1 August 2012

Zimbabwe: Chiredzi - Wasted Land of Immense Potential

CHIREDZI, in Masvingo Province's south eastern Lowveld, is a place described in the country's geography textbooks as a land of vast money-spinning sugarcane estates. But it is also a place contemporary journalism fondly likes to identify with hunger, drought and searing heat.

All the descriptions are indeed true portraits of a land that is physically separated into two contrasting images by one simple feature: the 200-metre wide Runde River.

Occupying Runde's northern bank are the lush Triangle, Mkwasine and Hippo Valley sugarcane plantations while on the southern bank are the dry and khaki communal lands, all reflecting on an enduring colonial legacy that 32 years of the country's independence has failed to amend.

Chiredzi, before 1930, was undeniably hunger-stricken, drought-prone and simmering under sweltering tropical heat, but the lone efforts of a Thomas Murray Macdougall, who in 1931, decided to tame the hostile savannah countryside using water from Mutirikwe River, turned Runde's northern bank into the luxuriance it is today.

Macdougall's efforts to tame 300 000 hectares of part of hostile Chiredzi, which began as far back as before the First World War when he was involved in cattle ranching then ended with the sugarcane estates that have endured time to this day. The southern bank of Runde, where the indigenous population has lived for generations, remained stuck in the belly of a hostile environment until today.

However, the success of Macdougall's individual venture reflects on the potential the entire Chiredzi District possesses, albeit its hostile setting. The sugarcane greenbelt, occupying just over 300 square kilometres of countryside, is a mere two percent of the entire district measuring nearly 15 000 square kilometres.

Although the largest part of Chiredzi is yearning for development through irrigation similar to that currently taking place north of Runde River, some Zimbabwean politicians who are seeking to redress colonial economic imbalances, are gunning for a share of the sugarcane greenbelt instead.

Demands that Triangle and Hippo Valley Estates, owned by Tangaat Hulett, cede 51 percent of the business to indigenous business people, are probably missing the point as The Financial Gazette observed recently. Even the spirited demand that conglomerates cede 10 percent of their shares to local communities is an empowerment drive that will forever condemn the rest of the district to underdevelopment given past experiences with programmes such as the Social Development Fund that has been abused left right and centre by politicians.

Obtaining 51 percent ownership of the present sugar estates does not translate to people being able to avert hunger due to incessant droughts wrought by the hostile environment they live in because only a handful of individuals will enjoy the benefits.

Also, the country's 10 percent Community Share Ownership Scheme model is ideal for communities with mining enterprises, but it is probably not the best option for the agro-industrial sector given the ever highly volatile commodity price regime on the international market, this reporter also noted.

ZANU-PF politburo member, Dzikamai Mavhaire, who is also a resident of Masvingo Province, hit the bull's eye recently when he said: "Land ownership does not create wealth. Land production creates wealth," adding that it is time that appropriate farming methods be applied in each natural region of the country.

Inspirational to anyone who loves tilling the land, Zimbabwe's south eastern sugarcane estates, bound between Mutirikwe, Chiredzi and Runde rivers, can easily be a strong basis to unleash the latent wealth that abounds in Chiredzi.

In 1977 Colin Saunders, author of a book about the life of the pioneer of the sugarcane plantations titled: Murray Macdougall and the Story of Triangle, wrote: "The story of MacDougall's pioneering feats in establishing the possibilities of large-scale irrigation in the south eastern Lowveld of Rhodesia is one of the great epics of human endeavour of our time, and his single-minded faith and determination provided a solid foundation on which were built the fortunes of a great company, whose example has already been followed, with success, by neighbours, and by other organisations which one can only hope will increase vastly, in the interest of our country."

Granted, colonial rule was the worst thing that could have ever happened to the indigenous people of Zimbabwe but building upon some of the positive legacies, which at one time benefited a few white colonialists, can only make Zimbabwe much greater than what it is today.

With Triangle and Hippo Valley estates currently managing to satisfy only 20 percent of the estates' total combined milling capacity of 600 000 tonnes of sugar from 4,8 million tonnes of cane, room for new players is vast especially given the existing high demand for Zimbabwean sugar by the European Union (EU) nations.

More land beyond that currently occupied by Triangle and Hippo Valley can be opened up as the Tokwe-Murkosi Dam long-term development agenda suggest.

The completion of Tokwe-Murkosi Dam, currently under construction in Masvingo's Chivi District, will result in the development of five irrigation schemes, Tokwane North, Tokwane South, Hippo Valley, Runde South and Matibi II, with Matibi II, located south of Runde River, billed to be the largest small-scale irrigation development ever to happen in the country.

The total irrigated area, whose development is expected to last a decade after the completion of Tokwe-Murkosi Dam construction, is expected to be 2 400 square kilometres or 39 000 hectares, exceeding Triangle and Hippo Valley estates by more than 10 000 hectares. It is envisaged that 65 percent of the irrigated area will be set aside for sugarcane, 24 percent for fruit production while 11 percent will be for annual crops for the resettled and communal farmers. This, however, is a pipedream that has existed in the country's State blueprints for nearly half a century now.

Evidence on the ground, as exhibited by the villagers' determined efforts to make hostile Chiredzi as comfortable as possible, indicates that something can meanwhile be done to unleash the area's vast potential.

From the dust bawls of Chiredzi, at Mapume Village under Chief Masivamela some 50km from Runde River, the Chiwara family managed to harvest a tonne of healthy maize in a district where such a harvest is presently an unimaginable feat.

"It is virtually impossible to grow maize here but we managed to do so through conservation farming," said Patricia Chiwara adding: "It was tough when we started but working as a group of four other farmers the task became easier."

The 'miraculous' family harvest, from half a hectare of land, was achieved by purely relying on the area's highly unpredictable rainfall which is largely detected by a climatic condition that allows less than 450 millimetres of rain every year.

About 10 kilometres away from the Chiwara's homestead, at Chinyetu Village, the Matimbe family has turned part of the seemingly barren Mopani tree-studded landscape into a small greenbelt the size of a football field.

Flourishing on the small plot, by means of irrigation, are several types of vegetables and legumes in such a beautiful scene that one cannot help but marvel.

From the healthy looking herds of cattle and goats foraging for pastures in the countryside, Chiredzi is undoubtedly also suitable for intensive and extensive livestock production.

But unfortunately, as this reporter learnt, the majority of cattle are hardly offered for sale: They are mere symbols of wealth in a land that is ironically stalked by hunger due to perennial crop failure.

It is also doubtful whether the EU community's yearning calls for the country's world-class organic beef has ever reached this land.

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