Zim cops and cash-strapped, irate tobacco farmers clash

Hundreds of Zimbabwe’s rural farmers – who form the bulk of President Robert Mugabe’s support – are nursing their wounds following skirmishes with riot police at the tobacco auction floors.

What began as a normal and peaceful day suddenly changed tone as problems bedevilling the country finally found their way to the tobacco auction floors.

Tobacco is Zimbabwe’s second-largest foreign currency earner after mining.

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ON THE RUN: Tear gas affected most of the people in the vicinity of the police action.VIOLENT: Things turned violent when riot police tried to block the farmers.HEAVY-HANDED: Police used tear gas to try to disperse the demonstrating tobacco farmers.FELLED: A woman is revived after being tear gassed in the tobacco riots.

Already agitated by the long and slow-winding queues, they have to endue at the floors, tobacco farmers were angered by the banks' failure to pay them for the delivered tobacco.

Levyson Matinga, a farmer from rural Mvurwi, 105km north of the capital, Harare, said he had been sleeping in a bank queue for almost a week.

“For the past seven days, I have been sleeping in the open in this bank queue hoping to get relief,” he said.

“I thought when I made my first sale that I would get $1000 as the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (had) said, but I only got $200 which I no longer have because I had to pay some people and send money back home in Mvurwi.

"This is tough for us and some farmers are giving these makeshift canteen operators their identity documents as security so that they can eat food on credit."

The tobacco sales floors were turned into a war zone as police fought running battles with angry farmers who were demonstrating demanding their cash from the banks.

Police used tear gas and beat the farmers in the mayhem which left some injured and properties destroyed.

The skirmishes erupted after the police tried to violently block the farmers who had besieged the banks located inside the tobacco sales floors complex.

The farmers retaliated, throwing stones and bricks at the riot police, who in return fired tear gas and beat the farmers with batons.

Frustrated farmers confirmed that over the past month they had battled to access their money from banking halls and ATMs.

“The government is now fighting us. The (Ian) Smith regime was better. We have spent more than two weeks here and we are getting $100 from banks,” said a farmer who refused to be named.

An elderly woman, who asked to remain anonymous, showed receipts of $5000 for her tobacco that she sold on March 22, but she was yet to receive her money.

“This situation is destroying agriculture,” she said.

Farmers also have to contend with aggressive dealers in Harare who have taken advantage of the desperate cash-hungry farmers, by buying tobacco from them at low prices and later reselling the golden leaf at the tobacco floors at much higher prices.

“It’s better to sell my bale for $150 and get my cash to go back, than to sell at $300 and fail to get cash at the bank. I am from Centenary, where do I swipe and how do I pay everyone I owe?” asked Matinga.

Economist John Robertson said the cash crisis was destroying business activity with informal business being the most affected.

Between $20million and $40m is being lost monthly by employers through payment of wages and salaries to workers who are not productive as they are queuing at banks for cash, according to a report by Industrial Psychology Consultants. This increases the cost of doing business.

A black market for cash is flourishing, with producers or retailers who depend on imports being forced to pay a premium to access US dollars.

The extra cost of buying money is passed on to the consumer.

Robertson said tobacco farmers were no different from all other producers who needed to be paid on time and in cash to facilitate smooth production.

“Everybody is experiencing serious problems getting paid, but unlike others who just need to go shopping, tobacco farmers need cash to pay for labour and prepare for the upcoming season.

"Seed beds will be prepared starting in June and these guys have no money to buy inputs,” he said.

“If they are not paid, this is a threat to the season and tobacco is the second-largest foreign currency earner.”

So far, Zimbabwe’s tobacco production has outpaced the previous year by most measures including volume and value sold.

Production and sales of tobacco rose from 66.8million per kilogram in the previous season to 87.9million per kilo as at day 32 of the marketing season following last year’s drought that has left 4million people facing hunger.

Statistics from the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board show that farmers sold tobacco worth $244.7million, up 29% against $189.7m during the same period last season, at the country’s auctions and to official tobacco buyers since the selling season started on March 15.

The outperformance, which is projected to prevail throughout the selling season, is driven by a better crop following an improvement in average rainfall, increased hectarage and funding.

Small-scale farmers have led the rebound, aided by the use of stable foreign currencies adopted by the government to replace a local unit destroyed by hyperinflation, and funding from China, which now dominates a market previously controlled by Western merchants.

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