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February 28, 2011

Zimbabwe farmers target surplus harvest

Zimbabwean peasant farmer Munyaradzi Mudapakati gives a satisfied smile as he looks out at his lush maize crop, but he fears his good fortune will end if elections go ahead this year.

For more than a decade, most rural Zimbabweans have depended on food aid to survive, but good rains this season are promising an abundant 2011 harvest -- as long as politics doesn't get in the way.

"This year thanks to the good rains I have plenty of food unlike the past three years," said Mudapakati, a former plumber who took to farming after losing his job in 2007.

Mudapakati says he expects to harvest 2,5 tonnes of maize this year, up from less than one tonne last year, and says he could have done even better if he had enough fertiliser. But he fears production could dip if President Robert Mugabe goes ahead with polls planned for later this year, as farmers would be forced to abandon their work and attend political rallies for Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF.

"I hope they shelve these elections," Mudapakati said. "The problem is that I will be picked up to go for campaigns since I operate from the roadside, which means I would lose a lot of time instead of doing farming."

Although he was spared from the violence that engulfed rural Zimbabwe during the last elections in 2008, Mudapakati said he saw villagers driven to rally venues and beaten up when they resisted. The 40-year-old grows maize and tomatoes at a horticultural farm that was seized by government and parcelled out to small-scale farmers under Mugabe's controversial land reform programme. Launched in 2000, the programme has seen the seizure of nearly 4 000 white-owned farms for redistribution to landless blacks, with disastrous effects on agricultural production. The programme has combined with poor rains and shortages of seed and fertiliser to force a country once considered the breadbasket of the region to depend on food aid.

The crisis bottomed out in 2008, when nearly half Zimbabwe's 12-million people needed food aid. The situation has been improving, but the United Nations has still appealed for $415-million to feed 1,7-million Zimbabweans this year until the harvest starts in May.

Agriculture Minister Joseph Made said Zimbabwe is likely to harvest enough maize to feed itself this year, the first time in a decade. The country needs an estimated 2,2-million of tonnes of maize a year.

"The country is looking forward to household food security and we should maintain this in the future," Made told reporters.

But political instability may still threaten this resurgence.

Mugabe (87) who has been in power since 1980, has called for elections to be held this year to end the power-sharing government he was forced to enter with long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai after the bloody and disputed vote of 2008.

That year, hundreds of rural residents fled to the capital, Harare, seeking refuge after being beaten or intimidated during the campaign.

Labour economist Prosper Chitambira, too, warned that although no dates have been set for new elections, farmers and workers could lose precious time if they are forced to attend campaign rallies.

"In the event of elections some workers will be recruited to carry out campaigns on behalf of certain parties," said Chitambira of the Harare-based Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe.

"Though impact on production might be minimal, there will be lost man-hours as people would be forced to campaign instead of working," he added.

"Some people are also tired of elections as they know that beating or forcing people will not bring food on the table."

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