Our problem is not shortage of land, but of political will

Zimbabwe - Black farmer hits out at the squatters as Mugabe plays host at war summit alex duval smithin Beatrice
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The Independent Online

There is no land crisis in Zimbabwe, just "too much politics", says Crispen Vambe as he paces the soil from which he produces tobacco leaves of such a high grade that buyers from around the world rush to see his samples at the country's annual auctions.

Mr Vambe is a black commercial farmer. This year, he will sell 600,000kg of tobacco, raising up to £800,000 in valuable foreign currency for his country. His yield per hectare exceeds that of automated white-owned commercial farms in the area.

Yet Mr Vambe farms on disparate parcels of land, using one tractor, 78 staff and curing barns and a steam room with no electricity. Five months of the year he sleeps in his tiny office so he can check curing temperatures every six hours.

"It is a lot of hard work," he said, in the office lit only by bright sunlight flooding through a small window, "but I have been helped by many - by whites, by my wife and the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association, which guaranteed my bank loan for three seasons. The ZTA has also just helped me buy a new tractor, duty-free, through a Japanese government aid scheme."

Mr Vambe, 34, has no time for the land-grabbers who have occupied some 1,000 farms - most of them white-owned - since February. "Those people," he said, "want something for nothing."

He believes there is no shortage of farmland in Zimbabwe, just a lack of political will. "We have so much land that we are spoilt for choice. The farmer next door, who is professionally trained and happens to be white, has 400 hectares. Let's say the invaders take half of it and leave the rest to that good farmer.

"After three to five years, they will want to take the other half, which will still be highly productive because that farmer is trained and can work the land. They are not and do not have the resources or business skills to succeed. Farmland should be for farmers, not just anyone who wants a house.

"Give me a piece of land anywhere in this country and I can produce a top yield. It is not magic, it is skill and experience. Communal farmers from a 30- kilometre radius come to me and ask me to harvest their land. I do that. I also hold field days and tell them to send their soil to the lab for tests. It is all about doing things properly," he added

Mr Vambe has not seen his farm invaded by those, led by liberation war veterans and President Robert Mugabe's government, who claim they are returning the land to the people. "I have relatives who are war vets and they have seen me create this farm from bush in three years."

The youngest of seven boys, he was brought up by his mother. His father, who died when he was small, qualified as the first black Master Farmer in 1935 and was granted the family's land by the British colonisers.

"My mother could not afford my A-levels so I had to go away and teach. I did my exams and qualified for agricultural college after which, in 1991, I had to get practical experience on other people's farms," he said.

"My mother was growing mealies [maize] but eventually she was almost alone and had to leave this farm. It lay deserted for five years before I could save up enough capital to come back and go to the ZTA with my business plan. They helped me to get started on my 64 hectares in 1997. It was hard but without the ZTA scheme it would have taken me 15 years to get this far.".

Mr Vambe, who is somewhat of a local hero, believes it is only through more schemes such as that offered by the tobacco body that the racial imbalance in commercial farming can be redressed. Only about 5 per cent of commercial farmers are black. He also believes that the pauperising nature of subsistence farming will not be ended until small-scale farmers can qualify for title deeds - something running contrary to President Mugabe's Marxist fibre.

But the ZTA scheme is small - it extends to only 10 farmers - and is burdened by cronyism. Despite the publicity benefits it could derive from helping black farmers, the multinational tobacco industry does very little apart from sponsor a few growers' awards.

Mr Vambe does believe that Britain has a role in Zimbabwe but rejects his own government's vilification of the former colonial power for taking the land in the first place. "Britain has taught me to read and write. We need Britain to come here and invest because we understand one another. Britons use forks and we use forks. The Chinese use sticks. It is better for us to sit down and eat with the British," he said.