Once one of the most productive farms in this troubled southern African nation, Rainbow’s End will have very little to harvest next season, even as farmers’ organisations forecast huge crop shortfalls and the UN says two million Zimbabweans – nearly one-fourth of the population – will need food aid in January.
President Robert Mugabe’s campaign to run Zimbabwe’s whites off their farms and redistribute them to the black majority continues despite the expectation that being forced into a coalition government with the opposition would at least partially restrain him, restore agriculture and protect human rights.
Since the coalition was formed in February, at least 100 more white farmers have been driven off their land. Of about 300 still farming, more than half have been served official eviction notices. Since August, Thomas Beattie, who farmed near Rainbow’s End, has been under siege by militants and men he calls hired thugs, and was forced to leave his home in November at the height of the planting season.
"The attitude on the ground is still that white farmers need to go. That is the reality," said Deon Theron, head of the Commercial Farmers’ Union, most of whose members are white. He said those in Mugabe’s long-ruling Zanu-PF party who want change "are powerless against the old guard who want to maintain what they have been doing".
Mugabe, in power since Zimbabwe won independence from Britain in 1980, argues that the land was plundered by the country’s European colonizers and needs to be redistributed. At his lavish 85th birthday party in February, Mugabe declared that the "few remaining white farmers should quickly vacate their farms as they have no place there."
Under the land seizure program he launched in 2000, more than 11 million hectares of commercial farmland have been seized from thousands of whites. But their new occupants often are chosen not for their farming skills but for being party loyalists, and they have failed to replicate the highly efficient, mechanised farming system that made Zimbabwe a breadbasket for Southern Africa.
According to satellite surveys, as much as 80% of former prime land lies uncultivated.
It already includes much of Beattie’s original farm, 100km southwest of Harare, the capital. Unpruned tree roots are breaking up the 16km irrigation canal he built. A packing shed for citrus exports has been looted and Bright Matonga, a former minister in Mugabe’s party, uses it as a cowshed.
Power outages are frequent, and trees and brushes have been denuded for firewood. Glum and menacing occupiers barricade the farm gate but let in Beattie’s wife, Sue, to feed the dogs.
"It’s so sad. Sometimes the dogs don’t seem to recognize us anymore," she said.
This district has seen some of the worst farm attacks this year, with assaults on farmers and a homestead burned down.
Sue Beattie describes the tactics assailants used to force them out: They burned tires on the porch and hurled blazing wood at the windows; she was assaulted and threatened with an iron wrench, though neither she nor her husband suffered serious injury; trucks surrounded the front garden and loud reggae music was blasted at the house at night.
Although they had a court order to stop their eviction, police repeatedly ignored calls for help, she said.
Thomas Beattie, 67, says he developed his farm on virgin land during nearly 50 years to produce livestock, grain, citrus, milk and soya.
"It was a 24/7 job. Now we’ve got zero," he said.
Of his 1 400 workers, most of them black, about 150 are left to look after a few pigs and 500 cattle grazing on the lush wet-season fields, down from the original herd of 3 000.
Had he been able to plant wheat this year, his record of past yields indicates he likely would have grown 5 000 tons, in a country dependent on imported wheat.
The farmers’ union estimates the nation will reap 500 000 tons of corn next year against annual consumption of 1.8 million tons.
Outside Chegutu, the town nearest to Rainbow’s End, Jacob Desa trades a bag of peanuts for soap at a store. He has a small plot and no money for seed or fertiliser this season.
Mugabe’s party is distributing subsidised fertiliser, but Desa doesn’t qualify because he doesn’t have a Zanu-PF membership card and is therefore presumed to be in sympathy with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s party in the coalition. Tsvangirai’s party controls the Finance Ministry, which blocked ruinous farming subsidies doled out in the past to Mugabe loyalists.
This year, farms, ranches and privately owned nature reserves have been targeted for seizure in the south, west and east. The Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union says up to 60 000 of them have been displaced along with their families.
Justice for Agriculture, a farmers’ support group, says many are migrant workers from neighbouring countries who now roam the bush without money or documents to get them home.
The plantation workers’ union runs a programme to help farmhands, many of whom were assaulted and tortured by militants who took over their workplaces. The farmers’ group offers trauma counselling to former landowners who lost all their property in arrests and violent assaults. One reported being beaten, tied up and urinated on by a police commander.
Others lost all their pension benefits in Zimbabwe’s world-record inflation of last year and the economic meltdown. One works as a caretaker of school sports fields, another grows chillies in his daughter’s garden and sells them to Asian spice shops, and a third has appeared in court more than 80 times to defend rights to land occupied by his family for three generations.
"We are prevented from doing what we know best, producing food," said John Worsley-Worswick, head of the support group.
In its heyday, Rainbow’s End produced about eight tons of corn per hectare (more than three tons per acre); next harvest they are expected to yield less than an eighth of that volume to the few women and children hoeing isolated patches of land.
"We are growing grass and weeds," said Desa.