Why tractors are political in Africa

In May last year, the long-awaited tractors from Brazil arrived in Zimbabwe. There was a bizarre handing over ceremony at Harare showgrounds, with the tractors all lined up and the President was there to receive them.

Tractors New Zimbabwe (May 2015)

This has been a long-running saga, reported on earlier in this blog. The tractors are part of Brazil’s international cooperation programme, supported by the Ministry of Agrarian Development in Brazil under their ‘More Food International’ (MFI) programme, and purchased from the Brazilian company, Agrale. Under the first phase of a $98m loan (based on highly concessionary interest rates, spread over a 15 year term), Brazil has supplied Zimbabwe with 320 tractors, 450 disc harrows, 310 planters, 100 fertiliser spreaders and 6 650 knapsack sprayers valued at $39million. A second phase is, according to the Brazilian ambassador to Zimbabwe, expected soon. MFI is based on a Brazilian programme that supports public procurement of agricultural equipment to support small-scale ‘family farmers’. In Brazil tractors and other forms of mechanised farming equipment are a useful addition to what in Zimbabwe would be called medium-scale commercial farms. Run by families, but not often not that small by African standards.

In international development this mismatch of languages causes much confusion, as Lidia Cabral discusses in relation to Brazil-Africa development cooperation. What is small scale in one place (say Brazil – where there are some very, very big farms) is large somewhere else (including Zimbabwe). So approaches – or ‘models’ – generated in one place do not easily travel. The argument of course from Brazil is that they have long experience of successful agriculture, across scales, and that their ‘tropical technology’ is transferrable, as they have the technical and agronomic skills based in similar agroecological settings. Quite how ‘tropical’ the Brazilian tractors prove to be, we will see. And whether they are preferable to the non-tropical Chinese, Iranian, Belarusian, American or British versions.

So where are these tractors supposed to go, and how are they supposed to be used? As I have discussed on this blog before, there is a long history of failed attempts to encourage ‘tractorisation’ of small-scale farming in Zimbabwe. The big problem is that farms are too small and undercapitalised for a single farmer to usefully use one, and collective arrangements have largely failed. That said, there is certainly an increase in tractor usage in the new resettlements. Some have bought second-hand tractors are successfully hiring them out. In our Mvurwi sample for example, about 5 per cent of A1 farmers own tractors, most purchased in the last few years. Ownership is concentrated among the richer farmers, with 17 per cent of farmers in our top ‘success group’ owning them; some coming via government programmes. With larger land areas, and such a premium on timely ploughing with increasingly erratic rainfall (although sadly this year it may be a complete write-off due to the El Nino drought), tractors do make sense. The interaction between (smaller-scale) A1 and (medium-scale) A2 farms becomes important here. With many A2 farmers having tractors, they hire them out to their neighbours on A1 farms, making the new spatial configuration following land reform crucial.

But tractors in Zimbabwe are indelibly associated with corruption and patronage. The Chinese tractors that arrived in numbers in the 2000s at the height of Gideon Gono’s bizarre attempts to salvage the economy were handed out as deals to those in power. Many have ended up as sad memorials of this period, rusting in people’s compounds. I hope this will not be the fate of the Brazilian tractors. They have been handed over in good faith, even if with a certain naivety about the context. But the omens are not good. As symbols of modernity and power, tractors just have this effect.

While I was in Zimbabwe at the end of last year, the Grace Mugabe roadshow was in full swing. This seems to have become an annual event in the build up to the ZANU-PF Congress. Many are bussed to her rallies, and not showing up is certainly noticed. As in all political rallies, these are opportunities for high-flown rhetoric and for handing out goodies. The expense is extraordinary. Newspaper reports of a rally near one of our research sites in Matabeleland South listed the following: 220 tonnes of maize, 120 tonnes of rice, 4440kg of washing powder, 5000kg clothes, 3000kg salt, 2000 pairs of shoes, 5280 bars of washing soap, 3000kg of bath soap, 1800 litres of cooking oil, 220 tonnes of Compound D fertilizer, 20 tonnes cotton seed, 10 soccer kits, 30 netballs and 30 soccer balls. All chiefs who attended received food hampers and 100 litres of fuel each.

And of course there were also tractors. I cannot verify that these were part of the Brazilian shipment, but I assume so – and there have been other accusations in the press, and series of court cases trying to prevent this. It seems the tractors – as many times before – are already being used for exerting patronage in the name of development. Tractors do seem to be so deeply entwined with the practices of patronage, and despite the (somewhat misguided but nevertheless genuine) goodwill of the Brazilians it has it seems to have happened again. It is sad, but perhaps inevitable, and is a warning to any agency that patronage and aid are tightly linked. Well meaning, good governance protocols may not be enough, and resources get wasted.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

Photo from NewZimbabwe.com

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1 Comment

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One response to “Why tractors are political in Africa

  1. am

    Tractors and sundry gifts to chiefs also play a part in the disarray around tribal succession. One chief dies and then there is turmoil til a replacement is appointed. Rural law goes into abeyance until the succession is resolved which certainly effects the administration of cases. Often, at least in my opinion, people quarrel over the tractors and gifts to the detriment of the community.

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