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Chinese Farmers On African Land

Oct 20 , 2016
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School

Chinese farmers are going to show Zimbabweans how to farm tobacco. Although rumors of China occupying African land to grow crops for export back to China – a neo-colonial twist –have long been rife, impoverished Zimbabwe has made them a reality, planning to give long leases on prime land to Chinese entrepreneurs. They will soon be growing 1500 acres of Virginia tobacco for the Chinese market, where heavy smoking still persists.

The soils in Central Mashonaland, west of Harare, are well suited to high-quality flue-cured tobacco growing. Indeed, before President Robert Mugabe, who comes from Central Mashonaland, evicted white farmers from Central Mashonaland and the rest of Zimbabwe, the province produced abundant quantities of high-quality tobacco, historically Zimbabwe’s foremost agricultural crop and valued export.

The five large farms that Mugabe’s government has now leased to Chinese entrepreneurs once belonged to whites. They were forcibly relieved of their holdings in the early years of this century and their estates and lands were given to politically well-connected black Zimbabweans. The white owners were not compensated and can be said to still hold title.  The majority now live abroad, many in Australia and New Zealand, with some still farming. A few also till the soil in neighboring Zambia and Mozambique, where their expertise is valued and rewarded with large profits. 

The politicians and other well-connected Africans who were given access to the expropriated land knew little about tobacco farming, or about farming in general. Indeed, unlike the 60,000 African smallholders who took control of other tobacco growing areas and are now producing lower-grade tobacco (sun-dried rather than flue-cured) reliably for the overseas market, the big politicians on confiscated terrain neglected their once superbly productive lands and hoped for the best. But hope could not substitute for expertise in the needs of tobacco plants nor for modern machinery and ideas. Now they will be paid for the use of “their” holdings in tobacco by the newest wave of farmers.
Across Central Mashonaland and the many other once well-cropped areas of Zimbabwe, much land lies fallow amid signs of neglect like broken fences and destroyed drainage ditches. Even livestock are scarce, especially in this heavily drought-stricken year. The politicians who obtained the farms after white owners were ousted possessed neither the interest nor the knowledge to keep their purloined farms productive.
With the new deal, Chinese farmers will be able to resurrect good farming techniques -- at least on a small portion of Mashonaland -- and contribute to strengthening Zimbabwe’s agricultural potential.  Fortunately, they have abundant capital of a kind unavailable to most Zimbabweans, which will enable them to spend $10 million on a massive new irrigation system for the five farms.  Given Zimbabwe’s increasingly erratic rainfall patterns and this year’s devastating shortages, irrigating the new tobacco crop could be the difference between success and failure for the Chinese farming enterprise.
It is unclear as to who will do the actual farming – whether the Chinese will plant, hoe, and weed themselves, or whether they will do what the former white owners did and employ legions of African workers (when 4,000 white farmers were ousted at the beginning of this century, 400,000 Africans lost their jobs). To produce 1,500 acres worth of high-quality Virginia tobacco, the new Chinese landlords may need to employ 500 or more local inhabitants. Yet, in other parts of Africa, Chinese industrial, mining, and road construction firms have preferred to import labor from China, depriving Africans of job opportunities.  (Zimbabwe’s formal wage unemployment rate is about 90 percent.) 
Zimbabwe is in free fall economically, with many banks and industries closing, and the government unable to pay its civil servants. It has just introduced a mad-cap plan to print fake dollar bonds to substitute for the U.S. dollars and South African rands, the country’s most commonly used currencies. If they try to make the bonds legal tender, popular consternation and inflation will immediately result.
In this frantic atmosphere of one of Africa’s poorest countries, the arrival of even a small number of Chinese farmers and farm managers will help uplift the local economy. They may constitute a harbinger of important positive change in a country that is otherwise sliding from poverty into despair, thanks to the incompetence of an aging 92-year old national leader and his malfunctioning administration.
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