‘Keep dialogue going&avoid politics’ – Namibian farming chief

Bush encroachment, diversification from livestock production and government policy are some of the challenges facing the Namibian agricultural sector. Ryno van der Merwe, the newly elected president of the Namibia Agricultural Union (NAU), spoke to Servaas van den Bosch about possible solutions.
Issue date: 6 February 2009

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Bush encroachment, diversification from livestock production and government policy are some of the challenges facing the Namibian agricultural sector. Ryno van der Merwe, the newly elected president of the Namibia Agricultural Union (NAU), spoke to Servaas van den Bosch about possible solutions.

Who is Ryno van der Merwe?
I am a born and bred Namibian from the Gobabis area where my parents were farmers. After a stint in the army, I went to the University of Stellenbosch and got a BSc Honours degree in 1977. For eight years I was a schoolteacher and in 1989 I bought my father’s farm. I have farmed full-time since 1990 with Brahman and Beefmaster cattle, and became involved with agricultural organisations. Before taking up presidency of the Namibian Agricultural Union (NAU), I was chairperson of the Livestock Producers Organisation (LPO) for four years.

What are the key issues facing Namibian agriculture?
The most critical issue is optimal and sustainable utilisation of the agricultural potential in Namibia, and increasing productivity. Of immediate concern is bush encroachment on 26 million hectares of land, which is threatening livestock production.
Some farmers are taking action as individuals, but at a national level, little is being done. Initiatives such as the bush-to-energy project aren’t operational yet, while the charcoal industry could be helpful to restore the original rangeland to capacity.

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The agricultural sector’s GDP input has dwindled from 13% a few years ago to 6% at present. What are the contributing factors and can this trend be reversed?
Bush encroachment and alternative land use such as game farming, trophy hunting and tourism have caused the output of cattle
for slaughter to drop from 180 000 head
10 years ago to below 100 000 head in 2009.
Ongoing land use diversification might threaten the survival of large stock abattoirs, but there is a huge reservoir of about 1,3 million head of cattle north of the veterinary red line. Apart from normal levies by the Meat Board of Namibia, the NAU introduced a specific levy to improve the conditions in the Northern Communal Areas (NCAs) to enable this part of the country to export.
Smallstock farmers are battling government to lift export restrictions to South Africa and we trust that once this problem has been solved, the smallstock sector will be able to contribute substantially to the GDP again.

Why is there still no resolution to the conflict between small livestock producers and abattoirs?
This has been an ongoing issue. The parties are locked in a stalemate and an anticipated decision from Cabinet hasn’t been forthcoming. There is a new proposal on the table for discussion early in 2009.

How much is this levy for the NCAs?
It’s R10 million, calculated per slaughtered animal. The money goes to the Meat Board and is used to improve animal health status and enhance market access in the NCAs.

There has been talk of abandoning old divisions and merging farmer unions. What is the NAU’s position?
The NAU, representing the commercial farming sector, has been in existence for 62 years and has a membership of more than 2 400 farmers, including emerging farmers.
The Namibia National Farmers’ Union (NNFU) was established after independence and represents the communal farming sector.
We believe different production systems justify different unions for communal and commercial farmers. We encourage emerging farmers to become members of the NAU and to work with communal farmers in structures such as the Joint Presidency Committee and the Livestock Producers’ Forum.
Apart from these structures, John Mutorwa, the Minister of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, established an agricultural consultative stakeholders’ forum representing the entire industry with regular meetings. This is a very positive development.
The past 12 months have seen several outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease not far from the commercial areas. Are you concerned?
Yes, we are very concerned. The maintenance of the veterinary red line and the border fence between Namibia and Botswana deserves special attention.
The fences are in a very bad condition, but government seems to be addressing the issue.

Are the plans to move the veterinary red line up to the Angolan border realistic?
Not in the short term, or in one move. The way to go is to secure export status in the NCAs through a cluster-by-cluster approach.

Many commercial farmers complain about the land reform programme. What are the problems?
I want to state that we are absolutely non-political about the programme. Our concern is first and foremost to maintain sustainable production.
Land reform in Namibia has been largely successful, if one looks at the numbers. From the 15 million hectares of commercial farmland government wants transferred before 2020, some 6 million hectares have changed hands since 1995.
But looking at what happens on the land, it’s no big secret that land reform has been less than successful. For instance, plots allocated to resettlement farmers in the government resettlement programme are too small to be economically viable.

And emerging farmer funding?
Resettlement farmers also don’t have access to credit for working capital or to maintain infrastructure. Regarding the Affirmative Action Loan Scheme from AgriBank, one of the problems is that the criteria are not stringent enough. A farmer needs 150 cattle to qualify for a loan under the scheme, but common knowledge dictates a herd of 400 animals is a minimum requirement for profitability on a 5 000ha farm.
The EU has funded R9 million to run an emerging commercial farmer support programme to assist emerging farmers to farm commercially. This programme is managed by the NAU and its counterpart, the NNFU.
Present funding will come to an end in May 2009, but we’re in a process of raising funds to continue the programme.

What about expropriations?
Fortunately, we’re far from a Zimbabwean situation. Although criticised by some, we do believe the willing-buyer, willing-seller principle works.
We don’t see the need for expropriation, but should it take place, it should be according to certain criteria and a set of guidelines.
In the absence of criteria, the NAU has proposed a scorecard for the identification of farms based on the nationality of the farmer, size, presence on farm and productivity. We think this is a better system than the current pick and choose strategy that impacts negatively on the farming community. Just expropriating farms “in the national interest” isn’t acceptable.

So what’s the way forward?
We must remember 70% of Namibians are directly or indirectly dependant on the agricultural sector, so sustainable production is a key issue. It’s important to keep dialogue going and not politicise the situation.
We think it would be good to establish a negotiated land reform forum consisting of government, farm owners, the private sector and the landless, to advise government on a sustainable land reform programme.
As a sector, we’re facing enormous challenges with high input costs. Climate change also results in dryer conditions. But we support government’s Vision 2030 that states land should be used appropriately and equitably to significantly contribute towards food security. We also see farmers as an integral part of the value chain, contributing to the value-adding process.
Contact Ryno van der Merwe on +264 61 237 838/9 or e-mail [email protected].     |fw