The current drought could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the peasant farming sector, which has been milked left, right and centre both by the commercial sector and the government, if the anomalies that have so far been unravelled are addressed at last.
But like in the past their plight could once again be exploited under various guises, since, once aired, their problems can easily be swept under the carpet with promises to address them being kept just that and nothing more.
President Mugabe has already pointed out that the peasants who bore the brunt of the liberation war, continue to bear the burden of shortages affecting the country and are fed last, after the urban people have had enough.
“It is they who pay more for their maize meal, bread and sugar, transport, and all the wares and services flowing their way from the urban areas. They build their own schools and clinics and yet their children receive not as good an education as those urban dwellers, the spoilt cry babies who are always crying for more,” he said.
Sadly, the very government that is championing the cause of the peasant farmers has been blatantly exploiting them through inappropriate producer prices and loans which the farmers could not afford to repay.
Duncan Hale, senior manger of the Standard Chartered Bank, says maize sales from communal farmers which have been touted by the government as a major success in developing the rural economy are no such thing. Small-scale production is more labour intensive and is based on the use of family labour whose cost is not taken into account, he says.
As a result the production of maize has depended increasingly on the lack of awareness by peasant farmers of the true value of their labour.
“This exploitation has proved extremely dangerous and the current drought has merely precipitated a crisis which was an inevitable consequence of pricing policy” he said.
Some researchers have argued that the increased sales from peasant farmers have nothing to do with surpluses but are merely “distressed sales” as farmers are forced to pay back debts. This, they say, is evidenced by the fact that some of the peasant farmers sell their maize only to go and seek drought relief from the government.
Fertiliser companies, on the other hand, have been accused of recommending larger amounts of inputs than the farmers really need if they have to be viable and at times this is with the help of trusted Agritex officers who, the researchers say, are offered kick-backs, which are disguised as awards, by the fertiliser companies.
The recently formed African Fertiliser Development Centre, an organ of the Organisation of African Unity, is looking into this issue following the publication by The Insider of two research papers on the exploitation of peasant farmers by fertiliser companies.
But this year the peasant farmer will actually be worse off since he will not have draught power or money to buy seed.
Gary Magadzire, who now represents all small-scale farmers, says 13 594 tractors will be needed to plough 1 767 169 hectares in the small-scale sector but there are only 1 520 tractors available.
The government has pledged to help the 800 000 communal farmers who it says will be given crop packs consisting of seed, fertiliser and chemicals and is spending more than $300 million on this exercise. While this is a noble gesture on the part of the government, the big question is whether it will be able to supply these inputs on time. Too often, the government has made promises which it has failed to fulfill because it did not have the finances.
One other worrying thing is that even if the government has the funds, will they be released on time? While the budget is announced at the end of July, monies are normally released to the various departments some time in October-November which will be too late for the farmers.
Last year, the government pledged $10 million as a subsidy on inputs to communal and resettlement farmers but by November the money had not been released. It is not clear whether it was finally released or not.
There have also been reports that while the government is talking about helping 800 000 communal farmers, the peasants themselves say the government will only be supplying inputs to those farmers with cards obtained from the Grain Marketing Board after selling their crop.
This will mean that only those farmers who have been doing well, and are normally better off, with access to both money for seed and cattle for ploughing, will benefit while the poor peasant who has nothing will be left to depend, once again, on the government or the goodwill of his neighbour.
Researchers have already established that most of the successful peasant farmers have more than twice the number of cattle that the non-food secure farmers have. They also have slightly more land.