By Andrew Mambondiyani
MUTARE, Zimbabwe Thomson Reuters Foundation – Charles Samuriwo, a farmer from the Odzi area north west of Mutare city, cannot hide his frustration.
As a beneficiary of Zimbabwe’s controversial program to redistribute land taken from white farmers, Samuriwo has been working his tobacco farm since 2001.
Today he is struggling because 15 years after taking over the farm, he still has no security of tenure or title deed.
Without such collateral, he cannot borrow from a bank to buy machinery or pay for seasonal expenses such as seeds or fertilizer.
“As farmers, we have nothing but the land,” Samuriwo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Financial institutions need a form of security for them to lend us money. We want to invest in irrigation but without financial support we are not able to do that.”
His fears for the future have grown amid the severe, prolonged drought induced by the El Nino weather phenomenon that has hit southern Africa hard.
The worst drought to hit Zimbabwe in two decades has left many rural areas in the grip of hunger.
The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that around 4 million people in the country are struggling to meet their basic food needs.
To counter food insecurity, the government is importing maize from countries including Zambia, Ukraine, South Africa and Brazil, after drought hit production of the staple crop.
Earlier this year, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa said Zimbabwe needed nearly $1.6 billion to pay for grain and other food to feed millions of people in need.
Critics say the country’s once strong agricultural base has been damaged by the chaotic land redistribution program.
In 2001, President Robert Mugabe introduced land reforms aimed at addressing colonial imbalances whereby a few white farmers own most of the best agricultural land in Zimbabwe.
More than 4,000 farmers were forcibly evicted from their land in often violent struggles. The violence – and allegations of rigged elections and rights abuses – led western donors to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe.
The sanctions compounded an economic crisis that had worsened since the World Bank, IMF and African Development Bank suspended aid in 1999, after Zimbabwe defaulted on debts.
The source of insecurity for both farmers and banks in Zimbabwe lies with section 72 of the 2013 constitution, which sets out the state’s rights and powers over agricultural land.
It says: “Land, right or interest may be compulsorily acquired by the state by notice published in the Gazette identifying the land, right or interest, whereupon the land, right or interest vests in the state with full title with effect from the date of publication of the notice.”
Even though the government moved in 2006 to offer 99-year land leases and permits to some farmers, banks have consistently refused to recognize these as secure collateral for loans.
To date, fewer than 200 of the leases have been issued.
In March, however, Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Governor John Mangudya said he was confident the situation for farmers would improve once the “bankability” of the leases was finalised.
In a telephone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa said there were still a “few issues” which the banks wanted addressed before they would accept the 99-year leases as collateral.
He was not at liberty to discuss these issues, he said, but a document would soon be presented to the cabinet for approval.
According to Charles Tawazadza, who grows wheat and soya beans on his farm in Middle Sabi in the southeastern Chipinge district, tenure is not the only missing link for farmers.
Inconsistent government policies were part of the problem, Tawazadza said.
“We need security for us to invest on the farms,” Tawazadza said. “The problem is not with the banks but our policies as a country. Our policies are changing overnight.”
According to Paul Zakaria, executive director of the Zimbabwe Farmers Union, commercial agriculture will always require some form of financial support.
“This support will come in the form of capital expenditure as well as working capital,” Zakaria told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Security of tenure would be on the “national radar for a long time”, he said.
“Beyond the bankability of either the 99-year leases or title deeds stability, certainty on the farms is very necessary. That will give farmers the confidence to invest,” he said.
Eddie Cross, an economist and MP for Bulawayo South, said Mugabe’s land reforms were intended to strip away security of tenure and replace it with political control – much like the old traditional systems when local chiefs controlled access to land.
“It (the government) has been almost 100 percent successful in this respect,” Cross said.
He said that even though some newly settled farmers had taken over functioning commercial farms, they had been unable to maintain production. This was partly because they had stripped properties of assets such as irrigation equipment and tractors for short-term monetary gain, he said.
The “new farmers” were unable to run their farms as businesses because they lacked the capital or collateral needed to borrow funds for new investments, Cross said.
Prior to the land reforms introduced by Mugabe, farmers had borrowed an estimated $2 billion a year to cover seasonal expenses such as seed and fertilisers, he said.
Farm leases would only be useful if they could be traded, he said. “Without a market for farm land, borrowing is impossible.”
(Reporting by Andrew Mambondiyani Editing by Paola Totaro and Jo Griffin; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)