Approximately 120,000ha of "the finest natural wildlife areas in the Zambezi Valley" in the far north of Zimbabwe may eventually fall under the plough if the Chirundu Project starts as scheduled on November 1, 2005. This is according to Dr John Fulton of the Zimbabwe Conservation Development Foundation.
The land lies in and around Zimbabwe's world heritage site of Mana Pools National Park. The neighbouring land is mostly proclaimed safari areas. The area received world heritage status in the 1980s because of its important concentration of Nile crocodiles, along with the large numbers of wild animals in the area including elephants, buffalo, leopards and cheetahs.
The land is bordered by the Zambezi River, which would provide water for irrigation. Fulton says he has evidence that over US$30 million of irrigation equipment is being purchased for the project from Iran, despite the fact that no environmental impact assessment has been performed.
He suspects that pumping agreements for the extraction of water from the Zambezi have not been secured from Mozambique and Zambia, who have a tri-lateral agreement with Zimbabwe on water use from the Zambezi. One major problem that has been identified with the project is the poor soil quality in the area, which will deteriorate with irrigation.
The soils are largely sandy, requiring considerable inputs in the form of fertilisers to make commercial agriculture viable. Fulton says that maize, wheat, soya beans and rice are the proposed crops. The area is also extremely remote, with little in the form of road, rail, telephone or electrical infrastructure.
The climate is not ideal for human habitation. Several decades ago a sugar cane farming venture in the area was closed as it was not economically viable, and more recent developments further east have been closed down for the same reason. The old sugar cane farming land is suspected to be the first site that will be developed should the agriculture plans come to fruition.
Zimbabwe's land reform programme has made available hundreds of commercial farms for redistribution. Many of these farms were cleared and had existing infrastructure, access to markets and were operating profitably. The land proposed for the Chirundu Project has no such track record, and would require considerable capitalinvestment to get off the ground.