Developments in the agricultural sector where tobacco and maize farmers have produced bumper harvests, for the first time in 14 years, have heightened optimism that we are destined to reclaiming our top spot as the breadbasket of Southern Africa.
There is no doubt that Zimbabweans are inherently farmers and given the right environment — credit, inputs and the markets — can easily rebound the agricultural sector and once again make the country a net food exporter, which is exactly what we are renowned for, save for the few years that our agriculture caught a cold.
Tobacco farmers did extremely well by producing 204 million kg while maize production is estimated at 2,2 million tonnes. We have no doubt at all that if the impressive performance recorded by tobacco and maize farmers is replicated across other crops, then prospects of economic turnaround are within reach.
Earnings from tobacco have made it possible for many farmers to buy farming machinery and equipment, vehicles, household property and send their children to expensive schools. Owing to the rich pickings in the tobacco sector, we have witnessed quite a big number of farmers abandoning production of other crops, preferring tobacco, which explains why the number of tobacco growers has this year risen to 106 000 compared to 91 000 last year.
There is nothing wrong for farmers to move into high paying crops, like tobacco, as farming is a business where a profit has to be made at the end of the day. The high tobacco output means farmers are being productive on the land and that alone makes our land reform programme successful.
But what worries us is the fact that we continue to see massive destruction of the environment, especially trees, as production increases. Trees continue to be destroyed to be used to fire the tobacco curing barns without measures being taken to replace those that are cut down.
While in the short term, we may not worry too much about it as we enjoy the high production and rich pickings accruing from tobacco production, obviously in the long term we may fail to grow the crop as there would be no trees to use as firewood to cure tobacco.
We must grow woodlots at the farms from where we can cut the trees for curing. Farmers have to take deliberate effort to plant eucalyptus trees and other trees on their land so that we stop cutting down the few remaining indigenous trees that take long to grow. We are not doing ourselves any good by destroying trees. Yes, we need the trees to help us cure the tobacco, but let us make efforts to replace every tree that we cut.
Or better still there are other forms of energy besides trees that we can use to cure tobacco. Coal easily comes to mind and we have plenty of it at Hwange. It is time that farmers seriously considered using coal and leave the trees to give us fresh air. This is why it is also important for Government to revive the National Railways of Zimbabwe so that it ferries coal from Hwange to where it is needed — the farming areas.
There are many reasons that farmers have given for resistance to using coal, ranging from the price to its burning capacity. These are issues, however, that can be tackled but should not form the basis for continuing to cut down trees.
Even the Minister of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Dr Joseph Made has warned tobacco farmers to be mindful not to destroy trees and urged them to start using coal. We hope the advise will not fall on deaf ears as we are very much convinced that tobacco farmers have earned a lot of money to be able to buy coal to use in their business.
This year tobacco farmers pocketed nearly US$650 million, which is not petty cash in any way but money that can easily help them tackle their cost of production, which should include coal and not trees.