August 19, 2005

Peasant farming recovers in S.Africa “war zone”

By Ed Stoddard

GQUGQUMA, South Africa (Reuters) - A little-known casualty
from the political violence that raged in South Africa's
KwaZulu-Natal province a decade ago is finally on the mend:
peasant sugar production.

"We are getting a good income now, the crop is better,"
said farmer Cresswel Mbhele as he stood in front of a lush
field of soon-to-be-harvested sugar cane.

According to industry sources, production by small-holders
in the Gqugquma region 100 kms (60 miles) north of Durban
peaked at 80,000 tonnes per annum in the late 1980s.

But it fell victim to the blood-letting that killed
thousands in the province as the African National Congress and
Inkatha Freedom Party fought for supremacy in the run up to the
country's historic multi-race elections in 1994.

Production plummetted to almost nothing as tracts of land
were abandoned, fields were burned and farmers were killed.

"There was a collapse because of the political violence,"
said Heinrich Eggers, a local commercial farmer.


With help from local commercial farmers, smallholder
production on the tribal lands is on the rebound.

Under a pilot project, around 2,000 tonnes were harvested
on 27 hectares during the last harvest. The next goal is to
reach 3,000 tonnes on 43 hectares.

The ultimate objective is 10,000 tonnes on 120 hectares.

Industry sources say about 30,000 small growers are
responsible for 15 percent of national sugar production,
expected to reach 2.5 million tonnes this year.

Under the Gqugquma project, 91 small farmers have agreed to
pool their plots and resources to form a closed corporation --
the only way they can access finance and capital.

It is a problem repeated endlessly throughout the world's
poorest continent: peasant farmers cannot get credit because
they lack ownership rights on communal tribal lands.

A windswept hill in the area affords a clear view of
small-scale peasant farming and commercial agriculture side by
side -- a striking contrast.

The commercial side is green and well-groomed, a literal
carpet of sugar cane.

The tribal side is a patchwork of subsistence vegetable
production with some sugar and livestock thown in. The
overgrazed hills clearly suffer from erosion.

But the neat fields tilled by the new cooperative resemble
a commercial operation. With advice from conservation groups
WWF International, the fields have been laid out in ways that
reduce soil erosion and water loss.

Six local commercial farmers provided equipment to get
production off the ground, boosting yields.

"Plowing our efforts together has lifted our profits," said
Simon Mkhize, vice-chairman of the closed corporation.

Still, the area has a long way to go.

The modest huts that dot the region's hills lack
electricity and running water.

"We have no electricity or water now but we hope to obtain
these things as we become more prosperous," said Mbhele.

Making a success of emerging farmers is a huge political
issue in South Africa, where most choice agricultural land
remains in the hands of white owners over a decade after
apartheid's demise.

Local commercial farmers are clearly anxious to defuse a
potentially explosive situation, ever mindful of events in
neighboring Zimbabwe, where white-owned farms have been seized
for redistribution to the black majority.