Fences and the Future

When I was a student at Gwebi Agricultural College in the early 60’s we often visited farms to see firsthand what they were doing to improve production or manage harsh resources. We soon learned that you could tell what sort of farmer we were going to meet by two yardsticks – what was the condition of the farm fences and what sort of dogs greeted us at the homestead.

The first measure told us about the farmers technical and farming abilities in that we never found an outstanding farmer in any field who did not have neat, well maintained fences. Farmers with good human resource skills always had friendly dogs. Overall this really summed up the farmers abilities and potential for success.

Today, there is no more telling indicator of failure of agricultural policies and practices than our fences – there are none, and where they do exist they are untidy, ineffective and often in a state of collapse. They reveal many things – the absence of any real sense of ownership or pride, the lack of security, the absence of any idea of what fences mean in terms of management and control. Where those occupying the farms do erect fences they are seldom tidy or effective. That too says a great deal about the farmer.

Just what happens to the fences? Commercial farmers occupied about 10 million hectares of land in Zimbabwe in 2000, they had carefully fenced every farm – not just boundaries but also internal paddocks and lands. In many cases there were fences designed for game as well as cattle and small stock, fences two metres high, straining posts set in concrete and steel, gates and cattle grids. They are all gone, they vanish over time and you seldom see any sign of what they do with the wire and poles.

Friends of ours who farmed 25 000 hectares of semi arid land in region 5 or 6 in the south of the country are a useful example. He was once the top breeder of Brahman cattle in the country and ran the cattle in conjunction with wild life. He had fenced the property with two metre high game fence, cattle grids at the main crossing points and gates elsewhere, 8 boreholes and many kilometers of pipelines to feed water toughs. This is very dry country and the soils poor in most case. No surface water.

Sam had learned over the years that you had to rotate your cattle and he basically rotated the cattle so that at any one time he was able to rest half the farm in the wet season so that the grass could make maximum use of the rains when they fell. Over 100 years they maintained rainfall records and the average never varied significantly over 300 mls per annum. However in that period they had serious drought every 3 or 4 years – in some years no rain fell at all. In this hard, unforgiving climate, they made a living and when times were good were able to put in development. To do this eventually he had 3 800 kilometers of wire in his fences.

Under this management system the grass cover on the farm gradually improved, different species became established and the overall carrying capacity improved until he had an estimated 2200 wild animals on the property and slightly more cattle. Sam was Afrikaans in background but he and his wife chose to leave South Africa because of its racial policies and come to this country. Here he learned the local language, Venda, which he speaks fluently; he always tried to maintain good relations with the local community and the local chiefs.

They were invaded 8 years ago, the State moving people onto the property and providing them with food and other support. Today the property is semi desert, I doubt if you could find enough grass on the entire 25 000 hectares to fill a bag. The majority of the “settlers” have abandoned the property because it cannot support their livestock. The only borehole still working is at the homestead where Sam lives with his wife. There is not a metre of fencing left on the entire property. A handful of Zebra and Impala remain, the Eland are all gone along with the Giraffe and Wildebeest.

Last year he was forced to sell the last of his beloved Brahmans and they now have no cattle for the first time in their lives. 50 years of breeding and selection have been lost, genetics that will take many years to recover when and if production can be resumed.

But that is only the final effect of this tragic story, the reality for us as a country is the loss of investment, genetic capital, employment and income generation on a sustainable basis and now just another extension to what is rapidly becoming desert.

Many would argue that the desertification of these areas is due to “Global Warming” but of this there is no evidence at all. A careful study of the meticulous records on this farm over 100 years shows that there is no discernable change in rainfall – either in distribution or volume. The sole change in the past decade is the removal of ownership rights through a destructive and illegal land grab and the subsequent deliberate destruction of the management infrastructure essential to land management in this marginal rainfall area.

In every area of the world where land ownership is vested in community structures and not in individual title with long term security, land use and production is unsustainable and destructive. Communal agriculture is only sustainable at subsistence level in conditions where the availability of virgin land is open and unrestricted. As the land is exploited in these conditions its productive capacity declines and the people simply destroy their homes and move to new areas and start again. Over time the areas used recover and can eventually be reoccupied in 20 or 30 years time.

In semi arid areas, especially in the sensitive savannah bushveld of Africa, the most immediate impact of growing populations has been to replace nomadic land use patterns with fixed abode and this is invariably associated with land degradation and in extreme cases, desertification. When deserts form they are almost impossible to rehabilitate. That is why the Kalahari desert is growing at a kilometer a year, that is why the Savannah of the Sahael has disappeared and been replaced with desert sand dunes.

Africa cannot ignore this reality for much longer. As countries came to independence in the period after 1950, one by one they destroyed the systems of tenure that the colonial powers had brought to the continent. In their place they created systems that always left the ownership of land in State hands and usage rights subject to political patronage. The result is that the continent with more potentially productive land than any other is now the largest net importer of food in the world. The USA with its private farm industry and only 3 per cent of its population engaged in agriculture; produces half the surplus food production of the world. American farmers in the mid west are so important that the current drought there has doubled global grain prices in a matter of weeks.

The “land reform” process in Zimbabwe has been an unmitigated disaster. Despite the steady recovery in the wider economy since 2008, agriculture remains in steep decline. No greater symptom of failure exists than the disappearance of our fences. But behind that façade lies a deeper malaise – that of total insecurity. There can be no recovery in the farm industry until this is addressed – not just in commercial farming districts but also in communal areas where the absence of security for decades has resulted in conditions of absolute poverty, hunger and land degradation.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 12th August 2012