Zimbabwe’s recovery slim

HARARE - Prospects of sustainable recovery in Zimbabwe appear dimmer than ever before as a bewildering array of self-inflicted and natural disasters steadily throttle the once prosperous the southern African nation. Analysts believe that after more than five years of an unprecedented economic

meltdown, Zimbabwe is headed for more troubled waters – at least in the short-to-medium term.

“It looks like we have now turned into the masters of navigating from one sticky situation to another, and in almost all cases fingers will be pointing at those entrusted with powers to lead this country,” said a political analyst from the University of Zimbabwe who did not want to be named.

The bulk of the crises stem from self-created chaos while others, like the outbreak of the crop-eating armyworms during the past few weeks, are really the result of unsympathetic weather elements.

At a time fellow southern African countries are excited about prospects of better harvests because of good rains this farming season, Zimbabwe has been hit hard by an armyworm outbreak which effectively reduces chances of achieving a respectable harvest from the 2005/06 season.

The analysts said Harare’s much-vaunted Operation Maguta faces the real risk of failure after the caterpillars have devoured large amounts of crops and pasture in the Midlands, Mashonaland West, Mashonaland Central and Mashonaland East provinces – Zimbabwe’s prime agricultural regions.

Operation Maguta is an ambitious government programme to resuscitate the mainstay agricultural sector, in a state of near total collapse after President Robert Mugabe’s chaotic and often violent land redistribution programme which destabilised the sector and saw food production tumbling down by about 60 percent.

Mugabe’s government, desperate to end critical food shortages and prove that its controversial land reforms did not flop, has pledged increased assistance in the form of inputs and financial resources to black villagers resettled on former white owned farms.

But the government’s Agricultural, Research and Extension Services (Arex) this week warned that the crop eating armyworm that has accompanied the heavy rains could have devastating effect on yields.

Arex said this was especially so because the cash-strapped Harare government had not stockpiled on chemicals required to combat the armyworm.

According to the head of Arex’s Plant Protection Research Institute, Cames Mguni, Zimbabwe does not have sufficient quantities of carbarly, the key pesticide used to control armyworm. Other pesticides such as diazinon, amitraz, dynamec and cascade that are used to protect crops were also all in short supply in the country.

In a vivid illustration of Zimbabwe’s desperation in the face of the armyworm outbreak, the official Herald newspaper reported that the country was banking on the rains themselves to destroy and wash away the worms.

But the government-controlled paper added that if the rains did not destroy the worms Zimbabwe’s hope would be that its better resourced neighbours would join in a regional effort to combat the worm, which in other words would mean easier access by Harare to drugs from other countries.

Mguni was also quoted by the state media as saying his department would try to make contact with counterparts in Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia to check whether there have also been outbreaks of the armyworm there.

“This would help us control the outbreak as a region, if other countries are also affected,” Mguni is quoted as having said.

Zimbabwe has faced serious shortages of foreign currency since the end of 1999 when major international financial partners pulled the plug on the country in protest after differences with Mugabe over fiscal policy and other governance issues.

Harare has since then struggled to import essential goods such as seeds, fertiliser, pesticides, essential medical drugs and fuel. Its woes have been exacerbated by Mugabe’s expulsion of over 4 000 former white commercial farmers whose land he parcelled out to landless blacks.

Production on the former white farms declined over the years chiefly because Mugabe did not support the newly resettled black peasants with inputs or skills training to maintain production while successive droughts since 2001 helped exacerbate the situation.

Humanitarian agencies estimate that up to three million people require food aid until the next harvest that begins around March/April this year. Inflation has also played havoc on an economy on a tailspin since 1999. According to figures released by the government’s Central Statistical Office (CSO) this week, Zimbabwe’s annualised inflation at the end of 2005 was probably the highest in the world at 585.8 percent.

“All indications are that prices of most goods and services will continue to rise in the coming months before the pressure eases a bit after the harvest around April,” said an economist with a Harare-based bank, who requested anonymity for professional reasons.

The CSO said rising inflation had pushed the poverty datum line – the minimum amount of money an average family of five people requires for basic goods and services per month – to $17 263 900 in the month of December, which is way above the average take home pay for a worker in Zimbabwe.

The poverty datum line stood at $14 328 800 in November 2005 or 20.48 percentage points less than the December figure.

Zimbabwe’s ability to fend off further inflationary pressures would depend on the size of its tobacco output. The selling season for tobacco, the country’s biggest single foreign currency earner, opens around the end of April.

But tobacco industry experts predict yields and sales to be lower in line with the trend since the expulsion of white farmers who grew the bulk of Zimbabwe’s tobacco.

Figures just released by the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board show that Zimbabwe earned about US$203 million from exports of the golden leaf last year. This is a far-cry from the more than US$600 million earned through exports of the crop in the 2000/01 season.

In the meanwhile, a burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic is killing at least 2 000 Zimbabweans every week to complete the profile of a crisis-sapped country. – ZimOnline

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