Zambia’s future hinges on farm campaign

The Toronto Globe & Mail, Nov. 25, 1977

LUSAKA - On a flight over the Zambian bush, it quickly becomes obvious that something is missing.

The veldt stretches as far as the eye can see, a vast, unbroken sea of brown grasses gently swaying in the hot breeze.

What is missing is the patchwork quilt of carefully cultivated farms as much a part of the landscape in most neighboring countries as the flame trees blazing under the bright African sun - as rare here as a white rhino.

But if President Kenneth Kaunda has his way, all this will change.

Faced with the real possibility of the complete economic collapse of his country, Mr. Kaunda has launched a much-heralded back-to-the-land campaign.

If successful, the program will result in the export of all agricultural goods produced commercially - thus providing the country with desperately needed foreign exchange - while the domestic demand will be met by the suddenly blossoming ranks of small farmers.

We have to give the country a new foundation upon which to rest its economic activity and support its political and social life, Mr. Kaunda said in a speech launching the campaign in mid-October.

At present, farming in Zambia is largely in the hands of about 300 expatriates, mainly whites. They produce approximately 60 per cent of all agricultural goods, including 60 per cent of cattle, 90 per cent of pigs, 65 per cent of fruits and vegetables, and 99 per cent of wheat.

The only crop which the Zambians produce most is corn, the staple of the diet here.

Yet despite the expatriates' contribution, Zambia is self-sufficient in only three items - eggs, poultry and corn.

In order to reverse the emphasis on imported foods, Mr. Kaunda has ordered a drastic reduction of personnel in over-employed government ministries . . . and a special program to redirect them to the land, coupled with a resettlement of the urban unemployed on farms.

While foreign experts see Zambia as a potential breadbasket of Africa, only 5 per cent of the land is now being used for farming. Yet between 40 and 50 per cent of its land is suitable for agriculture.

To develop that potential, Zambians are encouraged to secure from the Government long-term leases on farmland under a 30-year repayment plan, according to A. B. Chikwanda, Minister for Lands and Agriculture.

The repayment agreement covers the cost of land clearing, which is to be done by the Government.

Television commercials and newspaper editorials extol the virtues of farm life, emphasizing the dignity of growing your own food, and criticizing those living in the city as a burden to the nation.

Failure of the program could have dire consequences for the country.$E     Since independence in 1964, Zambia has depended almost entirely on one industry - copper. With millions of dollars pouring in each year from the sale of the metal, Government leaders saw no need to develop anything else. An incredibly stupid policy.

When the price of copper plunged in 1975, Zambia received a crippling jolt.

The balance of payments went deep in the red, inflation skyrocketed, and the country found itself without the foreign exchange needed to buy its precious imports.

Today, inflation continues at the rate of more than 20 per cent, and shortages of everything from cooking oil, to bread, to meat, beer and even the staple, mealie meal, persist.

The building industry is on the verge of collapse due to shortages of raw materials, and foreign creditors can expect to wait as much as a year for payment when they do sell something to Zambia.

The shortages, coupled with poor medical facilities, have resulted in difficulties in recruiting expatriate expertise for the copper mines which now employ about 1,000 expatriates less than are needed - thus further damaging that vital industry.

Rhodesia's closing of its border with Zambia in 1975 further aggravated the situation. It cut off the major trade route of a country dependent on the outside world for many of its most basic needs. Mr. Kaunda says even if the Rhodesians decide to reopen it, he will keep it locked.

The Zambian President's preoccupation with the Rhodesian war, coupled with rising prices and burgeoning shortages, has resulted in growing political unrest within the country, according to Western observers.

There was a poor turnout in last year's by-election - a key indicator of dissent in a one-party state - especially in the politically volatile copperbelt province, where unemployment due to cutbacks at the mines resulted in resentment.

Numerous members of Parliament and business leaders have spoken out in favor of reopening the border in an attempt to bolster the economy.

The masses should not suffer on account of political and ideological differences. Politics should not be mixed up with economics, four leading MPs said in a joint statement last year.

However, the Government has, for the time being, apparently stifled open criticism.

The passports of more than 30 leading businessmen - many known to favor reopening of the border - were lifted several months ago, and there have been numerous attacks in the government press against dismissed party and government officials who have allegedly held dark corner meetings to plot against the people.

Although Zambia's future depends on the success of the agriculture campaign, many observers are skeptical of its future.

Even the party-controlled Times of Zambia said in an editorial recently: In the past too many co-operatives and other agricultural schemes collapsed because villagers who should have been tilling their fields were lolling in drunken sloth.

And already, as the paper put it, the latest attempt has been bogged down in red tape.

They (government administrators) have twisted a simple concept into a complex problem.

Skeptics point to the bureaucratic delays and low government-set prices that have discouraged commercial farmers and resulted in many of the present shortages.

They point to the problems involved in moving masses of untrained people back to the land, something even Agriculture Minister Chikwanda admits is not something you just go out and do. You have to have committees to study it first. They also point to transportation difficulties in moving large amounts of produce.

Just recently there were reports that tens of thousands of bags of maize were rotting because they had not been moved to proper shelters.

And the skeptics point to the basic nature of the Zambian.

He just doesn't like farming, said Benjamin Oglesby, head of the Commercial Farmers Bureau of Zambia. When we need good farm hands, we try to get Malawians or Tanzanians.

It's true, the work is too hard on the farm for them, admitted Mr. Chikwanda, and the pay is too low. But we're going to remedy that. We will increase mechanization and thus make the work easier and the yield higher, so they make more money.

Even if the money to purchase the machinery can be found, it remains doubtful that urban Zambians, who treasure their white collars, will suddenly become anxious to get dirt under their fingernails.

And if they don't go voluntarily, Mr. Kaunda faces a difficult dilemma. Either he send them by force and face the political consequences of such drastic action, or stand back and watch his nation's economy crumble.

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