Disaster Looms For Zim’s Tobacco Crop

Michael Hartnack, Sapa-AP, Sept. 20

Sales of Zimbabwe’s major export, Virginia flue-cured tobacco, officially closed on Tuesday after fetching about $104-million (about R661-million) on a crop that was just a fraction of what was harvested before the seizure of 5 000 white-owned commercial farms.

With returns still to be received from a few “tidy up” auctions, about 70-million kilograms had been sold at an average price of $1,63 (R10,37) per kilogram, a spokesperson for the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association said. The association represents 850 large scale commercial growers, now overwhelmingly black Zimbabweans, and 30 000 new farmers who recently started production.

This compared with a 237-million kilogram 1999-2000 crop, sold as Mugabe ordered the invasion of the white-owned farms, then covering 17% of the country. The 2000 crop fetched about $400-million during a year when the average price was very low because of bumper crops in the United States and Brazil.

Economist John Robertson estimated $2-billion (R12-billion) would have been earned from this year’s tobacco crop, at current prices, if the industry had remained undisturbed and able to produce Zimbabwe’s traditional high quality low nicotine content “flavouring” tobacco.

Much of the tobacco produced by new farmers is low priced “filler” grades.

Opening sales in April were forced to close by angry new farmers who said they could not meet production costs with prices below $1 per kilogram.

Officials said next year’s harvest was likely to be even worse.

The government-appointed Tobacco Industry Marketing Board released a statement on Monday saying the 2005-2006 season might be “a disaster” because of lack of fuel and fertilisers, late preparations and labour problems.

The marketing board chairperson, Njodzi Machirori, told The Herald newspaper that the coming season would likely be “the worst in history,” with only 857ha being put under tobacco instead of the 150 000ha target. He said new farmers lacked working capital, with banks unwilling to give advances in time.

The marketing board said most growers were already two weeks behind schedule and faced a dire shortage of their most vital fertiliser compound. It said there was not enough diesel to prepare the fields.

President Robert Mugabe accused 40 000 whites of orchestrating opposition to his rule among 16-million black Zimbabweans since independence in 1980

About 500 000 skilled black farmworkers were displaced by the seizure of their employers’ land, some being forced to go to Malawi and Mozambique, from where their parents and grandparents emigrated in the colonial era. Others live in towns as homeless squatters.

An economic crash brought 80% unemployment, runaway hyperinflation and shortages of most staples from maize meal to gasoline. An unknown number of whites and about four million black Zimbabweans have emigrated since the seizure of farms from whites began.

Annual inflation, which touched 662% in 2004, is now 265,1% and is expected to top 400% by the year end.

UN agencies say four million Zimbabweans urgently need famine relief to survive to the next harvests due in April 2006.

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