Zim's 50 shades of land reform: Success at a cost to environment

2013-08-04 14:00

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Generally speaking, Zimbabwe’s land reform programme is either touted as a glowing success or an outright failure. Sean Christie spent three weeks travelling around Zimbabwe’s rural areas recently and found that the narrowness of this debate masks far more complex dynamics, some of which will have dire consequences if left unacknowledged

The big story in Zimbabwean agriculture, the one pro-land reform commentators always bring up to counter the pessimism around the government’s land reform programme, is tobacco. It is an impressive story.

In 2000, the country produced a record crop of 237?million kilograms, making it the second-largest producer after Brazil. But by 2008, after four difficult years of hyperinflation, crop production had fallen to a record low of 48?million kilograms.

Land reform was generally held to account in the media, because the 1?700 white large-scale producers who had produced 97% of the 2000 crop had been replaced by tens of thousands of small- and medium-scale producers, most without significant farming skills.

But by 2009, the worthless Zimbabwean dollar had been replaced by the US dollar and, finally able to access finance, Zimbabwe’s new farmers started producing in earnest: 125?million kilograms in 2010; 144.5?million in 2012 and, as of the close of the auction season this year, 159.3?million kilograms had been sold, valued at almost $588?million (R5.9?billion).

The “recovery” story has been reported far and wide, but what is far less well reported is the toll this “success” has taken on the environment.

The CEO of the Tobacco Industry Marketing Board, Dr Andrew Matibiri, said: “The number one issue with tobacco, the big one, is the environment.

“To flue-cure tobacco, you need to introduce heat into the barn. The simplest fuel source is wood, and that means our trees are being decimated.”

In a 2011 report, Zimbabwe’s Forestry Commission estimated that the country’s indigenous woodland was being chopped down at an annual rate of about 330?000 hectares, with Zimbabwe’s new small-scale farmers, constituting 83% of the total number of tobacco farmers, among the major offenders.

Prior to land reform, Zimbabwe’s tobacco farmers used coal to cure their tobacco, buying it by the 32?ton truck load, but this distribution

model has not evolved to serve Zimbabwe’s small-scale farmers, who each require no more than 2?tons annually.

Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Agency has a mandate to enforce laws protecting indigenous timber, but an absence of fuel alternatives for an exponentially growing number of tobacco growers (75?000 growers delivered tobacco in 2013, up from 52?000 in 2012) has rendered these laws largely meaningless.

This is a major headache for the country’s 12 tobacco merchants, most of whom are subsidiaries of or dedicated suppliers to big international tobacco houses such as Phillip Morris (Zimbabwe Leaf Tobacco) and British American Tobacco (Northern Tobacco), which publicly maintain that their products are farmed sustainably.

At the beginning of the 2013 season, according to Matibiri, the merchants voluntarily accepted a $1.5 levy on every bale of tobacco bought, amounting to approximately $10?million a year, which will go to the industry-established and controlled Sustainable Afforestation Programme (SAP), launched on July?1 this year.

The SAP’s purpose, said Matibiri, is “the amelioration of the deforestation problem via the establishment of eucalyptus woodlots, which will hopefully mature in seven years’ time”.

But the SAP’s own confidential study on deforestation, which City Press has seen, scientifically established that the major tobacco growing areas will be devoid of trees by 2016.

This is four years before the first SAP woodlots will reach maturity, a gap that renders the tobacco industry’s strategy impractical.

An aerial flyover of the country’s major growing areas – stretching from Marondera to the east of Harare to Mount Darwin to the north – brought home the urgency of the problem. Vast tracts of land lie carved up into fields of a few hectares, with the only surviving trees clustered around homesteads or in unreachable gullies. The once densely wooded Zambezi escarpment is now crisscrossed with loggers’ paths and looks as if it is balding.

Chemist Gumbi of the Forestry Commission was explicit about the consequences of total deforestation for agriculture: “General land degradation, reduction in water supply – both quality and quantity, and ultimately desertification,” he said.

But for the moment, the Zimbabwean government and the tobacco industry have been content to do relatively little while the country’s timber,

along with the long-term agricultural potential of the tobacco production areas, goes up in smoke.

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