Zimbabwe plans to pass a law that will force large and small-scale farmers to pay a quarterly rent to the state or face eviction after a program of seizing white-owned commercial farms between 2000 and 2008 decimated crop exports and food production.

Prior to the often violent evictions, Zimbabwe was the world’s second-biggest tobacco exporter and second-largest corn exporter in Africa. Today the country imports corn, its staple food, and tobacco production is only now nearing 2000 production levels. Horticulture, rose, wheat and paprika industries have collapsed.

“Zimbabwe has the potential to regain the status of being the breadbasket of Africa if those who were allocated land use the land productively in a commercial manner,” Phelekezela Mphoko, one of Zimbabwe’s two vice presidents, said in a speech to farmers in the southern district of Bubi onSept.11.

“Farming is a business and we don’t expect to see subsistence farming on A2 farms,” he said in reference to commercial holdings expropriated from mainly white farmers in the land reform program backed by President Robert Mugabe.

The push to spur agricultural production comes as Zimbabwe’s economy, half the size it was in 2000, is locked into a cycle of deflation, with surging unemployment sapping consumer demand and forcing thousands onto city streets as informal vendors of everything from tomatoes to pirated DVDs to support their families.
The state’s wage bill has risen to 83 percent of its revenue, stifling the government’s ability to invest in the economy.

Many of the beneficiaries of A2 farm allocations were officials of Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party, senior government workers, policemen, members of the military, judges and the Central Intelligence Organisation, a spy agency. Some of the farms were occupied by subsistence farmers with no capital to finance efficient crop production. A1 farmers were allocated small pieces of land suited to subsistence farming.
“We long suspected evictions were coming because nothing is free and only fools believed life would improve,” Philemon Mucherechete, a 62-year-old seller of thatching grass on the roadside 50 miles north of the capital, Harare. “Five acres of land is five acres of land and just because it is on a white man’s former farm doesn’t mean we would suddenly become rich.”

A drought last season saw harvests of corn, the country’s staple food, and tobacco, the country’s biggest crop export, slump. The southern African nation will have to import about 700,000 metric tons of corn between now and the harvest in March, government has said.

Under the proposed law, the government will now charge a quarterly rental on all farms after effectively nationalizing almost all previously privately owned land. Defaulting on rent for three successive quarters will prompt the state begin to implement eviction notices, under an amended draft due to be put before parliament, according to Agriculture Minister Joe Made.

“A lot of land is currently underutilized and it’s likely that rather than pay rent, some farmers will relinquish their holding to more productive farmers,” Itai Chirume, a director at MMC Capital in Harare, said by phone.
About 300 white farmers are thought to still operate in Zimbabwe, though the Commercial Farmers’ Union, which represents them, won’t give an exact figure, saying they still face periodic threats of eviction.

“White farmers had title deeds, they could borrow from the banks to finance cropping, to buy machinery,” Ronald Gumbo, who farms in the Chegutu district, 90 miles southwest of Harare, said by phone. “All we have is a letter from the government saying the land has been allocated to us and that’s not enough to borrow.”

A drive north from Harare toward the border with Zambia across what was once some of the most productive land in the country, with lush corn and tobacco fields lining the highway, is today characterized by pockets of shriveled corn, land returning to savanna scrub and villagers selling fish caught in rivers and dams.

“I could grow wheat in winter if I could borrow,” Gumbo said. “But when I came here all the irrigation equipment, all the pumps, everything had been stolen in the chaos of land reform, so my land lies fallow and I must rely on the weather, despite having access to a dam.