But ultimately, the most crucial aspect of sovereignty is food sovereignty. Political sovereignty without food sovereignty is just vanity, signifying little. Food sovereignty requires that we produce enough to feed our population by ourselves. No amount of market volatility should take away our ability to grow our own food. Commodity markets can be manipulated. Our diamonds were being sold for a song on the black market. Tobacco prices are determined by bigger players. That’s the reality of globalisation anyway: the weak go to the wall. But food production should be within our control, to a large extent. Otherwise the land reform programme remains a costly vanity project.

The government cannot just re-distribute the land and leave it at that. The dip in land productivity would be acceptable in the first 10 years or so as people adjusted to new roles and systems. But 20 years later, we still do not know what to do with the land. At least there does not seem to be systematic efforts to capacitate people to grow food crops and animals; and absent are support systems that ensure that people acquire the competencies to become specialised farmers if they so wish. The land reform is an important empowerment initiative, but in itself it is not enough. New farmers have to become productive, and the land has to become the new driver of the economy. Mining has too many “external” environmental costs.

Taken from another angle, these could probably be symptoms of deeper political and governance failings. But it does not take away the graveness of the problem, nor its long term consequences. Zimbabwe cannot continue to be a starving nation.


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