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Farmers' frustrations taint Zimbabwe's grain bounty. Peasants long for private ownership of the land they till

WITH his blue overalls, his well-worked hands, and his blunt crop talk, Isiah Chakadzama takes his agriculture seriously. A master farmer, he proudly points to this summer's maize crop piled high in the center of his compound. As with the previous season, he says, it's been a good harvest.

As black Africa's top agricultural producer -- farming accounts for 40 percent of its foreign exchange earnings -- Zimbabwe has been able not only to feed itself but also to stockpile 2 million tons of maize for export.

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Yet, like Malawi and Kenya, it is a victim of its own success. While large areas of the continent are starving, Zimbabwe is having difficulty selling its excess. The regional Grain Marketing Board depot to which Isiah transports his surplus is already overflowing with harvests from last year as well as this year.

Many African countries simply cannot afford to buy the grain. Meanwhile, Western nations are dumping their own surpluses on the African market, driving crop prices ever lower and making it increasingly difficult for African farmers to compete.

For Isiah, life has improved since Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980. ``I am happy to keep my family well,'' says the farmer, who operates his own six-acre small holding in a northern Zimbabwe black communal area, formerly known as a Tribal Trust Land. ``Crop prices are good, but costs are rising, like fertilizer, so you can't always win.''

A farmer since 1956, Isiah lives with his wife and eight children in a neat, nine-hut compound. He also grows cotton, soya beans, and groundnuts, and with 14 head of cattle, considers himself a large stockman. He is keen on conservation and, despite the limited size of his holding, husbands it well.

Over the past 6 years, Zimbabwe's 800,000 communal farmers have become one of Africa's most significant agricultural successes.

For some observers, this country has pioneered the soundest peasant policies on the African continent. Supported by an effective system of price incentives and extension services -- much of it instituted when Zimbabwe was white-ruled Rhodesia -- farmers like Isiah are now contributing to an annual maize surplus of 850,000 tons.

For Isiah, expansion is the biggest problem. ``I would like to have my own land, to have a commercial farm, like the white man. But I am too old and the council only gives land to young men.''

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As with numerous Africans encountered elsewhere on this journey, land ownership is an obsession here. While Zimbabwe's 4,500 mainly white commercial operators and 8,500 black small-scale farmers have freehold title to their properties, those living on communal lands hold only traditional rights.

``I think you'll find that every peasant here wants permanent land tenancy, a title to his own land,'' says M. J. Mudavanhu, a supervisor for the Ministry of Agriculture's ``Agritex'' extension service program. ``The council wants to impose villagization [a cooperative system], but that's not what these people want. They want to work for themselves.''

Although communal farmers have been producing well, few are as conscientious about preventing soil abuse as Isiah. Overcrowding is certainly one reason. But lack of ownership, some observers argue, adds to the problem by inducing a lack of long-term commitment to the land.

All too many communal farmers overcultivate, overgraze, and overburn until the soil is worn out, say agricultural experts here.

Agricultural specialists are seeking ways of inducing better land use, and many feel that granting farmers full tenancy would be a major step in that direction.

``I can guarantee you that they'll treat it a lot better if its theirs,'' said Bill Francis, a leading commercial farmer from Mvurwi. ``A lot of these communal areas have soil just as good as ours. But if you don't take care of it, even the best land can go to wrack and ruin.''

Evan Waters, who cultivates about six acres in another communal area some 20 miles to the northwest, was allocated his land by the party leaders nearly three years ago. He argues that the size of his plot does not permit crop rotation. His family cannot survive on its land alone, and relies on remittances from two sons who work in a nearby town. Mr. Waters say he will be forced to farm his land until it is exhausted. What then? ``I don't know,'' he says.

Since independence, the government has been resettling farmers from the communal areas to land abandoned by whites during the Rhodesian war of the late '70s, or obtained through legal purchases.

But this is only a partial solution. The program has progressed far more slowly than expected. Out of 500,000 people said to be in need of land, only 40,000 have been moved. The government has promised to resettle 15,000 a year over the next five years.

Despite socialist doctrine, capitalist methods pervade the economy. Prime Minister Robert Mugabe has gone out of his way to encourage large-scale commercial farmers. They remain the prime producers, with nearly 60 percent of total crop production, and they still provide more than 250,000 jobs, mainly to people from the communal lands.

But, despite the fact that commercial farmers tend to hold the more fertile lands, they are no longer the generator of employment they were during the 1950s and '60s. Some 100,000 jobs have been lost since 1975. Although commercial agricultural output has become far more efficient, the steady loss of jobs is causing considerable concern.

Party ideologues, who eventually hope to implement a strategy of collectivization to create more jobs and encourage better use of the land, maintain that granting peasants titled ownership is not the answer. ``This will only encourage ambitious farmers to buy out those with less ambition,'' argues Minister of Information Nathan Shamuyarira.

Some observers, however, do not see this as a bad thing. It could lead, they say, to a more efficient utilization of available land. ``Agriculture cannot support everybody,'' notes an official from the Ministry of Housing. ``We should be encouraging more rural enterprises so that people who don't want to farm can work without having to migrate to the cities.''

In the meantime, Agritex representatives such as Mr. Mudavanhu are striving to improve communal farming methods. Extension workers tour rural areas to advise farmers. ``We discuss crops, livestock, or conservation, or assist them in getting loans,'' he explains. ``But what the farmers want are results. You will only get your message across if you can prove to them that whatever you recommend actually works.''

The commercial farmers, too, play an important advisory role. The Commercial Farmers' Union not only lends its expertise on anything from road building to contour ploughing, but also encourages farmers to maintain informal contacts.

``I think it's very much in our interests to ensure that these people live and farm properly. If we don't, we could face a big problem in about 10 years' time,'' says Nick O'Connor, whose tobacco, maize, and cattle estate borders communal land. Several times a month, he rides out on horseback to talk with farmers, or they come directly to him for advice.

Many Africans look to the commercial farms as an ideal -- or as land to be resettled, particularly if it looks underused. But, notes a member of a conservation group that involves both government and private representatives, from the African point of view, ``utilization means cutting down every tree for firewood or ploughing every inch regardless of erosion,''

For farmers like Isiah, the commercial farms remain an important goal, ``If I can't have my own commercial farm,'' he says, ``then I want my children to have one.''

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