JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - More than a decade after the chaotic and violent seizure of white-run farms by allies of President Robert Mugabe, food production in Zimbabwe is returning to 1990s levels as the new owners get to grips with the job, according to a new book.
The farm takeovers led by pro-Mugabe independence war veterans from 2000 onwards are widely seen as the catalyst for an economic meltdown that culminated in hyperinflation and an estimated 40 percent contraction in output over eight years.
Output from farms seized the previous decade has soared, particularly since the hyperinflating Zimbabwe dollar was scrapped in 2009 and prices were based on more stable rand and U.S. dollars.
Harvests are now nearing the years when the former British colony's 4,500 white-owned commercial farms towered over the sector, according to Hanlon.
"It really does take a generation for people to dominate a farm. That was true for the white farmers in the 1950s. It was true with the 1980s land reform, and it's true now. It takes two decades," Hanlon said.
"We're only halfway down the line, so we're not claiming Zimbabwe is El Dorado, and we're not claiming even that you've done better than 2000. What we are claiming is you're getting close to the 1990s average."
To support his view, Hanlon cites government figures that put 2009/10 and 2010/11 harvests of maize, the staple food, at 78 percent and 86 percent, respectively, of the 1990s annual average.
In those two years, which admittedly enjoyed good rains, the International Monetary Fund says the economy grew at nearly 10 percent.
With the exception of tobacco, the picture for cash crops is even more promising, with the southern African nation producing more cotton, sugar and tea in 2010/11 than in an average year prior to the farm takeovers, according to the figures.
Furthermore, of all maize produced, Hanlon says half comes from farms taken over since 2000 by Mugabe war veterans.
BREADBASKET OR BASKET-CASE?
With a figure as divisive as Mugabe, who has run the southern African nation since independence in 1980 and has been accused of crushing opposition by force, it is inevitable that Hanlon's findings do not meet with universal approval.
The Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU), which represents the 4,000 white farmers who have lost their land in the last 10 years, publishes its own crop figures that put maize production at less than two-thirds of the government tallies.
The CFU also points to a United Nations appeal last month for $131 million in aid for nearly 1.7 million people - more than 10 percent of the population - who are facing hunger this year because of drought.
"It's an absolute joke," CFU President Charles Taffs said in an interview, dismissing the official figures as "fictitious propaganda" from the Ministry of Agriculture.
"It's a total and utter shambles here. If we were producing the maize the government says we're producing, why are we every year appealing for food assistance?"
Hanlon counters by saying that the perception of Zimbabwe was a regional breadbasket after independence is a "white myth" and that one in three of the new post-2000 farmers are now starting to produce on a significant commercial scale.
"There are a set that are in trouble; there are a set that are comfortable; and about a third of them who are really serious farmers," Hanlon said.