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Wednesday, 13 February, 2002, 15:03 GMT
Meagre harvest in Zimbabwe
After a year in which farms have stopped planting, yields have shrunk, and the land reassignment programme has left thousands of families facing hunger, Zimbabweans could be forgiven for thinking the agricultural outlook could not get much worse.
But new statistics from the Grain Producers' Association suggest that this year's harvest could be even more meagre than expected.
Broadly speaking, that matched the annual demand.
But in 2001, maize production fell to just 1.4m tonnes, prompting fears - now being realised - that hunger could be on the way.
And according to reports from the UN's IRIN news service, the GPA now believes that the 2002 harvest, due to start at the same time as the presidential election in March - could struggle to top even 1m tonnes.
The result: shops are starved of mealie meal, and have been for weeks. More than 600,000 Zimbabweans are registered as requiring urgent help from the World Food Programme.
And with inflation topping 100% a year, millions are now finding themselves barely able to buy even the basic staples.
Maize prices have more than doubled since October 2001.
Other commodities such as cooking oil are under government price controls - leading to a thriving black market, but also to factory closures as a rampaging exchange rate combines with inflation to make production uneconomic.
According to local experts, there are two main reasons for the poor harvest - one natural, the other man-made.
And price controls on fertiliser have led many manufacturers to susend its production, further undermining agricultural output - especially by subsistence farmers.
But even if - despite the poor weather - output climbs to an average of about 1.1 tonnes per hectare, production overall is unlikely to top last year's.
The reason? Wholesale land seizures of white-owned farms over the past few years have slashed commercial maize production, while shifting black workers off those farms has cut into subsistence farming and left their families going hungry.
Subsistence farming by war veterans who have moved onto the land is patchy at best, and in any case results in yields four or five times lower than commercial farming.
National grain reserves are now down to 10,000 tonnes, just two days' consumption, according to government offficials quoted in the state-owned Herald newspaper.
Accusing private - needless to say white - farmers of hoarding grain, the government last year nationalised sales through the state Grain Marketing Board.
Meanwhile, it has been raiding farms where it says grain is being hoarded, amid reports in the Herald that white farmers are trying to starve the black majority.
But in the only documented case - at the Forresters Estate in northeast Zimbabwe - claims of hoarding have been proved false.
Forrester is owned by a German company, and officials at the German Embassy in Zimbabwe told BBC News Online that the 6,000 tonnes stored there was entirely legal and, moreover, well known to the GMB.
The estate, the officials said, was covered by a Zimbabwe-Germany investment agreement; the grain was being kept for farm workers, as well as some yellow maize for animal feed; and in any case the GMB was in arrears in paying for the last load it bought.
As for the tenders, the government is hoping to bring in 200,000 tonnes by May, according to agriculture minister Joseph Made.
Transport is proving problematic too. Getting the grain up from the sole South African border crossing at Beit Bridge in the south to Harare, the western town of Bulawayo and beyond is reliant on Zimbabwe's shaky rail network.
In any case, the country is starved of foreign exchange, making brokers unwilling to deal even with the government in anything but hard cash.
And grain prices in the region are at 10-year highs due to widespread shortages.
South Africa was the only country to turn a modest surplus last year.
And with demand from all its neighbours skyrocketing - Malawi is now warning of children dying from starvation-related illnesses - even South Africa is now importing maize from the US.
"The [Zimbabwean] government have pretty much mismanaged the tendering process," one Harare-based economist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told BBC News Online.
"There's very little on the way. For months they denied there was a need to import, and by the time the government changed its tune most of it was allocated."
What is coming into the country is being allocated through government channels.
NGOs including the World Food Programme are trying to help, but the government is reluctant to allow them to operate because control of the food supply is seen as important ahead of the presidential elections in March.
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