Climate Change

The buzzword of many in the world today is the issue of climate change. This has been enhanced by the storms that have ravaged different parts of the world this past summer in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere we wait to see what is in store for us and I fear it will not be either pleasant or easy to deal with.

The general consensus is that climate change is going to make areas of high rainfall, wetter and areas of low rainfall drier. So here in Matabeleland we can expect (if the predictions are true) that our average precipitation will decline in the next decade. This will make agriculture here an even less attractive business activity than it has already become because of the impact of the illegal occupation of commercial farms and the consequential destruction of the support infrastructure that maintained agriculture here during the past 100 years.

What made this country a success in agriculture was a whole range of factors - all of which are now in disarray. We had a unique population of highly trained and skilled commercial farmers, a network of world-class research centers and an excellent extension programme. The commercial banking system and a substantial grid of industrial firms completed the picture, enabling farmers to produce and compete in global markets despite sanctions and all the other impediments that third world farmers have to contend with - including the Common Agricultural Policies of the EU. This was also facilitated by large, well run marketing organisations.

The large-scale commercial farmers were able, in a dry season, to bring irrigation to bear on an astonishing 80 per cent of all commercial arable land. Some 280 000 hectares of arable land could be irrigated - most of it not for long because of stored water shortages, but for long enough in a dry season to make the difference between a crop and a failure. Because of this capacity, despite a 40 per cent mean variation in rainfall from one year to another, Zimbabwe became one of the largest producers of white maize in the world, a leading breeder of crop varieties and self sufficient in all other grains. We also became the third largest producer and exporter of flue cured tobacco and a large producer of a wide variety of other agricultural products.

What is not generally understood is that the small scale or peasant sector - which in itself was a major component of the agricultural industry, producing in a reasonable season up to 70 per cent of maize grains and over 80 per cent of all seed cotton; has been equally affected by the collapse of commercial agriculture and its support infrastructure. Peasant sector production has in fact declined in line with the decline in overall output - not by quite the same extent, but still very significantly. Climate change will further damage the prospects of the subsistence sector. These farmers, some 800 000 of them - mostly women, do not produce significant surpluses and with the growth in urban populations the dependence on commercial large scale farming is likely to grow significantly in the years ahead. This deteriorating outlook for the capacity of the small-scale sector to meet even subsistence needs is being compounded by the HIV/Aids situation. Many families on the land simply do not have the human capacity to do the hard physical work that is required for subsistence farming. This is a factor that is being reinforced by the flight to other countries of millions of young adults who would otherwise be available to help with the work in rural areas.

This is a nightmare situation and one which, if not addressed by all those responsible, could simply result in Zimbabwe becoming a perennial target for food aid on a massive scale. We have not fed ourselves for the past 5 years and this years cropping season is likely to be the worst for many decades. This condemns us to being food aid recipients in 2006 right through to May 2007. This "hunger season" will require food imports from all sources to feed the majority of our population and half will require assistance, as they cannot afford the food.

It needs to be understood that a recovery in agriculture will not be easy and will take many years, if not decades. It will not even begin if we do not recognise that the so-called "land reform" exercise has been an unmitigated disaster - for everyone. It is absolutely necessary to acknowledge that only large-scale commercial agriculture - perhaps conducted by companies with the required resources and expertise, can actually cope with the new climatic conditions that are emerging in this part of the world. However, they simply cannot even start operations without real, concrete, long-term security over assets, including land. Unless Africa comes to grips with this reality it is difficult to see much more than a continuing crisis in the food and agricultural sector, not just in Zimbabwe but anywhere where similar conditions exist.

But while we recognise that climate change is affecting our farming activities, we must also recognise that there are massive changes taking place in other spheres that might also be described as "climate change". The changes in the political climate for example. No longer can tyrants like Mugabe get away with what he is doing unscathed. The new era of instant communications and the emergence of a coherent international consensus on basic, universal, human and political rights has changed all that. The growth of democratic States and the demise of autocratic, Marxist power blocks has reinforced these trends so that we now have a much more principled and robust international environment that is intolerant of those who violate the perceived norms that constitute good governance.

Mugabe has not got away with his antics - he has and is being punished for them and will one day be held accountable. That is what these modern 21st century dictators fear most. The specter of Saddam in the dock before judges is a constant nightmare for those who violate the new rules.

Closer to home it has been encouraging this past three weeks to see how ordinary people in Zimbabwe reject the old tyrants of tribal politics and ethnic divides. I well remember the 60's when the two dominant nationalist Parties battled it out for turf in the Townships. Killings and riots, directed not at the white minority government of the day, but at each other. Setting back the agenda for black rights and political freedom by 20 years. Local leaders trying the same story today are being simply brushed aside by the people and I see great hope in that for the country as a whole.

Eddie Cross
16th November 2005